By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS and JOHN ELIGON
Published: August 14, 2013
For practically as long as the Oglala Sioux have lived on the Pine Ridge reservation, alcohol has been seen as one of the tribe’s greatest enemies.
Over the years, it has been illegally smuggled onto the reservation and blamed for crime, poverty, family estrangements, fatal car accidents, suicides and unemployment.
Now, alcohol is sowing resentment and division within the tribe as the people of Pine Ridge have voted to legalize its sale.
Tribal election officials on Wednesday evening confirmed that tribal members, in a public referendum, had voted to overturn the ban on possessing and selling alcohol on the reservation. The vote tally was 1,843 in favor of legalization and 1,678 against it, according to the election commission.
Tribal members will have three days to challenge the result, but the election chairman, Francis Pumpkin Seed, said the burden to get a vote struck down was high in that whoever complains would have to prove that election law was violated.
While supporters say legalization will allow them to regulate alcohol and earn money from sales, critics worry that it will only worsen the tribe’s problems.
“How far are we going to let it go?” asked Bryan Brewer, the tribal president, who is staunchly against legalizing alcohol. “How many more children are going to be murdered because of this?”
There have been protest marches by those opposed to ending prohibition, and the police have said people had received death threats.
Because of threats, the ballots were transferred to a secure location after the polls closed Tuesday so they could be counted.
Those supporting the initiative said opening shops that sold alcohol on the reservation would allow the tribe to keep a share of Pine Ridge’s money on the reservation that is now being spent in liquor stores in towns bordering it. Further, they argued that the tax proceeds from alcohol sales could be used to bolster the Oglala Sioux’s alcohol treatment programs. It remained unclear how much money allowing alcohol sales would produce for the reservation, which is one of the poorest places in the country and has unemployment rates estimated at more than 80 percent.
“Not legalizing it is just the status quo,” said Robert Ecoffey, 58, who worked in law enforcement on the tribe and served as a superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “You have all of the issues and none of the resources to help deal with it.”
But that argument was unconvincing to Mr. Brewer.
“We’re going to use alcohol money to spend on alcohol issues,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me. I consider this blood money that the tribe will be getting. I hate to accept it.”
Solving the alcohol problem, he said, requires educating children, returning to the roots of tribal culture and creating jobs through economic development. Instead, he said, the tribal council, the federal government and the people of Pine Ridge have turned a blind eye to the problem.
The United States government has traditionally banned alcohol on reservations, but during the past 20 years, as more tribes have opened casinos — which are the leading economic drivers on many reservations — those prohibitions have been relaxed by tribes. Still, many reservations continue to limit alcohol sales and consumption to casinos.
Even the smell of alcohol on a person’s breath in Pine Ridge has been cause for arrest. But despite the ban, alcohol — particularly beer — is plentiful on Pine Ridge. Most comes from stores that sell alcohol in the tiny town of Whiteclay, just across the Nebraska border from the reservation. Four stores in Whiteclay sell millions of cans of beer and malt liquor a year, almost all of it to the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge. Lawsuits, boycotts, police safety checks and protests organized by the tribe have all failed to close the stores or to put a significant dent in their business.
Ron Duke, Pine Ridge’s chief of police, said that while he did not personally support opening the reservation up to alcohol sales, legalizing it would free his officers from responding to calls in which there is a complaint about an inebriated person or the presence of alcohol inside a home — which he said took up the vast majority of an officer’s time.
But Chief Duke said that he expected the easier availability of alcohol to lead to a sharp rise in violence, which will challenge a department whose 37 officers are responsible for patrolling an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Like the majority of families on the reservation, Chief Duke, 63, said alcohol has had a devastating impact on his family. He said that he managed to avoid alcohol until he was 16, but was soon drinking heavily, like many among his family and friends.
During his 20s, he said, it was common for him to leave work at a beef packing plant in Nebraska, spend hours in a bar drinking until closing time at 2 a.m. and then return to work at 6 a.m.
Chief Duke said he finally gave up alcohol when he turned 31. But alcohol’s ill fortune caught up to some members of his family. Two of his daughters, he said, were killed in drunken-driving accidents in the 1990s.