Native American reservation lifts alcohol ban

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation officials in South Dakota say alcohol ban 'didn't work'

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation -- home to some of the highest rates of unemployment, domestic abuse and suicide in Indian Country -- voted Wednesday to end prohibition and legalize alcohol, so the tribe can use the profits for education and treatment.

Reservation authorities are confident the move will help the local economy, even as alcohol abuse has been a major cause of health and social problems among Native Americans in recent years.

Voters approved the measure at Pine Ridge Tuesday, and the outcome was confirmed Wednesday after a challenge to several hundred ballots was resolved.

"Life will change now as we know it," Larry Eagle Bull, one of nine tribal council members who put the issue to a public vote, told The Associated Press. "This is a new era we're in. We've got to remember now we lived dry for 100 years, and it was proven that prohibition didn't work. We're in new territory now."

Under the law, the tribe will own and operate stores on the reservation, and profits will be used for education and for detoxification and treatment centers.

"Now we can finally get the help we need," Eagle Bull, a recovering alcoholic, told AP. "Only good can come from it."

Unemployment is estimated at more than 80 percent at Pine Ridge, and alcoholism affects about eight families out of 10. Domestic abuse, suicide, infant mortality, unemployment and violent crime linked to alcohol is rampant in Indian Country. Critics said legalization would only exacerbate the reservation's troubles.

Bryan Brewer, the tribal president, opposed legalization but said he will work with the council to implement the law.

"We know the use will go up. We know there'll be more violence," Brewer said. "There'll be more women and children who will be abused. It will taper off. But it's something we're just going to have to deal with."

"I hope they talk about that,” Brewer said. "I hope it's not just about the money but how we can work with our people."

The council likely will take up the issue at its Aug. 27 meeting, Brewer said. The law that bans alcohol will have to be rescinded and a new one implemented. The tribe then will have to apply to the county and to the state for a permit.

Eagle Bull estimated that it would be six months to a year before sales could begin.

"We have a lot of work to do yet," he said.

Both sides in the debate agree something must be done to limit the scourge of alcohol on the Lakota people. They also share a goal of putting out of business the current main suppliers of booze -- four stores in Whiteclay, Neb., two miles south of Pine Ridge that sold the equivalent of about 162,153 cases of beer in 2012, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. Many tribal members live on Whiteclay's streets to avoid arrest on the reservation for being drunk.

"Whiteclay is going to feel a pinch in their pocket book," Eagle Bull said. "Not right away. But it's going to affect them, it's going to hurt them."

One of the liquor store owners didn't want to comment. Another couldn't be reached.

Federal law bans the sale of alcohol on Native American reservations unless the tribal council allows it. The Pine Ridge Reservation was established in 1889 and has prohibited the possession, sale and consumption of alcohol for all but a brief period in the early 1970s. The tribe has more than 43,000 members, and the U.S. Census lists the reservation's Indian population at about 17,000.

The law prohibiting alcohol was widely flouted on the reservation, one of the poorest areas in the United States. Tribal leaders coping with rampant alcohol abuse asked a federal judge last year to block Whiteclay liquor store owners and distributors from continuing what they said were illegal open and notorious liquor sales.

U.S. District Court Judge John Gerrard dismissed the lawsuit in October, finding that the tribe's claims did not involve questions of federal law. However, he said, "There is, in fact, little question that alcohol sold in Whiteclay contributes significantly to tragic conditions on the reservation."

In 2009, chronic liver disease was the fifth leading cause of death for all American Indian and Alaska Native men and the second leading cause of death for men ages 35 to 44, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In July 2010, a Health Department study found that over the previous year 18 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native adults -- twice the national average -- needed treatment for alcohol or drug use in the past year.

The Pine Ridge reservation is one of the poorest spots in the country. Shannon County, which lies entirely within the reservation's borders, is the third poorest county in the country, according to U.S. Census data.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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