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Dry Land: America's Most Storied Indian Reservation Faces A Historic Vote To Legalize Alcohol

On Tuesday, South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcohol. Will this help solve a problem that's plagued Native American communities for decades, or just make a bad situation worse? Members of the tribe weigh in.

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The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, home to the Oglala band of the Lakota tribe, is one of the largest in the country (larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined). It is also the only reservation in South Dakota where the sale and possession of alcohol is illegal, a ban that has lasted for virtually all of the reservation's 114-year history. Still, alcoholism affects an estimated 8 out of every 10 homes on Pine Ridge, and is a major contributor to crime, car accidents, and poverty (the reservation's Shannon County is annually one of the poorest in the nation). Tribal members and "bootleggers" bring alcohol in from places like Whiteclay, Nebraska, a small town just over the border with only a handful of residents, but millions of dollars worth of alcohol sales each year. On Tuesday, Aug. 13, the tribe will vote to uphold the ban or legalize alcohol sales in the hopes of using the tax revenue to fund alcohol treatment programs. Tribal member, Oglala Lakota College student, and BuzzFeed contributor Angel White Eyes, 23, spoke with friends, classmates, and family about what the vote means for them, and the future of the tribe.
Ashley Pourier, 23 Graduated from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin I have very mixed feelings. I understand that it's in the original treaties for Pine Ridge to be a dry reservation, and if you change that one thing, what does that mean? Why even have a treaty? But there's another part of me saying it's already here. Why are we wasting all our police man hours arresting people? I'm pretty sure that if it's voted yes, then a lot of the bigger towns, like Pine Ridge, will get a little chaotic at first, maybe for the first couple years. It'll be like a college kid with access to alcohol for the first time in their life. I had a friend in college who was like that — she grew up very sheltered and then she went crazy at first, partying and missing classes and all that because there wasn't someone cracking the whip on her all the time. But after a while you get used to that, to having it available, and you settle down. My friend turned out fine, she graduated, she just needed to grow up and become an adult. And maybe the same needs to happen with alcohol for the tribe.
Audrey White, 23 Senior at Oglala Lakota College, majoring in social work I am against legalization because I think it's going to increase the number of child welfare cases. I've been interning for LOWO [Lakota Oyate Wakanyeja Owicakiyapi], the child welfare agency in Pine Ridge, and pretty much in every single issue we see, alcohol is involved. One issue is that if people are drinking in their homes and doing something that puts a child at risk, a neighbor or someone who happens to be in the area can call the police and say that people are drinking. A lot of times, it's a big party, and because drinking is illegal, it allows people to call in and just complain about that drinking, and it allows the cops to arrive and deal with the situation and protect that child if they are in danger. If it is legalized, children aren't going to have that safety net.
Maka Clifford, 25 Lakota studies teacher, graduate of the University of San Francisco and Columbia University Teachers College I'm very much on the fence. I suppose I'm leaning toward yes, but with lots of caveats. To me, the whole conversation is misdirected, and doesn't get at the real issues that I grew up with, and that now — having been away from the rez for a long time and coming back — I see again. Many people who are so fiercely on one side of the issue or the other just aren't asking the central question to me, which is what do we do about addiction? What are we doing about the conditions that allow for addiction? Whichever way [the vote] goes, it could be an opportunity for a much larger conversation about what we do about the poverty, the lack of development, the reasons why some people turn to addiction, and how to address those issues. It's interesting, going to college in a major city like San Francisco, and then [living] in Japan between getting my bachelor's and getting my master's in New York City. The alcohol culture in the those big cities and the alcohol culture in Japan are just so different from the reservation. In those places the culture, the alcohol drinking culture, is very leisurely. It's not aggressive. In Japan in particular, it's very controlled, very nonthreatening, it doesn't necessarily carry a lot of the same implications that it does here. So something that I gathered from living there is that in other places in the world, people are taught to drink. And I think here, people are taught to get drunk. It's not arbitrary, it's historical. The development of a drunk culture vs. a culture that drinks on occasion. I see the possibility of alcohol being not a problem, and yet that's so contradictory to the way I grew up here. Because it was such a rare occasion when someone could enjoy it in a leisurely, casual way.
Tristen Long, 20 Student at Oglala Lakota College Honestly, one day I'm leaning toward legalizing it, and then I lean back against it. I'm leaning toward legalizing right now and that's because this could be a lot of revenue coming that will help us down the road. Look at the Standing Rock or Eagle Butte reservations [also Lakota reservations in South Dakota], those aren't dry reservations, and people there aren't just going crazy because there's alcohol, because the tribes found a way to handle it. That money stays local, they have more businesses, and in some ways legalizing helped. People always protest Whiteclay, but you're never going to get rid of Whiteclay. Why protest it if it's not going away? Hey, diabetes is the biggest killer of Native Americans. Why not protest the Pepsi trucks that roll in and drop off cases off pop every day? Because the reality is people are going to drink, whether it's beer or soda. What we need to do is figure out how to deal with those problems. With treatment centers, with programs, and maybe that revenue can help us deal with those issues. A lot of young people have lived elsewhere; they've gone off to college or lived somewhere else for awhile, and you see that and realize there are different ways to drink besides the binge drinking that you see on the reservation where people are slamming down that rough stuff just to get blank.
Isnalawica Belt, 24 EMT and student at Oglala Lakota College In my Lakota history course we talked about the legalization of alcohol and whether it'd ever come to pass and what it would mean. My teacher taught me how it could negatively impact treaty rights. We ourselves are violating our old treaties if we legalize it. Many of the old treaties ban alcohol sales on the reservation and near reservation borders. The tribe has done our best to stand by those treaties, even if the United States government has violated them. And if we start ignoring our own treaties, what would that mean? Could the U.S. government just start ignoring those treaties even more, because we're ignoring them now? People raise the point that alcohol is already here, it's a reality, so why not just accept it? But I think that's kind of a dark attitude. Almost like, "People are fucked anyways, why not just make some money off of it"?
Monique White Bear Claw, 34 Ambulance dispatcher We get so many calls from people who are suffering from cirrhosis — vomiting blood, shakiness and dizziness. A lot of people hanging over, or who get DTs [delirium tremens] from withdrawal. Alcohol is a factor in so many calls. Domestic violence and assault. Around the first of the month [when welfare and other social services checks arrive] we get a lot of assaults and car accidents. There are regulars that we have — they start problems at beginning of the month when they have money and can drink, and then they get withdrawals and the DTs at the end of the month. When our domestic violence calls come in, they're generally drinking and fighting over money, fighting over alcohol. People are going to drink if they want to, or not drink if they don't want to. So for a lot of people, the vote doesn't matter. But if they do vote to legalize it, if it does become legal on the reservation, I think it will bring more problems. More abuse, more depression, more suicides than there are already.
Catlin Clifford, 24 Professional bull rider, tattoo artist, and musician I'm torn: It would be good to not have the pressure of it being illegal to you know, bring a six-pack home, but we also owe it to that older generation to respect what they say, and how they want to live. It's a question of whether you're just looking at the present and the future, or if you want to look at the past and what our ancestors and elders wanted. I've been to all of the big Indian rodeos on other reservations around the country and I see tribes that have legalized alcohol, and people there still get out of hand. I'm not trying to stereotype, but it does seem like alcohol does have this effect on Native people all over. It seems like it's because we just don't have as long a history of dealing with alcohol. I dunno if it's genetics or the way people are raised, but it seems to affect us differently. Legalizing alcohol has a lot of potential cons to it, and there really only seems to be that one pro, the revenue. And I don't know if just one positive can outweigh that many negatives.
Roger White Eyes, 51 High school teacher, Lakota language I have not used alcoholic beverages in 25 years. Whether they legalize it or not, it's not going to affect me personally. If it was up to me and I was the tribal president and our reservation was dry, it would be a dry reservation, I would have zero tolerance, but I'd get help for those families that need help. But this is 2013, we live in a free society, and people are going to use alcohol no matter what. From what I've experienced teaching high school, there's less kids drinking now than when I grew up. And that comes from education and families who are turning to more traditional beliefs. The traditional Lakota belief system [says] alcohol is not a part of the system, it's the enemy. But I see more responsible drinkers too, who are aware of the problems that come with abuse of alcohol, so they choose to be responsible. More educated people being responsible.