Thursday, August 15, 2013

Oglala Sioux at Pine Ridge vote to overturn century-old alcohol ban

Read NPR's coverage here and the NYT's coverage here.  The Oglala Sioux, also known as the Oglala Lakota, voted on Tuesday to lift a long-time ban on alcohol on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in south central South Dakota.  The vote count was 1,871 for legalization of alcohol, 1,679 against.  Federal law prohibits the sale of alcohol in Indian Country unless the tribe specifically allows it, which most tribes do.  Pine Ridge was established in 1889, and it has prohibited sale or consumption of alcohol ever since, excepting a few months in the early 1970s when it experimented with lifting the ban.

Timothy Williams and John Eligon report on this week's vote for the New York Times:
Over the years, [alcohol] 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.
Critics of this week's vote, NPR reports, argue it will "spur an increase in already high rates of domestic abuse, suicide and infant mortality."  Bryan Brewer, the tribal president, is staunchly against legalizing alcohol.  The NYT quotes him:
How far are we going to let it go?   How many more children are going to be murdered because of this?
Brewer told the AP, as reported elsewhere:
We know the use will go up. ... We know there'll be more violence. 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. I hope it's not just about the money but how we can work with our people. 
Supporters, on the other hand, the NYT reports, say "legalization will allow them to regulate alcohol and earn money from sales." They argue that selling alcohol on the reservation will "allow the tribe to keep a share of Pine Ridge’s money on the reservation," money that "is now being spent in liquor stores in towns bordering it--specifically those in Whiteclay, Nebraska.  About 18 months ago, the Oglala Sioux sued the stores in Whiteclay and the suppliers and manufacturers who supply them, arguing that the defendants are, essentially, knowingly over-serving Indians and that the defendants should pay the tribe for the health care, crime-fighting and other consequences.  Supporters of legalization argue that tax revenues from selling alcohol at Pine Ridge can be used to the benefit of the Oglala Sioux’s alcohol treatment programs.

Brewer is unconvinced, stating:
We’re going to use alcohol money to spend on alcohol issues. That doesn’t make sense to me. I consider this blood money that the tribe will be getting. I hate to accept it.
 No one knows yet how much revenue alcohol sales will produce for the Oglala Sioux.  

Those against ending the alcohol ban have staged protest marches.  Local authorities have reported death threats, which led to the transfer of ballots "to a secure location" for counting after poll closure on Tuesday.

The Pine Ridge Indian reservation is "one of the poorest places in the country," with an unemployment rate of about 80%.  Read more demographic information here.  Read more about the Oglala Sioux suit against the Whiteclay liquor stores and their suppliers, which was dismissed last year, here and here.  Read more about the Oglala Sioux here and here.

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