Earlier this month, members of the Oglala Sioux tribe voted to allow alcohol sales on the Pine Ridge reservation, adding another chapter to the complex story of Native Americans and alcohol. Final approval is dependent on the the tribal council, which will make the ultimate decision when it comes to lifting the ban on alcohol sales at Pine Ridge. The decision highlights some complex tensions on Pine Ridge and beyond.
Ever since Europeans arrived in North America, indigenous people have been struggling with the alcohol that was used as a trading currency and tool of suppression in Native communities. Colonizers quickly learned that indigenous communities had limited tolerance for alcohol and used that to their advantage. Hundreds of years later, Native Americans are at a far greater risk of alcoholism, alcohol-related deaths and other health problems related to alcohol than people of other races. This is a particularly acute problem on reservations, where isolation, poverty and poor access to health services can be a fatal combination.
On Pine Ridge, as on other reservations, members of the community freely drink alcohol despite knowing the risks, and neighboring communities take rampant advantage of that. Whiteclay, a neighboring town that rests just outside the borders of the reservation, gains millions of dollars in alcohol sales annually to Oglala Sioux crossing the border in search of drink. It’s not the only US town or city that supports itself through revenue gained from liquor sales.
Supporters promoting an end to the ban on alcohol sales argued that traveling to Whiteclay poses substantial risks, creating the chance of car accidents and other problems, and that Whiteclay is sucking up revenue that could go to the reservation. They proposed allowing sales on Pine Ridge so the reservation’s schools and other public works programs could benefit from the proceeds, and to allow the casinos on site to sell alcohol, making them a greater attraction for visitors.
Looking at the Rosebud Reservation as a test case, proponents showed how a careful and regulated legalization of alcohol sales on reservation could increase revenue, thereby creating more opportunities on the reservation. Furthermore, legalization would relieve the strain on the community’s law enforcement by reducing the need to go after alcohol-related offenses like possession, allowing them to focus on crimes that take place on the reservation.
While it doesn’t even come close to reparations for hundreds of years of exploitation, there’s no doubt that moving alcohol sales on reservation would also make quite a dent in Whiteclay’s sales. The town may have thrived on taking advantage of the demand of alcohol from reservation residents. Those sales wouldn’t end entirely, but they would definitely radically decline. That would send a clear message when it comes to businesses considering taking advantage of indigenous communities. They know what’s going on, and they’ll fight back.
Not everyone is in favor of the lift on prohibition. Some residents raise concerns that legalizing alcohol on Pine Ridge doesn’t resolve the larger alcohol problems on the reservation and would prefer to see more resources sunk into early outreach and education along with alcohol treatment programs. Pine Ridge’s chief of police also has concerns about whether the more ready availability of alcohol will lead to social problems like a higher rate of violence.
This has been a contentious election, and both sides of the argument freely admit that Pine Ridge has a long way to go when it comes to tackling alcohol and its attendant problems. If reservation-based sales are the solution, Pine Ridge could be on a path to radical reform, but if prohibition was a better choice, the reservation may be about to slide backwards.
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