A decision Tuesday to allow the members of a South Dakota tribe to decide whether to legalize alcohol on their reservation has spurred strong opinions on both sides and raised concerns about how the tribe might regulate alcohol sales.
Oglala Sioux tribal leaders and activists have raised fears that legalization of alcohol on the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation could lead to a sharp spike in alcohol abuse and crime, though others argue legalization could help the cash-strapped tribe fund much-needed treatment and youth programs to combat alcoholism and its devastating effects.
The tribal council, which voted 9-7 on Tuesday night to allow the tribe's members to vote on legalization, has not set a date for that referendum.
“It's just a waste of our time, our money to be worried about alcohol, someone smelling like alcohol, taking them to jail, when the real crimes are being neglected,” said councilman Kevin Yellowbird-Steele, who voted in favor of the referendum. “The reservation hasn't been dry in a long time.”
Tribal President Bryan Brewer said he doesn't support legalizing alcohol, at least until the tribe develops a plan to address the likely increase in crime that would occur after legalization.
“That alcohol that's coming on the reservation is killing our children, killing our people,” he said.
The vote to allow the tribe's members to decide whether to legalize alcohol is closely intertwined with efforts to stop the flow of beer from the Nebraska village of Whiteclay, which is about a mile south of Pine Ridge, the tribe's largest village. Last year, four Whiteclay beer stores sold the equivalent of 3.9 million 12-ounce cans of beer.
The tribe's reservation, about the size of Connecticut, has struggled with high alcoholism rates for generations, though alcohol has been banned there since 1832. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation makes up all of Shannon County, S.D. -- the third-poorest county in America, according to the U.S. census. Nearly 40,000 people live on the reservation.
One in four reservation children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The average reservation life expectancy is between 45 and 52 years, according to a lawsuit filed by the tribe last year against major beer breweries, distributors and retailers who supply alcohol to Whiteclay. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit in October.
Pine Ridge legalized alcohol in 1970 but restored the ban two months later, and an attempt to allow it in 2004 died after a public outcry.
Olowan Martinez, an Oglala Sioux activist who helped establish a camp near Whiteclay to protest alcohol sales, said legalizing alcohol would only worsen already deplorable conditions in many homes. She said she plans to push for a public vote on whether to banish for 90 days those council members who voted to allow the referendum.
“Alcohol's the enemy and I survived it, and I'm going to make sure my people do as well,” she said.
Tribal Councilwoman Jacqueline Siers said an informal survey she conducted asking tribal residents whether they supported legalizing alcohol showed 78 for it and 79 against it.
T.R. McKenzie, an activist seeking an end to alcohol sales in Whiteclay, said he's concerned legalizing alcohol on the reservation would allow South Dakota state authorities to enforce liquor sales on the reservation, which could endanger the tribe's sovereignty.
But Yellowbird-Steele said the state would have no authority to regulate alcohol sales on the reservation.
“The state can't come in just because we sell alcohol,” he said. “We'll arrest them if they try.”
He said the tribe would regulate alcohol sales and likely would establish itself as the sole beer retailer on the reservation. He said he doesn't expect the tribe will approve liquor licenses for outsiders wanting to sell alcohol on the reservation.
The tribal council plans to attach a proposed set of regulations to the referendum, which Yellowbird-Steele expects the tribe will consider in October or November.
The tribe expects to gain nearly $10 million per year in revenue from alcohol sales, which it would use to support detox, treatment, youth and education programs. Yellowbird-Steele said the tribe must find new funding sources as it's facing nearly 10 percent in federal budget cuts.
“We're going to have to look for other funding to do this,” he said.
On Friday night, the tribe also voted to create ports of entry at every entry point onto the reservation, starting with the entry from Whiteclay. The tribe hopes the ports of entry will allow it to stop alcohol importation onto the reservation.
Brewer said he is planning to visit Lincoln soon to talk to Gov. Dave Heineman and other state officials about ways Nebraska can address alcohol sales in Whiteclay. On Tuesday, he told his tribe's council that he plans to protest Whiteclay alcohol sales Monday morning and invited council members to join him.
“If we close up Whiteclay, it's not going to stop the liquor on our reservation,” he said. “But we're going to send a message to our young people: We do not want this.”