South Dakota Journal, Part III

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation


Editor’s Note: For the first two parts of this journal, go here and here. Jay Nordlinger traveled to South Dakota in order to do a story from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. That story will appear in an October issue of National Review. Meanwhile, this journal, which includes disparate notes, including some about Pine Ridge.

Let me give you a few basic facts about Pine Ridge — the reservation, I mean, not the village. The reservation, as a whole, is called Pine Ridge. The largest village is also called Pine Ridge — it’s on the southern border of the reservation.

The reservation is in the southwestern corner of South Dakota, bordering Nebraska (though not Wyoming). It is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It has very few people, though: 17,000. By contrast, Wyoming, our least populous state, has 576,000.

You may have heard horror stories about Pine Ridge. Those stories aren’t wrong. It is the poorest of the Indian reservations, which is saying something. Most people drop out of school. Unemployment is over 80 percent. Most of those who do work are women. Most of the jobs are for one governmental entity or another.

You may have heard about the life expectancy — it’s 48 for men, 52 for women. In the Western Hemisphere, only Haiti is worse, apparently. You have heard about the alcohol problem as well, I’m sure: Pine Ridge is sorely afflicted by alcoholism. Teen suicide is rife.

One could go on . . .

But there is happiness on this reservation, bits of normal, unafflicted life. In the parking lot of Big Bat’s, the major hangout in the village of Pine Ridge, two young men are on horseback. Later, down the street, they will playfully lasso each other.

You would not want to minimize the grief of Pine Ridge. But the grief, or grimness, is not unrelieved.

Why have I come here? Alcohol has always been banned on this reservation (except for a brief, experimental period in the 1970s). Alcohol is banned on two-thirds of Indian reservations. But you can get the stuff, of course, just over the border, wherever the border is.

Last month, the residents of Pine Ridge voted to lift the ban on alcohol. The vote was 1,843 to 1,683, or 52 percent to 48 percent. Feelings on the issue are strong: To ban or not to ban? The people have voted, but the Tribal Council gets the final say. They can nullify the vote.

Anyway, I have come to examine this debate, the debate over alcohol. In my view, it turns mainly on one question: Could things on Pine Ridge be worse? Or not? Could the alcohol problem be worse? Or not? The pro-repeal side says, “Not.” The anti-repeal side says, “Oh, yes, it could — far worse.”

You know what, I don’t think I’ve mentioned who lives on Pine Ridge — that was dumb. The Indians of Pine Ridge are the Oglala Sioux, also known as the Oglala Lakota. The latter is the more politically correct name.

The reservation is big, as you know — certainly big for 17,000 people — and relatively few people have cars. They walk or hitchhike. Public transportation is pretty much nil. I understand there are a couple of buses a week.

Only once before have I seen so many people walking along highways — that was in a place where other Indians live: India, where the Jain people, I was told, do not drive, owing to their religious principles.

Admonitions against alcohol are frequent and visible. Take the Prairie Wind casino. (Motto: “Feel the win!”) Posted at the entrance are two signs, identical, reminding people that alcohol is forbidden.

Many here wonder, “What will the casinos be like once booze is mixed in with the ‘gaming’?”

At the entrance of tribal offices in Pine Ridge (the village), there is another sign. It warns that anyone intoxicated will be kicked out or arrested.

Incidentally, officially speaking, alcohol is banned in its sale, possession, and consumption, all three. It is considered a tribe-destroying poison, a kind of weapon of mass destruction.


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