South Dakota Journal, Part III

by Jay Nordlinger

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.

There’s a small village called Oglala. (I guess “small village” is a redundancy.) The post office is a forlorn little place, with a beaten-up American flag flying next to it. A photojournalist would want to snap it.

You may have heard of the stereotype of the “Indian car,” even seen it. The stereotype exists for a reason. There’s even a bumper sticker here: “Official Indian Car.” Pine Ridge offers an amazing collection of beaters. Not a few cars have half a windshield; not a few are crunched up in the back.

These autos can stay on the road? They’re allowed to do so?

Along the highways, there are billboards pleading against drunk driving. One shows a cute little girl, now dead.

I have called Big Bat’s the main hangout in Pine Ridge (village of). It can be thought of as Sioux Central. It’s a combination store, restaurant, and gas station. And social club. Inside, there’s a big, big buffalo head.

Nearby, there’s a church that has gone to seed. It is the very picture of a rundown church in the West. Again, a photojournalist would leap to snap it.

On a corner, there’s a sign honoring “Our Lakota Men and Women of Operation Iraqi Freedom.” There are many names on the sign. In fact, they continue on the back.

The reservation, of course, has an obesity problem. (And a diabetes problem. The statistics on this are miserable, as on most things.) But do the people here look much different from other segments of America? I don’t think so. There are thin ones, medium ones, fat ones. Beautiful people, ones “not favored by nature,” as my friend David Pryce-Jones would say.

Like everywhere, I think.

Naturally, I go to an infamous and sad place — Whiteclay, Neb., just over the line from the village of Pine Ridge. Here is where many Sioux get their booze. You can walk from Pine Ridge.

There are four liquor stores in Whiteclay, one of them called “State Line.” There are only three times as many people — yes, about twelve. The stores sell an astounding 4.5 million cans of beer a year. (Something like that.) That comes out to more than 12,000 a day.

Last year, the Oglala Nation sued the stores, and beer distributors, and beer makers, such as Anheuser-Busch and Pabst. Their claim: Alcohol was being stocked and sold in Whiteclay “far in excess” of what Nebraska law allows. The federal judge dismissed the case, saying that a federal court was not the place for it.

Whiteclay is basically a little strip — a little strip of road. On the South Dakota end of it, you see a mural: “Legalize alcohol on the rez.” On the other end of it, you see another mural. On one side of the building it says, “United we stand . . .” On the other side, it says, “. . . divided we fall.” What a person is supposed to make of it, I’m not sure.

The strip is, in essence, an Indian Bowery, a Sioux skid row. Men sit or lie on the sidewalks, drunk. Zombie-like, lost. It is a picture of brokenness, a picture not so much of suffering as of oblivion: the thirst for oblivion.

Let me lay something on you: As I see the Indians, lying on the sidewalks, I think, “What’s the difference between them and the business executives who get sloshed in their offices or at home in their dens? What’s the difference between them and alcohol-fueled writers, some of whom become immortal, such as Faulkner?”

The answer, I guess, is that some can cope and some can’t. I’ve known a lot of drunk people in my life. Some can get up from the sidewalk and some can’t.

I should knock off for the day, but let me give you a comment on the weather — yes, the weather, the most banal of topics. As if to add insult to Pine Ridge’s injury, the weather here is just about the worst imaginable. Punishing cold in the winter. Punishing heat in the summer. Punishing winds a lot of the time.

Yes, this is “a weather of extremes,” as one man tells me. Anyway, I’ll close this journal tomorrow, with more items from Pine Ridge, Rapid City, and maybe spots in between.

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