The ongoing, awful question of alcohol on the reservation
Pine Ridge, S.D. — In August, a potentially momentous vote took place—not momentous for the nation, but for the nation of the Oglala Sioux, or Oglala Lakota, as they’re also called. Here on the Pine Ridge reservation, tribe members voted to lift the longstanding ban on alcohol: its sale, possession, and consumption. The vote was 1,843 to 1,683, or 52 percent to 48 percent. The issue has stirred passions on the reservation. And it’s not quite over: Repeal is “not a done deal,” as an official tells me. The Tribal Council must approve it.
Pine Ridge drifts in and out of the national consciousness, mainly out. In 1973, activists took over the village of Wounded Knee, creating a national drama. Pine Ridge is in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. It’s larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined—but smaller than Connecticut. Some 17,000 people live here. By contrast, Wyoming, the least populous state, has 576,000. Pine Ridge is a very poor place, the poorest of all the reservations.
One could cite many grim statistics, and tug at heartstrings. I will give a few facts, quickly. Infant mortality is sky high. Diabetes is sky high. So are any number of other illnesses, including depression. Suicide is sky high. It is virtually epidemic among teenagers. Life expectancy for men is 48; for women, it’s 52. One hears that this is the worst life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, except for Haiti.
Most people drop out of school, and most people don’t work. Unemployment is over 80 percent. Most of those who do work are women, and they tend to work for one government entity or another. Homes are overcrowded. Often they have no water or electricity, and often they have a dangerous mold. Teen gangs have become a menace. To add insult to injury, the weather here is some of the most challenging in the country—a “weather of extremes,” as they say. It’s punishingly hot in the summer and punishingly cold in the winter. Severe winds blow at many times.
The reservation is, as most people know, alcohol-drenched. One reads that eight out of ten families are affected by alcohol. I talk to people who have no idea who the other two families are: They’ve lived here all their lives, and never knew a family unaffected by alcohol, and have barely known an individual unaffected. What are the effects of alcoholism? Robbery, rape, murder, poverty, family breakdown, disease, death—one could go on.
Like two-thirds of all Indian reservations in America, Pine Ridge has traditionally banned alcohol. Yet alcohol, of course, is rife. Tribe members can get it over the border, wherever the border is. They might get it in Martin, S.D., in the east. Most notoriously, they get it in Whiteclay, Neb., in the south. (Sometimes the name of this place is written “White Clay.” It depends on the sign or map.) Whiteclay is just over the border from Pine Ridge—meaning the village of Pine Ridge, not the reservation at large. People in Whiteclay have been selling booze to the Sioux for over 100 years. There are four liquor stores in Whiteclay and only three times as many residents. Yes, Whiteclay has just a dozen people or so. The liquor stores do a booming business. They sell something like 4.5 million cans of beer a year, which comes out to more than 12,000 a day. Whiteclay has been a focus of tribal anger for a long time.
Last year, the tribe filed suit against the liquor stores in federal court. They also sued beer distributors and beer makers, including Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Pabst. They claimed that alcohol was stocked and sold “far in excess” of what Nebraska law allows. The judge was sympathetic, saying, “There is, in fact, little question that alcohol sold in Whiteclay contributes significantly to tragic conditions on the Reservation.” He also said that the case did not belong in federal court.
Less than a year later, the tribe held its referendum. For some, the victory of the repeal side had an air of, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” If you can’t keep others from selling the stuff, sell it yourself. In all likelihood, the Tribal Council will not nullify the people’s vote. But, again, it has a right to do so and may. Many leaders are against repeal, including the tribal president, Bryan Brewer. (Yes, his name is Brewer.) The police chief, Ron Duke, is on record as opposing repeal as well. By his own testimony, he drank until he was in his early 30s, and he has had two daughters killed in drunk-driving accidents.
To ban or not to ban is a very, very touchy issue on the reservation. Many people are reluctant to discuss it, certainly with a white stranger. But some open up. Three boys, hanging out together, are against repeal. They’re also very nervous about it. They seem from 14 to 16 years old. If people have readier access to alcohol, they say, won’t there be more alcoholism? “There’s a lot of pressure on us kids,” one boy says: pressure to drink, to give in to the general malaise. Would the lifting of the ban constitute some sort of abandonment of them? A surrender?
From the boys comes, not just nervousness, but also a sense of fear. Fear of alcohol is apparent in other people too. They talk about alcohol as if talking about a plague. Warnings against alcohol are in the air. Let me give an example. At the Prairie Wind casino—motto: “Feel the win!”—there are signs posted at the doors. They remind people, in strict terms, that alcohol is forbidden. What would Prairie Wind be like if booze were mixed in with the gambling? At the entrance of tribal offices in Pine Ridge—the village of Pine Ridge—a sign promises that anyone intoxicated will be evicted or arrested.
Naturally, a person will want to ask this question: How could alcohol be more plentiful, or prevalent, than it is now? Can’t people just waltz over the border to Whiteclay? Those in the village of Pine Ridge can. And Pine Ridge is the largest of the villages, with 3,300 people. But the reservation is a very big place. It is also sparsely populated, and distances between communities are great. Many people live remotely, and relatively few have cars. Public transportation is almost nonexistent. People walk or hitchhike. Only once before have I seen so many people walking along highways: That was in India, where it was explained to me that the Jains, owing to their religious principles, don’t drive.
On the reservation, there is the stereotype of the Indian car—the beater that can barely move. This stereotype exists for a reason. There is a bumper sticker that says “Official Indian Car.” Not a few cars are missing half a windshield, and not a few are crunched up in the back. It’s amazing they can stay on the road, or are allowed to do so. On the highways are signs warning against drunk driving. These signs include photos of cute kids, now dead.
In the parking lot of Big Bat’s, I see a couple of young men on horseback. Later, down the street, they will playfully lasso each other. Big Bat’s is the main hangout in the village of Pine Ridge—Sioux Central. It’s a combination store, restaurant, and gas station. The manager on duty talks about the impending repeal: He’s against it. On his face are bitterness and disgust. He does not believe that Big Bat’s will sell alcohol, if repeal goes through. Why’s that? He gestures behind him, in the direction of the Nebraska line. “Nobody wants Pine Ridge to look like Whiteclay.”
Just before you get to Whiteclay, there’s a mural that says, “Legalize alcohol on the rez.” Downtown Whiteclay, so to speak, is a forlorn strip. On the other end of it is another mural, which says, “United we stand, divided we fall.” In between is an Indian Bowery or skid row. Men sit or lie on the sidewalk, drunk. They are zombie-like, broken. Along the strip are the liquor stores. They are windowless, stark, brutish. They look closed. But they’re not. The people come to them on foot or by car. In my observation, the cars tend to be driven by women, with male passengers. The women go in to buy the alcohol while the men wait in the cars. Transactions in the stores are mechanical and weary, with maybe a touch of shame about them.
There are grocery stores in Whiteclay too—two of them. You cannot get alcohol in them. “No, we wouldn’t sell it,” says a cashier. “Not every place in Whiteclay is for drinking, despite what you hear.” What does she think of the Pine Ridge referendum and its result? (The cashier is white, by the way.) She says, brightly, “I think it’s good. This has been going on for years”—and by “this” she means the drinking and the blaming. “It’s their problem, let them deal with it.” Unless I’m mistaken, her tone says, “Whiteclay has had enough of being the villain.”
As I look at the Indians, lying on the sidewalks, I wonder, “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 suppose, is that some can cope and some can’t.
The advocates of repeal make many arguments. They say that, with alcohol revenue, you can build detox centers and fund treatment programs. You may also have more money for the schools. Furthermore, repeal will cut down on drunk-driving accidents, as people will be able to go less far for alcohol. Police will not have to use their time investigating possession and smuggling and the like. The casinos will attract more visitors, because they’ll be wet, not dry. And look: Prohibition has failed. It didn’t work in America 80 or 90 years ago, and it’s not working today on Pine Ridge. Time to try something else.
There is also, I believe, an element of pride on the repeal side—a sense that repeal will allow the Sioux to be masters of their own destiny, more than they are now. After the vote, a pro-repeal council member said, “I’m ecstatic. I’m so happy. Our tribe took the decision to move forward and make history.” A pro-repeal writer described this step as a matter of “fighting back.” Against whom? Against Whiteclay and outsiders in general, presumably.
The president, Bryan Brewer, recoils at the idea that alcohol revenue should fund alcohol treatment. “I consider this blood money,” he has said. Many are skeptical that the detox centers and all the rest will appear if alcohol is legalized. Other reservations have promised the same and failed to deliver.
In my view, much of this debate turns on a single question: Could things on Pine Ridge be worse? Or not? Has Pine Ridge hit rock bottom? Or could it go down farther still? The anti-prohibitionists, by and large, say, “No, things could not be worse.” Prohibitionists say, “Oh, yes, they could.” The above-cited teenagers think so. The manager at Big Bat’s thinks so. The same is true of a lady who describes the toll that alcohol has taken on the reservation. She goes through a whole litany, eloquently and emotionally. When she’s through, I say, “Well, life is miserable already. Could it be worse?” Her face freezes for a moment. Then she fixes me with a look and says, “Yes, of course it could.”
One big reason, she says, and others say, is that it is moderately difficult to get alcohol now. Not difficult enough, obviously—but moderately so. It takes something of an effort. If people could buy it at any of the general stores that dot the reservation, what then?
The cashier at the store in Kyle says she’s against repeal. “It’s better when people sneak it. You don’t have to see it out in the open. I don’t want my daughter to see drunk people.” (The mother herself looks no more than 18.) But doesn’t her daughter see drunk people now? “No. They’re not out in the open. They sneak it in their homes.” A convenience store in Martin, 35 miles to the southeast, sells alcohol. What does the cashier think of a Pine Ridge decision to do the same—to sell alcohol? “Listen,” she says: “They might as well make money off it like everyone else.”
One of the classic images in America is that of the wise old Indian—the tribal elder. At Pine Ridge, there aren’t many old Indians. Marty Two Bulls says this wasn’t always so. He is a journalist—a writer and cartoonist—born in 1962. When he was growing up, he knew not only grandparents but also great-uncles and great-aunts. “We used to see old people at weddings or funerals or sun dances. You don’t see that anymore.” Today, you might see an old person off by himself, or, more likely, herself. She has few peers. People used to die of natural causes, says Two Bulls. Now they are dying alcohol-related deaths.
There is a connection, he thinks, between an absence of old people and drinking. “When the old people left, it became okay to get drunk, in a way. You didn’t dare drink around my grandfather.” These days, who has a grandfather? Kids, says Two Bulls, grow up in the reservation equivalent of slums. The men around them may be in very bad shape: unable to care for themselves, much less others. Whom do the kids have to look up to? What hope is there for the future? Those who commit suicide have decided there is none.
Two Bulls is against the repeal of the alcohol ban. Like everyone else, he is loath to see the American Indian reduced to two vices, two signatures: drinking and gambling. He believes that repeal will exacerbate the former. But he has time and patience for the other side. A fellow journalist, Brandon Ecoffey, is a strong advocate of repeal. “Legalizing alcohol is not giving up,” he writes. “It is punting in an attempt to flip the field. Those that drink will continue to drink and those of us who don’t won’t. The only difference now is that those with the desire to seek help will have local treatment facilities to access.”
None of this would be an issue, as everyone says, if people simply resisted drink. But that is a lot to ask. The Oglala Sioux and other Indians, like individuals and groups all over the world, have been in the grip of a spiritual crisis, for a very long time. Alcoholism is but a symptom of it (though a terrible one). Would repeal of the ban make Pine Ridge worse? I suspect it would. But I also recognize, as others do, that the tribe can vote again, if repeal turns out to be a disaster—or a worsening of the present disaster. Democracy includes a spirit of pragmatism.