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July 24, 2014 10:05 PM

Booze On The Reservation

Pine Ridge, SD

Last August, tribal members on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota voted to lift a long-standing ban on alcohol sales. But the drinks aren't flowing yet.

Almost a year after the vote, tribal officials seem far from establishing the framework of regulations needed to manage alcohol sales in limited outlets.

It's a deadly weapon. That's what Olowan Martinez thinks of alcohol. She believes it has been used against the Lakota people for generations.

“I came to an understanding that it's a direct assault, a direct assault on my nation," Martinez, a Porcupine woman living these days in Wounded Knee said. "So, I refer to it as 'liquid genocide.' "

Martinez fights alcohol use on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She also protests its sale and importation from the tiny, nearby border hamlet of White Clay, Nebraska.

There, the effects of alcohol on especially vulnerable Lakota people are most prominent, and poignant.

Martinez believes the damage will spread and magnify if alcohol is sold on the sprawling reservation. Yet tribal voters authorized just that last August, in a hotly-contested reservation-wide vote that Martinez doesn't accept.

"You know, as young people of today, the free thinkers, we know that having a dry reservation free from alcohol, free from this poison, is our right," Martinez said. "And we assert that right every day when we protest and we say no."

Yet the long-standing booze ban has failed to keep the reservation dry. Proponents of lifting the ban say selling alcohol in a controlled way will give the tribe more money, take revenue from White Clay and boost substance-abuse programs and other tribal essentials.
It could also help the tribe's Prairie Wind Casino, providing more jobs and more revenue for the tribe.

Those arguments prevailed last August in a split vote packed with emotion. Brandon Ecoffey, a tribal member and managing editor of the Native Sun News in Rapid City, says the division over alcohol on the reservation seems to be deepening.

"I think the issue really became politicized and really picked up in intensity that it hadn't had when it was first and when the vote took place," Ecoffey said. "I think a lot of people have had time to really weigh their thoughts and weigh the possible consequences and the possible benefits of it, and each side has kind of hardened their positions on it."

Ecoffey says that hardening has occurred as courts cleared election appeals and a tribal law-and-order committee studied the election results before sending it to the full tribal council.

"The committee today, on a motion from Councilman Larry Eagle Bull, moved the referendum or the approval of the referendum vote to the tribal council for them to weigh in," Ecoffey said.

Barring legal or procedural issues, Ecoffey believes the council is bound by the vote. Meanwhile, some tribal members who say they aren't sure about lifting the ban also note its historic failure to keep out alcohol.

"It's here. And it's been here for how many years?" Jennifer Red Owl of Porcupine said. "And it's probably going to be here until I pass away, you know. I mean, it's never ending."

The arguments seem to endure as well.

One of the issues up for debate is whether alcohol sales here on the reservation will make roads more dangerous, or safer.

Supporters of the ban say a terrible problem with drunk driving will get worse. Those who want the ban lifted say people won't have to drive back and forth to get booze off the reservation, so the roads could get safer. Martinez says the roads would be safer if tribal members simply didn't drink and drive or bring alcohol onto the reservation.

"If you're such responsible adults who feel you have the right to drink whenever you want, that's fine, you know. We ain't hating on nobody's party," Martinez said. "But don't bring your party on our homeland."

Right now, it remains a homeland divided, by alcohol.

It's unclear when the Oglala Lakota Tribal Council will consider the recommendation by the tribe's law-and-order committee to affirm the public vote. And almost a year past that vote, it's also unclear when the sales of alcohol on Pine Ridge are likely to begin.

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