South Dakota Indian reservation to vote on lifting alcohol ban

Story highlights

  • The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota has banned alcohol for decades
  • The ban is like Prohibition, says a tribal official in favor of allowing alcohol
  • Alcohol causes many social problems, says an activist who wants the ban to remain
  • Nearby Whiteclay, Nebraska, sells 11,000 cans of beer a day to reservation residents
An Indian reservation in South Dakota will take a historic vote Tuesday to decide whether to allow alcohol.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Ogala Sioux tribe, is the last dry reservation in the state. The decision to allow alcohol there is dividing the community.
The current ban, which has been in effect for decades, prohibits the possession and consumption of alcohol on the reservation. But the ban isn't working, said Lawrence Eagle Bull, one of nine Oglala tribal council members who agreed to put the issue to a vote.
Eagle Bull compares the situation to the United States' Prohibition era. "It didn't work then," he said. "It created a criminal element."
Others are firm in their commitment to keep the land dry, saying legalizing alcohol will solve nothing.
"Alcohol is behind every social problem we have," said activist and tribe member Olowan Martinez. "It's our biggest enemy -- legalizing it won't solve the problem."
She cites problems such as domestic abuse, assault, rape and unemployment. She added that the drinking is killing the population: "It's liquid genocide."
What both sides agree on is that alcohol abuse is common on the reservation and beer is easy to get.
The neighboring border town of Whiteclay , Nebraska, is home to fewer than 15 residents but supports four beer stores that manage to sell 11,000 cans of beer a day to their predominately Native American customer base. The reservation has a tribal membership of more than 35,000 people, according to the Ogala Lakota Nation website.
Those who purchase beer in Whiteclay drink it there and return to the reservation drunk. Other times the beer is smuggled into the reservation.
If the ban is lifted, the tribe would establish its own beer stores on the reservation. Eagle Bull says each district would house one store -- operated by the tribe -- with funds going toward alcohol rehabilitation facilities. Longer term, Eagle Bull said stores on the reservation could eventually shut down the Whiteclay operations.