A Tribe Divided: Alcohol Legalization on the Pine Ridge Reservation

pine ridge reservation

Indian Country Today Media Network

“On this day on June 17th, 1876 Crazy Horse and Knife Chief defeated General George Crook in the Rosebud River in what is now Montana. Combined forces of Cheyennes and Lakota Warriors stopped and drove General Crook and his Crow and Shoshone Scouts and sent them back to the south. Crazy Horse made three suicide runs against the enemy and is credited to killing several soldiers and scouts. It was only the fighting ability of the Native scouts that kept General Crook from being completely defeated like General Custer.”

This was posted on Facebook Monday morning June the 17th and it made me feel proud to be Lakota.  At one point, the Lakota not only worked together as a people, but also with other allies as when our ancestors defeated General Crook on the Rosebud River .

Not only that, but a couple of weeks after that victory,  on June 25, 1876, our ancestors allied with the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho to defeat General Custer and take out the entire Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Greasy Grass.  It was the only time the occupation of the United Stated was defeated on the soil of the Indigenous people of this land.

137 years later on the same day, June 17th in 2013, the President of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe was taken to jail for “an old warrant” when he stood with his Lakota people as their peaceful protests stopped a beer truck delivery.

It was supposed to be a historic day.  The week before on June 11, 2013, the tribe’s elected tribal council had finally voted on a referendum to let the public decide whether to legalize alcohol on the reservation — a vote many in the tribe had long wanted to see.

Immediately,  the social networks were abuzz — not only locally or statewide but around the world.  Worldwide, many people who love Lakota were shocked.  Surely, the Oglala Lakota would not sell out their people over alcohol when they won’t even sell the Black Hills for millions of dollars?  The people were split over which course to take. Some though the revenue could be used to build treatment centers and programs for the youth.  Others said if alcoholism is so rampant already, how could legalizing alcohol sales on the reservation help?

The vote was passed through tribal council 9-7.  The 7 NO votes were James Cross, Charles Cummings, Danielle Lebeaux, Dan Martinez, Bernie Shoots With Arrow, Jackie Siers and Garfield Steele.  The 9 YES votes were Lydia Bear Killer, Craig Dillon, Barb Dull Knife, Larry Eagle Bull, Paul Little, Stanley Little White Man, Irv Provost, Robin Tapio, and Kevin Yellow Bird Steele.

Tribal President Bryan Brewer asked tribal council members who voted to meet with him to walk through Camp Zero Tolerance on Monday morning, June 17th, where the protestors had been camped out since the spring.  He also wanted tribal council to witness the delivery of beer to Whiteclay while they were protected by the Sheridan County police department.

On the morning of June 17th, only council member Dan Martinez showed up to meet with President Brewer.  And that’s when the video was taken that went viral and was shared around the world by many activists groups and other Indigenous nations, showing President Brewer standing with the people in a faceoff with the Sheridan County Sheriff, both claiming the land they were standing on.  Then President Brewer was arrested in what they claimed was a “warrant for his arrest.”

The community being split seems to have taken to social media to voice their complaints.  Some people have formed groups or pages.  The popular opinion  to legalize alcohol has people offering rides to 18-year-olds to vote on alcohol they wouldn’t be legal to drink yet.  The protesters at Camp Zero Tolerance would like a youth vote to be done at the same time as the adult vote to show the community what the youth really think.  They feel their purpose for protesting is being misconstrued.

Protester Olowan Martinez spoke up to set some of these rumors straight:

“We never assaulted any of our relatives who live on the streets of Whiteclay.  We are not here to save the adults who already drink, they have already made their choices.  We are here to set a new mentality among our youth that alcohol is the enemy.  We would also like those of age to drink to realize alcohol IS illegal on the reservation and if they want it so bad, they should move.

I would also like to say that none of the protesters ever beat anyone.  If we are attacked we will defend ourselves but that has not happened.  We haven’t had to defend ourselves yet.  We also do not throw children in front of us. We have one teenager here because she wants to be and another teenager who is 18.  We don’t force anyone to be here.  There were no windows broken and we stand behind our nonviolent-to-humans stance.  What happened with the beer truck was to get a message across to the driver that as lifegivers of this nation, we don’t want his poison here anymore.”

One of the biggest arguments for legalizing alcohol amongst most people is to be able to build treatment centers.  With the reservations alcohol rate looming around 80% — and 100% affected by alcohol — and the unemployment rate around 85%, it makes you wonder how well treatment works when a person who has completed treatment has to return to the same environment.  The life expectancy rate on the reservation is 52 for women and 48 for men.  I posted many of the statistics related to alcoholism in my article from last year Something Has To Change.

Ruth Cedar Face, the new director of the tribal treatment program, Anpetu Luta spoke out about the legalization issue, the need for better treatment facilities, and the upcoming vote:

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OYATE Oglala Youth And Tribal Entertainment Media

“I think that if they legalize alcohol, we will see an increase of social ills. We don’t have laws to address those things, we don’t have the facilities like a detox to deal with these things, we don’t have the law enforcement to deal with these things. Our treatment program has six cycles per year, it has seven bed spaces — not even enough space to deal with what we have. Our hospital will see an increase in alcohol-related injuries, murders, car accidents, fighting, fetal-alcohol syndrome, domestic violence. Our tribe is not equipped to handle these things.

Addiction is a deeper than just the substance use. That is where we need to find help for our people, but the revenue from sales will never be enough to deal with these things. Yes, we have a problem now on the reservation, but it will increase tenfold. We are not prepared for this as a tribe.

I hope that we can continue to be a dry reservation, because no matter what, that’s what makes us a stronger than other reservations. We are still proud people and other tribes who are fighting this fight are looking at us to see how we handle it.”

Ruth Cedar Face also said of the protesters at White Clay: “I think they are standing up for something they feel strongly about. More power to them.  I am proud to be Oglala because we stand up against what isn’t good, as we have our entire history. Are we going to bow down now to our enemy called alcohol?”

dana lonehillThe tribe seems to be split on their views of the protesters as well as their views about  legalizing alcohol.  The protesters are thanked by some tribal members and verbally attacked by others.  Whether the protests are doing any good or not is an argument among many tribal members, however, the Lincoln Journal Star did report a drop in sales for nearby Whiteclay, Nebraska, in 2012.

It seems as if the ongoing battle within the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe over alcohol will still continue, but the biggest obstacle will be the battle will be with each other.  The days of working together as a tribe seems to be a thing of the past…when there was no alcohol.

Dana Lone Hill

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


  1. clarabu says

    Bravo! Please keep educating the young people, alcohol is legal but it takes away from our human experience, ruins families, causes terrible accidents. My own father died of cirrhosis, never lived to hold even one grandchild. I pray for your struggle to continue and be successful!

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