Members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe are voting all day Tuesday on whether to give up the fight against bootlegging by allowing alcohol to be sold on the reservation -- the last place in the state's American Indian territory where it's not allowed. Profits would be used for education, detoxification and treatment centers, for which there is currently little to no funding.
"Alcohol is here. They're kidding themselves if they think we're a dry reservation," said Larry Eagle Bull, a recovering alcoholic and one of nine council members who supported the vote. "Prohibition is not working. Alcohol is going to stay. We need to get our people educated about it."
Critics say legalization would only exacerbate the reservation's troubles. Alcohol is blamed for some of the highest rates of domestic abuse, suicide, infant mortality, unemployment and violent crime in Indian Country.
Both sides in the debate agree something must be done to limit the scourge of alcohol on the Lakota people. They also share a goal of putting out of business the current main suppliers of booze for tribal members -- four stores in Whiteclay, Neb., two miles south of Pine Ridge, that sell millions of cans of beer a year.
Many tribal members live on Whiteclay's barren streets to avoid arrest on the reservation for being drunk. Some people try to barter vegetables, electronics and other things for alcohol. One man recently had a store clerk repeatedly try to run through a sale for a couple of bottles on his debit card, but the transaction was rejected due to insufficient funds.
The stores have posted fliers urging customers to contact their tribal council representative if they don't want the businesses to close.
Owners didn't want to comment on Tuesday's vote, though Stuart Kozal, co-owner of the Jumping Eagle, said tribal members seem to be evenly divided.
"I think the vote, one way or the other, is going to be close," he said.
Aloysius White Dress, one of Whiteclay's homeless, said even though he drinks alcohol, he opposes legalization because of the damage it has done.
"There's too much drunks on the reservation," he said. "People are miserable on the reservation."
Federal law bans the sale of alcohol on Native American reservations unless the tribal council allows it. Pine Ridge, the only dry reservation in South Dakota, legalized alcohol for two months in 1970s, but the ban was quickly restored. An attempt to lift prohibition in 2004 also failed.
Opponents of the latest effort, including tribal president Bryan Brewer, believe a vote in favor of legal sales is a vote for alcoholism and the problem only will get worse.
"It's destroying our families and children," he said. "It's affected every family on the reservation. If it's legal, I anticipate the use will go up. Abuse of women and children will go up. A lot of people are saying we'll have all this money for treatment, and that's not true."
Most profits from alcohol sales would go to the distributors, Brewer said. The tribe, ultimately, would have very little left to fund meaningful treatment and education, he said.
A 14-page tribal council draft of the law offers no specifics about funding or required qualifications for the people who would run the operation. The proposed law calls for a new department and a full-time director to administer and enforce the law. A new commission comprised of nine members, one from each reservation district, also would be created to guide the director, buy the alcohol, open and operate the liquor stores, hire employees and investigate violations.
Brewer said there are problems with the document that need to be resolved if Tuesday's vote succeeds. Eagle Bull acknowledged it would be amended and a hearty debate would follow legalization before any law takes effect.
The council's plan calls for two detoxification facilities, one in the eastern part of the reservation and one in the west, and treatment and counseling programs for adults, youth and families.
Tribal members would lead the effort, Eagle Bull said.
"They'd rather hear it from one of their own who has dealt with the effects of alcohol," he said.
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