LINCOLN — The Oglala Sioux Tribe should seize the opportunities presented by the legalization of alcohol by not only selling liquor, but also manufacturing and distributing it, says the tribe's president.
Verification of contested ballots from Tuesday's election was completed Wednesday night, showing that voters on the impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation had approved the end of prohibition, 1,871 to 1,679.
The Pine Ridge was the only South Dakota reservation that had not allowed sales or possession of alcohol.
“Life will change now as we know it,” said Larry Eagle Bull, one of nine tribal council members who put the issue to a public vote.
“We've got to remember now we lived dry for 100 years and it was proven that prohibition didn't work. We're in new territory now.”
Under the law, the tribe will own and operate stores on the reservation. Profits will be used for education and for detoxification and treatment centers, for which there is currently little to no funding.
Eagle Bull, a reformed alcoholic, said it will provide much-needed revenue for the tribe.
But detractors, such as Tribal President Bryan Brewer, said the vote will only increase alcohol-related problems, which include some of the highest rates of domestic abuse, suicide, infant mortality, unemployment and violent crime in Indian country.
Much of the blame for those ills has been focused on Whiteclay, Neb., an unincorporated village that sits just across the state border from the reservation. Four beer-only liquor stores sell millions of cans to reservation residents each year, prompting allegations that they exploit Native Americans and exacerbate their problems.
Brewer said earlier this week that he will work to implement the end of prohibition, even though he considers the liquor sales “blood money.”
He said the tribe should do everything it can to raise revenue with the new authority, including manufacturing liquor on the reservation, and distributing it. The tribe's casino will also now be able to serve alcohol.
“If this is going to be blood money, I want to get the most out of it that I can,” Brewer said.
Francis Pumpkin Seed, Oglala Sioux Tribe Election Commission chairman, said people can challenge the vote, but they would have to find a technicality — some way that the election commission violated the law.
The tribal council will probably take up the issue at its Aug. 27 meeting, Brewer said. The law that bans alcohol will have to be rescinded and a new law implemented, he said.
The tribe will have to apply to the county and then to the state for a permit, Brewer said.
Eagle Bull estimated that, conservatively, it will be six months to a year before alcohol sales can begin. “We have a lot of work to do yet,” he said.
A 14-page tribal council draft of the law offers no specifics about funding or 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 of nine members, one from each reservation district, would also be created to guide the director, buy the alcohol, open and operate the liquor stores, hire employees and investigate violations.
Tribal leaders acknowledge the document needs to be debated and amended before taking effect.
Both sides in the debate do 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 — four stores in Whiteclay.
Many tribal members live on Whiteclay's barren streets to avoid arrest on the reservation for being drunk.
“Whiteclay is going to feel a pinch in their pocket book. Not right away. But it's going to affect them, it's going to hurt them,” Eagle Bull said.
One of the store owners contacted by the Associated Press didn't want to comment. Another couldn't be reached.
Federal law bans the sale of alcohol on Native American reservations unless the tribal council allows it. Pine Ridge legalized alcohol for two months in 1970s, but the ban was quickly restored. An attempt to lift prohibition in 2004 also failed.
This report contains material from The Associated Press.