People on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation took a serious step this week toward addressing the decades-old problem of beer sales in Whiteclay, Neb.
Oglala Sioux voters granted their leaders some realistic revenue tools to help combat the alcoholism that is so pervasive on the reservation.
All who live there know the societal costs of what follows the narrow approval of beer sales and stores on the previously dry reservation.
They know what it is to see a man so drunk that he sits down beside a roadway and thumbs for a ride to his next cheap beer across the border in Nebraska.
They know about the child abuse, spousal abuse and societal neglect that occur when nearly 80 percent of families are touched by alcoholism.
So forgive the somber mood while some cheer the tribe’s new financial independence from a tiny Nebraska border town with four beer stores selling 4 million cans a year. There is little doubt that Whiteclay sales will decline. Stores might even close.
Nebraska officials took small, often-ineffective steps to help. Aid ranged from law enforcement actions to grant-seeking and cross-deputization.
Little worked. But neither did prohibition on the reservation, where the tribe still spends an overwhelming majority of its limited resources on alcohol enforcement involving its own people.
Putting this latest decision in the hands of tribal members was the responsible path. The narrow margin of the vote indicates the difficulty of what lies ahead.
Soon, though, blame will lose its sting. The tribe will operate stores that sell beer on the reservation.
Proceeds from sales will stay with the tribe instead of traveling across the border. That should provide significant new funds to pursue expanded treatment options. There also will be direct authority to prohibit selling to already drunk people.
On the reservation in South Dakota, there is understandable angst about easier access to alcohol closer to home. Those residents are correct. There are no easy answers to this devastating disease. And for the first time in decades, there is hope for improvement, a clear avenue for putting proceeds and taxes to targeted use.
“We’ve got to remember now we lived dry for 100 years and it was proven that prohibition didn’t work,” tribal council member Larry Eagle Bull told The World-Herald. “We’re in new territory now.”
Tribal leaders will have to guard against temptations to use these revenues for government wish-list projects. Alcohol funds that critics call “blood money” need to be spent first on the problem that generates those funds, on the societal costs of alcoholism, on detox, treatment and education.
Think first of families, of children, of law enforcement and of safety, and work toward a goal of alcohol one day being used only responsibly, in moderation.
The choice to sell alcohol on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation certainly is no cure-all. The people who voted for it know that. It is a declaration of independence, an acknowledgment of failed prohibition and an important tool for a more proactive future.