South Dakota tribal members to vote on alcohol ban

By KRISTI EATON
Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) _ A Native American tribe that has long battled the devastating effects of alcoholism is planning to ask its tribal members whether it should legalize alcohol on its South Dakota reservation.

The Oglala Sioux tribal council voted 9-7 Tuesday to bring the question of legalizing alcohol on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to a public vote.

"I'm just really frightened for our children and our elders,'' said tribal council member Danielle Labeau, who voted no to bringing the issue to a public vote. "No amount of money can pay for the damages done to our babies, our children. When it comes to alcohol, when people are under the influence, they make horrible decisions. Not a million, billion dollars can ever undue the bad decisions people make when they are under the influence.''

Federal law bans the sale of alcohol on Indian reservations unless the tribal council allows it. Alcohol was legalized on the reservation for two months in 1970, but the ban was restored two months later. An attempt to allow it in 2004 died after an outcry.

A date for the vote has not been set, but Labeau said she anticipates it taking place in about six months.

Alcoholism is rampant on the reservation and is often identified as the culprit for the high rates of suicide, violence, infant mortality and unemployment among tribal members on the impoverished reservation. People sneak in beer and liquor from nearby border towns such as Whiteclay, Neb. A lawsuit the tribe brought last year against four beer sellers in Whiteclay and some of the nation's biggest breweries was ultimately dismissed. The tribe alleges that the businesses were profiting from the alcoholism on the reservation.

The question of legalizing alcohol for revenue for the tribe has caused deep division among tribal members. Tribal council member Lydia Bear Killer is opposed to alcohol, but it is already present on the dry reservation, so the tribe should focus on making revenue from it, she said.

"These off-reservation establishments are getting rich, and we're dealing with the social crisis,'' she said. "We need safe houses, we need detox centers. They're selling to us and we're making them rich and a penny of it doesn't come back to us.''

If tribal members decide to lift the ban, the Oglala Sioux Tribe would regulate and operate the alcohol sales, Bear Killer said.

The tribe could see as much as $10 million a year in revenue from the sales, she said.

But profiting off of tribal members _ even if it's to provide treatment _ is disgraceful, said Olowan Sara Martinez, an activist who regularly holds protests in Whiteclay.

"I think they are a bunch of cannibals who want to live off the misery of their own people,'' she said of the tribal council members who supported the public vote. She added that she is certain tribal members will vote against allowing alcohol.

A message left with Oglala Sioux President Bryan Brewer was not immediately returned. He has said in the past that he opposes legalizing alcohol on the reservation.

The tribe also recently voted to create ports of entry at every reservation entry point to try to decrease the amount of alcohol coming on to the reservation.

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