Prohibition Doesn’t Work
I have always been astonished by the sheer amount of alcohol that is sold in the town that is located right on Pine Ridge’’s southern border just outside of Pine Ridge village. For those of you who have never been there the only proper way to describe it is to compare it to places like Skid Row, or like a concentration of crack houses with a never ending supply of customers.
It is estimated that roughly 4.5 million cans of beer are sold there annually. That breaks down to about 12,000 cans of beer for each person living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Any argument that claims that some a significant amount of these sales do not end up on the reservation is non-sensical, as any Nebraska resident could purchase alcohol within the confines of their own town.
Alcohol has always been illegal on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This fact is well-known by reservation residents and beer distributors in Whiteclay. The social ills that accompany alcohol use on the reservation are also universally recognized as alcoholism and poverty continue to define the existence of far too many of our people.
Whiteclay has historically been a symbol of the federal government’s failures to uphold its trust responsibility to tribal-nations. The irony of the entire Whiteclay issue is that the land that it sits on should ultimately be under the jurisdiction of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
According to the backers of the film The Battle for Whiteclay, it was in 1882 that U.S. President Chester A. Arthur created a fifty-square mile buffer zone in Nebraska. This land sat south of and adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation was established at the urging of the U.S. Indian Agent and Oglala Lakota elders who stated that they needed help shielding themselves from frontiersman who were selling them whiskey.
Sale and possession of alcoholic beverages on the Pine Ridge is prohibited under tribal law. Except for a brief experiment with on reservation liquor sales in the early 1970s, this prohibition has been in effect since the reservation lands were first created.
Congress would act again in 1889, and again in 1890, to solidify this small barrier of land as part of the reservation until it was no longer needed. In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt by executive order placed 49 of the 50 square miles of the White Clay Extension into the public domain despite pleas from both white and Natives in the area who felt the buffer zone was still necessary. Of course, this area is also part of lands set aside for our people by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
The more poignant issues that we must consider is the inability of prohibition to stop the flow of alcohol from Nebraska on to the reservation. The strict law against possession and sale of alcohol is exactly the reason why it has become so profitable for a group of white businessmen to sell thus poison to an addicted population. There is simply no other place for people to purchase it.
If Whiteclay closes there is a high likelihood that two things will happen; Our people will travel even farther to buy alcohol; The profits of bootleggers will sky-rocket. These simple truths are something that must be taken into consideration by tribal government. The closure of Whiteclay in no way means that addiction rates will suddenly fall off the table.
History has shown that prohibition simply does not work. It didn’t work during the early Reservation era, nor did it work yesterday or today.
*Brandon Ecoffey is the editor of LCT and is an award-winning journalist who was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.