The liquor merchants in Nebraska won the last election on prohibition

American Indians, Featured — By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji) on July 12, 2010 at 9:21 am

Notes from Indian Country

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)

© 2010 Native Sun News

Prohibition doesn’t work!

It lasted 13 years in America and gave life to nationally syndicated crime, the income tax and opposition by the United States Brewers’ Association to Women’s Suffrage: the right for women to vote.

All of this is detailed in a new book by Daniel Okrent; “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” The book, according to columnist George Will, “recounts how Americans abolished a widely exercised private right – and condemned the nation’s fifth largest industry – in order to make the nation more Heavenly. Then all hell broke loose.”

Prohibition was introduced and imposed on Indian reservations for several reasons. First, unscrupulous traders and agents used alcohol to induce Indians to sell furs and other goods at ridiculously low prices and caused Indians to sign away large tracts of lands, lands that in all probability did not belong to them or their tribe. It was as if the government found an Indian, poured alcohol down his gullet, and  said, “Here’s a treaty for land: just put your mark on it.” There was also great fear among  settlers that their enemies, in those days the French or British, would ply Indians with alcohol and turn them loose on settlers. This did happen occasionally.

In other words, the imposition of prohibition in Indian country was hatched in the minds of white settlers and Christian missionaries who, strangely enough, were allowed to use wine during church services in the midst of national Prohibition, even though it was otherwise banned across America.

Prohibition has been in place on most Indian reservations, particularly in the Great Plains, since the founding of the United States. Indian reservations, including some of the largest, Navajo Nation and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, have some of the highest statistics of alcoholism per capita compared to any other city or community in America. If alcohol is forbidden on these reservations, then why is there rampant alcoholism present there?

There are two answers to that question: bootleggers and bordertowns. It sounds like the title for a book, doesn’t it? There are those who say that Indians have a genetic code that causes them to be addicted to alcohol. When something is addicting, but forbidden, the users and abusers will find a way to get it. A word like prohibition will not stop them. Alcohol is as addictive as cocaine, and yet it can be purchased legally in border towns and illegally all over the reservations from bootleggers.

There isn’t room in this column to speak about the multitude of problems that alcohol has brought to lives of the Indian people living on dry reservations. The prisons and jails in Indian country are filled with Native Americans who committed crimes while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Murders, rapes, robberies, suicide, spousal and child abuse and joblessness are just a few of the terrible things that happen to Indian men and women because of their addiction.

Perhaps it is too late in her administration to do it now, but Oglala Sioux Tribal President, Theresa Two Bulls, and her council should start an investigation into the possibilities of legalizing alcohol. At least the tribe would have had some control over the dispensing of alcohol and benefit from profits. With income from the sale of liquor, new and effective alcohol and drug addiction programs could be started and income could improve life on the reservation.

The sale of alcohol should not necessarily be legalized, however, a comprehensive study should be made addressing pros and cons. When a referendum was held several years ago, large sums of money raised to fight against legalizing alcohol sales on Pine Ridge came from, of all people, the liquor merchants from Whiteclay, Rushville and Gordon, Neb.

Tribal council representatives were bought off right and left, or so it is said. The liquor merchants of Nebraska prevailed and it was they, with all of their bribes, who decided to keep liquor outlawed on Pine Ridge Reservation. They did not want the competition or the loss of the millions they make every year selling alcohol to residents of Pine Ridge. Liquor in and of itself is not evil; but it is the abuse of alcohol that presents problems. Many years ago, an alcohol counselor from Pine Ridge said much the same thing about alcohol. He said, “No one put a gun to my head and told me to drink that beer or they’d shoot me.” Clearly the choice was his to make.

Our choices are not always the right ones, prohibition or not. But, the idea of legalizing the sale of alcohol on dry reservations deserves a sound and thorough study.

It is time this Council or the next Council took a serious look at prohibition.

Prohibition doesn’t work!

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is publisher of the weekly Native Sun News. He was the first Native American inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame and was the founder of the Native American Journalists Association and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1990. He can be reached at [email protected])

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Author: Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji) (24 Articles)

Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. His latest book, “Children Left Behind” is available through [email protected].

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