Despite public vote to legalize alcohol, Pine Ridge is still dry – Rapid City Journal

It was a vote that drew national attention, and some local outrage: a referendum to legalize alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation last year had passed.

In an historic vote in August, Oglala Lakota tribal members voted by a margin of 52 to 48 percent to end an alcohol ban that had existed for almost the entirety of their reservation’s 124-year history. Pine Ridge had long remained one of the last dry reservations in the country.

But nine months after that public vote — and amid continued division within the tribal council about the morality of alcohol consumption, and a cautious approach to implementation of alcohol sales and revenue dispersion — the reservation remains dry.

In order for alcohol to be legally sold and consumed on the reservation south of Rapid City, the council needs to pass a key resolution: the Alcoholic Beverage Code. A draft of that code was made public before the August referendum, outlining the formation of an alcohol commission, listing what hours alcohol could legally be sold, and providing other regulatory details.

But council members on the tribe’s Law and Order Committee, charged with fine-tuning the code before it goes to a vote of the full council, have made little headway since the referendum.

“There was several attempts to work on the plan to sell alcohol on the reservation, but there have been no formal actions,” said Ellen Fillspipe, secretary of the tribe’s Law and Order Committee.

Garfield Steele, a council member for the Wounded Knee District and a member of the committee, said that is partly because he and other council members who oppose legalization see little reason to make the code a priority.

“I’m pretty much staying away from the issue because I don’t support it,” he said.

Steele estimated that about seven of the tribe’s 19 council members oppose legalization. The leader of the tribe’s executive branch, President Bryan Brewer, is also an outspoken opponent.

Compounding matters is a legal challenge against the validity of the August referendum that was filed by alcohol opponents in January, and hasn’t yet been upheld or dismissed, according to Toni Red Cloud, a tribal spokeswoman.

Steele and other opponents are skeptical that the results of the August referendum reflected the true opinion of tribal members.

“In our opinion it wasn’t fair because usually there’s 22 precincts, 22 polling places, when we have elections, but that time there was only nine open,” he said. “And there was some communities that didn’t have access to a poll and didn’t have rides.”

But most pro-legalization council members do not view the challenge as a serious threat to legalization.

Regardless, council members who support legalization concede that they have been slow to push legalization forward in the council chamber.

Larry Eagle Bull, a council member for the Pine Ridge District, said he and other supporters are treading cautiously because they don’t want to create a haphazard regulatory framework.

“This is brand new to us,” he said. “We don’t want to start off on the wrong foot.”

Eagle Bull said pro-legalization council members generally agree that the tribe should own and operate its own liquor stores rather than issue alcohol licenses to private commercial retailers. However, other questions remain.

He said the council still doesn’t have a good feel for how much money is needed to set up those stores and how sales revenue would be used to build and sustain a proposed alcohol treatment center, a key promise made by legalization supporters in the run-up to the referendum.

“How do we get started?” Eagle Bull said. “Who do we have to have involved? And how do we keep it sustainable once we get off the ground?”

Legal issues could arise eventually if the council continues to delay the implementation of alcohol legalization.

Francis Pumpkin Seed, chairman of the tribe’s election committee, said the tribe’s constitution obligates the council to change the law to reflect the results of a referendum as quickly as possible.

Hypothetically, he said, a tribal member could file a legal challenge at any time against the council for failing to uphold the constitution.

Pumpkin Seed said he personally believed the council should move swiftly to implement legalization. Since the referendum, he said, some tribal members remain perplexed about the legal status of alcohol.

“It’s created a lot of confusion all the way since then until now,” he said. “It just needs to be cleared up.”

In the interim, some supporters of legalization are becoming increasingly irritated by the hold-up.

Tom Clifford, a tribal attorney, said that the sooner the tribe legalizes alcohol the sooner it can use the revenue from alcohol sales to treat alcoholism on the reservation.

With rampant bootlegging and public intoxication already rampant, Clifford said opponents of legalization are deluding themselves that prohibition is working or had ever worked on Pine Ridge.

According to the Oglala Sioux Department of Public Safety, tribal police arrest about 650 to 700 people each month for alcohol-related offenses. About 85 to 90 percent of all arrests on the reservation are alcohol- or drug-related. 

“The only time we are dry is when there’s a drought,” Clifford said.

But in particular, Clifford added, he was disappointed in those council members who supported legalization but have made little headway on its implementation. He had spoken to many of those council members himself.

“They said well ‘we got to do this and do that’,” Clifford said. “And I said, ‘if you don’t know what you’re doing, resign’.”

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