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Oglala Sioux Chairman Discusses Sale of Alcohol on Reservation

As Indian Country Today Media Network reported in mid-October, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s (OST) Law and Order Committee has proposed legalizing the sale, possession and consumption of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The goal, to stop the millions of dollars from leaving the reservation and into the hands of alcohol-selling establishments in White Clay, Nebraska – is just one reason why James “Toby” Big Boy, chairman of the Oglala Sioux’s Law and Order Committee, says alcohol needs to be allowed.

In an interview with ICTMN, Big Boy said the ordinance is going up for a council vote on November 27. The chairs from all nine districts will vote on whether they want to allow sales of alcohol.

Big Boy says he suspects the measure will pass and the Pine Ridge Reservation could be selling alcohol within 9-12 months. Though former President John Yellow Bird Steele formerly expressed non-support toward the measure, Big Boy said he suspects the newly elected Pine Ridge President Bryan Brewer will support the desires of the tribal people and will approve the ordinance.

In the interview, Big Boy explained why he felt the measure would be a positive thing for the tribe, how the revenue could help OST youth and why it is sometimes necessary in life to “fight fire with fire.”

Do you expect this measure to pass?

This is sitting right on the Council's vote. My gut feeling right now is that this measure is going to pass.

Alcohol causes many problems, what is your response to allowing it to be sold?

The way I feel, we as a tribe we understand the cultural meanings behind this, but you've got to understand the advantages to this. Today, White Clay is taking advantage of our people. To benefit our people we need to regain that revenue for ourselves.

Who would sell the alcohol?

The tribe would sell the alcohol. We would have three locations at the Eagle Nest District, Medicine Root and Pine Ridge. It would be regulated by a tribal alcohol commission which would be created by the Tribal Council.

Let's say that revenue is $6 million. But that is before sales tax, I expect it to be a lot more. The first priority on what to do with these proceeds is to help our youth. Programs such as after school, recreation and educational prevention are what we will focus on.

Our second priority is proper district allocation. We are getting a drastic cut in energy assistance in 2013. Due to our high unemployment on the reservation a lot of our tribal members are unable to pay for their energy. This additional allocation will help them.

Right now, as we speak my phone is ringing and it is probably one of our tribal members that have had their lights shut off. There is nothing I can do. This is tough. This is tough for our legislators because we sometimes spend our entire payroll checks to pay the light bills.

What do you expect the response to be from the tribe?

We expect some anger, and that is understandable. But sometimes you have to choose the lesser of two evils. I expect this to be about nine to 12 months down the road, the scope of this plan is set and ready to go – the establishments are proposed.

Will any of the proceeds go toward the treatment of alcoholism within the tribe?

We brought this up in the creation of this ordinance, but we withdrew because we already have treatment centers on the reservation. Another aspect of the revenue collected will go towards law enforcement – we want to hire more police officers.

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Do you believe the accessibility of alcohol on the reservation will cause alcoholism statistics to rise?

We believe it will stay the same. It has been here and always will be here.

What do you say in response to “since public intoxication is illegal” arresting these individuals is a large drain on police force resources?

You can get arrested here for having an open container and get booked into the jail. Then you are released with a court date and you have to come back for that court date. If you remove this from the system – that is a lot of time and effort taken away.

It is a big difference in crime than say, a violent act. This is less of a strain on our police force.

Are there going to be any limits on how much you can buy, liquor sales or drinking establishments?

This will be regulated by the commission, so yes there will be limits. Some guy can't come in and buy 12 cases, keeping in mind trying to sell it elsewhere. This will only be for beer sales. We won't be selling any hard stuff. No, we will not have any places to drink. We will be able to serve beer at our casinos.

Rosebud legalized alcohol and it has been a success. They now have a huge, nice grocery store which they built off the revenue of alcohol. The alcohol sales at their casino are controlled in a pleasant and social environment. The folks here at the Prairie Wind Casino agree with me, they just aren't making it. I believe selling alcohol would help to increase the revenue. Other tribal casinos that serve alcohol have tremendous revenues.

I do foresee us selling liquor drinks into the future.

Is this an issue of self-determination?

Yes this is an issue of self-determination because this is an ordinance that would give us the ability to self-sustain. One of the questions we are always asked is when are we going to be a self-sustained tribe? This is one way right here. We will not have to rely on handouts from the government.

Do you think because alcohol will be allowed, it will be less desirable?

This topic has been talked about and when you think about things like aftercare and AA meetings and about the stories that are told – we realize it probably would have been much better if we would've allowed people to just buy the alcohol instead of letting people go on long drives in automobiles. It's about 30 or 40 miles for some people. If it's more accessible it could be a lot less dangerous.

As a mature adult I can tell you that we have left our youth behind. There is no hope for them. When the school bell rings and they're out of school, some go to sports like football or basketball, but the majority of them go back into the cluster housing area with nothing, nothing, nothing to do.

What do you think will happen to White Clay if this ordinance passes?

One or two of the establishments will close, one of them might stay open – people will still buy it from them. But there will be a nice big dent into them. We don't need to go over there and burn it down, we just need to shut it down.

This is the 21st century and we need to move forward. My whole moral statement on this is, a big part of this is for our youth, they need to come out of school and we got to have something there for them to prevent them from committing suicide and prevent them from doing drugs and getting into gangs and help them in avoiding gang violence. It is up to us as legislators and parents to step up. A lot of parents see problems but don't step in.