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Pine Ridge Sun Dance Dilemma: Affordable Food or Affordable Booze

If you missed Part 1, click here.

The sharpened sticks were carved from the shinbone of a buffalo to ensure that they will not break during the piercing ceremony. Men have performed this ritual for centuries to create a metaphoric balance with the women. Because women have pain in birth, the men must endure pain with the tree. Two small incisions are made on the chest or back and the sticks are threaded through the wound. Some dancers opt to forgo the incisions and have the sticks pushed through their flesh, an inch or so deep. The pain does not register on a dancer’s face, even after a rope is tied to the two sticks protruding from his chest, and then anchored to the tree. Through prayer and great concentration the dancer—without the use of his hands—leans back on the rope until his flesh gives way and he tears free. The women trill and the men whoop as the dancer returns to his place around the circle.

A man is pierced in his back, and his rope is tied to seven buffalo skulls, which he pulls around the arena. With great effort he breaks free at the end of his cycle. Just then a young man with his back pierced is pulled halfway up the tree by a rope; he breaks free and falls several feet to the ground. He staggers to his knees, pauses, then gets up and with an unconcerned limp runs back to his place along the line.

The tree shudders with each painful sacrifice, and blood dries on the ground as the people dance on.


The proposed Oglala Sioux Tribe Alcoholic Beverage Code is designed to appease the masses ( On page 13 of the 14-page document, under the "Profits" heading, you find that the tribe promises that all profits from this venture would be used for just four things. The first will be two full-service detoxification centers that will be built on the eastern and western ends of Pine Ridge.

Courtesy Darla Antoine

Darla Antoine on a recent visit to Washington State

The second is to design programs to provide treatment, counseling and related services to individuals and families on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation suffering the negative consequences of substance abuse. The third is to create programs to benefit Oglala youth. And last but not least, there are to be District allocations.

The BIA projects the revenue derived from liquor sales at $10 million annually. All that money made from selling alcohol would be used for some sort of suicidal business plan, where success would also rid the business of its customers and revenue.


There is a fork 10 feet up the Sun Dance tree, with one branch pointing north and the other pointing south. The north is the province of man, and the south that of the Buffalo People, our former renewable resource. The two-prong fork also is a metaphor of choice and the duality of man. In all Lakota philosophy there are always opposites, but they are not in opposition. Men or women, up or down, yes or no. This is also, of course, how we live our lives, by making choices both good and bad.

The tree at the center of the Sun Dance ceremony was in a sense sacrificed for this ceremony when it was cut down and placed here. It represents both life and death, a beginning and an end. Likewise, the Sun Dancer sacrifices blood, food and water for the good health and spiritual nourishment of the people.


Proponents of the referendum say alcohol is here already, and we are being hypocritical when we claim to be a dry reservation. Others argue that hundreds of people will die from alcohol abuse if it is allowed onto the reservation, but hundreds are dying now from it, so it seems prohibition does not work.

Opponents argue that pouring the proverbial gasoline on the fire will certainly help the alcoholic to an early grave, but the drunk will not go down easy. The real victims of this plan will not be the alcoholics who made the choice to drink; the real victims will be the children born into that world. Those who oppose the referendum want the tribe to enforce laws already on the books by banishing the drunks, sexual offenders, law-breakers and making our streets safe. “Many lives will be lost and the blood will be on the councils’ hands” a distraught opponent laments. “We are poor in money and this will just make us poor in spirit.”


There is a lot of excitement as the Sun Dancers leave the arena on the fourth and final day. One more Inipi, then the dancers are free to drink, eat and wash their bodies. One more Inipi of purifying steam that softens the brittle, clotted wounds and moistens the matted hair.

As the cool air rushes to embrace them, the dancers emerge from the womb and are now back among the living. Laughter erupts as relatives rush forward with ice cold drinks, bits of food and loving embraces.

Another year, another pledge fulfilled, and life is good once again.


When armchair quarterbacks look at the challenges faced by the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation they claim that untapped millions lurk in strip-mining, fracking and casinos. But these solutions are not viable; there are no minerals to strip, no oil to frack. Though we do have two casinos (both in the middle of nowhere), they barely generate enough revenue to cover operations and are mostly patronized by tribal members. There is rumor of a plan to offer smaller gaming venues in the districts, but casinos don’t attract new money, they just reallocate existing financial resources that should be spent on clothing, shelter or food. So it seems that if alcohol is sold here as well, many people will enter a vicious cycle of gambling and alcoholism. A desperate future.


The four-day ceremony has ended, but the Sun Dancers are not done just yet. They all must return in four days to attend a special Inipi service and call their souls back from the spirit world. The mind

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Courtesy Darla Antoine

Darla Antoine on a recent visit to Washington State

of the dancers are still reeling from the experience as the real world slowly creeps back in and they become aware that there are really two worlds--a world that will last forever, and this world, that is doomed to die. The Oglala Lakota are, like many tribes in the Americas, trying to find our place in this modern society. We struggle with poverty in the shadow of our denied inheritance. Rumors of our past societies are relegated to the anthropologist’s library, where we search for clues our ancestors may have left for us. This search will eventually lead back to the beginning, back to basics and back to traditional language and our religion.


Pine Ridge is a place where distance is a factor in almost all transactions. A simple visit to the doctor can mean a 120-plus mile round trip, and going 100 miles to save money on groceries is negated by the rising cost of gasoline, and if it snows… forget it. There is something very wrong with the notion that the tribal government is acting in the best interests of the people when it decides to sell alcohol at bargain prices on the reservation while people can’t buy a pound of hamburger in their home districts.

Diabetes is a plague most Indians have come to accept as a fact of their lives. Being overweight strains the body and as we age those strains develop into serious health problems that strain the budget of the Indian Health Service. Poor diets and the high cost of healthy food are problems everyone faces. Our tribal members need healthy, affordable food, and the tribal government should be looking at this as the perfect profitable venture. Millions of dollars are spent on alcohol, but millions more are spent off-reservation on food. Whiteclay’s Arrowhead Foods did more than $1 million in business without ever selling a drop of alcohol. The tribe could open small grocery stores that offered affordable, locally grown vegetables, fowl, beef and buffalo. If the stores were portable, on truck beds, the poor would be able to feed their families with just a short walk down their street. That would certainly spur the local economy, while alcohol sales will only benefit the rich. So if there is a war cry on Pine Ridge it should be “Affordable food, not affordable booze.”

It seems the council has forgotten the poor, even as they drive past them each day on their way to work. The bureaucrats need to reflect on their lives and remember what it was like to be hungry and what it felt like to lose a loved one to alcohol.


The Sun Dance described here is unique, in that it is practiced in a form directly related to the Sun Dance chief’s personal vision. But there are many Sun Dances held on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—some say 40 or more—and they are all unique in their form of celebration. To be Lakota is to be religious. Not all Lakota people are Sun Dancers—we are of all the religions of the world.

Similarly not all Oglalas abuse alcohol; there are many on the Pine Ridge working hard toward a better future.

I’m neither a holy man nor a leader in my tribe, nor do I aspire to such lofty roles. I’m Ikce Wicasa, 'a common man', and I can only do what is right for me. I know that Oglala is translated to mean "to scatter their own," and that basically sums up our philosophical political mantra. If a group within the tribe didn't like what was going on with one band they just left and went to a different band.

After a couple of thousands of years of this political osmosis you end up with a tribe has a headstrong mindset, with many shared political views that are by nature radical.

Many years ago our ancestors were forced onto a tiny parcel of land called the Pine Ridge Reservation in hopes of surviving in this new hostile Eurocentric society. One of the many decisions our ancestors made about saving the future generations of Oglalas was to not allow alcohol to be sold within our borders. Maybe they could see a future for our people that we can't or won't see for ourselves. It was a radical decision in the land of the free.


I find it intriguing that all people in power on both sides of this debate say the same thing: 'If the referendum passes it will happen because the youth want alcohol, and they out-number the older generation at the polls.’

Whether you believe that the youth want alcohol is not the point—what is fascinating is that the youth have the power at the polls and the tribal government fears them. That means our youth have the power to change their world, but they just don't know it. They are the ones who grew up in a world of alcohol abuse, so they know first-hand the nightmares and death associated with that lifestyle.

Regardless of how the vote goes on this referendum, the youth need to remember that they will have to raise their children in a world they helped build. If the youth of Pine Ridge were to unite in a common goal, they could change the very foundations of our world. They have the tools of the computer age, in which social media could play a powerful role, just like what is happening all over the world. What Pine Ridge really needs is a "Lakota Spring."

Our world is a Sun Dance of hunger and thirst, so it should be fitting that we sacrifice as well. If we, as individual tribal members, made just one sacrifice for the good of our people, to quit drinking alcohol, then all the Whiteclays of our world would go away. We could then pick ourselves up and build something from these ruins, something our great-grandchildren could be proud of.

Ironically, this referendum is coming on the start of a new moon, the beginning of the Lakota calendar. We will either remember this year as our turning point, or our downfall. We, the people of Pine Ridge, do not all worship or communicate with our creator in the same way, but the one thing we do share is this: at some point in our lives we were all hungry and we all had our hearts broken by alcohol.

Mitakuye oyasin for all my relatives in this world and the next. For more on the election process, click here.

Council representatives voting in favor of the referendum included Lydia Bear Killer, Craig Dillon, Barbara Dull Knife, Larry Eagle Bull, Paul Little, Stanley Little White Man, Irv Provost, Robin Tapio and Kevin Yellow Bird Steele;

Those opposing the referendum included James Cross, Charles Cummings, Dani LeBeau, Dan Rodriguez, Jacqui Siers, Garfield Steele and Bernie Shot With Arrow, with Jim Meeks not voting.

Contact your representative today, here.

Marty Two Bulls Sr. is an Oglala Lakota, and member of the Pine Ridge Sioux Tribe. His father is the Rev. Robert Two Bulls, his grandfather was the late Peter Two Bulls Sr. and his mother was the late Delores LaBelle Ten Fingers-Two Bulls.