Banning Beer on the Reservation? How Prohibition Harms the Alcohol-Addicted Oglala Sioux
For the second time in a year, the New York Times has covered the devastation of alcohol abuse on the Native American tribe of Oglala Sioux, as well as their efforts to prohibit alcohol consumption. On Sunday, Times columnist Nicolas Kristof painted a heartbreaking picture of the harms of alcohol in the Oglala Sioux community:
“Alcohol fuels stunning rates of domestic violence, suicide and crime on the reservation. I [Kristof] spoke to one family that first lost a father to cirrhosis, then a son, killed in a knife fight with his own cousin over a bottle of beer. A few weeks later, the dead man’s younger sister killed herself at age 16.”John Yellow Bird Steele, the tribe president is quoted in the piece, “Every person on this reservation has personally seen the negative effects of alcohol, with loved ones or themselves.”
While alcohol is illegal on the reservation, Whiteclay, a small town close to the reservation, sells incredible amounts of alcohol to the Oglala Sioux who visit the town for the sole purpose of buying the legal alcohol. Kristof rails against Anheuser-Busch for exploiting the Pine Ridge alcohol ban by selling beer to Whiteclay, and calls for a boycott on the company.
While Kristof’s column makes clear the horror alcohol abuse can cause, he fails to acknowledge that while alcohol prohibition is not only failing to stop drinking, it’s also producing other negative and harmful consequences. Despite the tribe’s best intentions, the Oglala Sioux bought four million cans of “forbidden” beer. Because alcohol is prohibited, the police are arresting people for possession of a single beer. The tribe says that more than 90 percent of arrests by the tribal police are alcohol-related, along with 90 percent of arrests of juveniles. So in addition to the problems of alcohol abuse, tribe members have to deal with arrests, incarceration and criminal records. Would the tragic killing between cousins over a can of beer have happened if alcohol was not illegal? We don’t know, but it is clear that the prohibition of alcohol didn’t prevent the killing.
One solution Kristof advocates is to expand the Pine Ridge land to take over Whiteclay so that the Oglala Sioux won’t be able to buy their alcohol from this neighboring town. But that “solution” would not stop drinking any more than the current prohibition – it would just mean driving farther to another town to purchase beer, increasing the risk of drinking and driving.
As terrible as alcohol and other drugs are for some people, prohibition is not the answer. It didn’t work in the United States in the 1920s and it is not working for the Sioux people today. Education, substance abuse prevention, and jobs will have better success than prohibition and the illicit market that will inevitably spring up to meet the demand.