Lakota Leaders Win the Battle Against 'Liquid Genocide'

The horse riders arrived at the Oglala Lakota tribal headquarters from the near and far corners of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They were bundled against rain, cold and cutting winds. Obviously, this was no joy ride. Not at first—the joy came later.


The members of the Horse Spirit Society, a Pine Ridge non-profit dedicated to teaching and practicing Lakota traditions, along with their supporters, stood outside tribal headquarters to oppose a referendum on allowing alcohol on the reservation. The vote set for Tuesday was the second in three years, after the first, which barely passed, was tossed for wording that was non-legally binding.

This time, those opposed knew what to do. One after another, the grassroots activists—warriors, here—reminded the tribal president and council members standing in front of their horses that their ancestors had fought to the death against the ways of the Europeans, who introduced them to alcohol.

“Remember who we are, how we get here, the blood that we shed,” said Verdell "Jake" Yellow Horse, gesturing toward a rider carrying an enormous American flag. Everyone knew what Yellow Horse meant: the defeat of Gen. George Custer at Little Big Horn, the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, and other massacres and defeats.

Percy White Plume, who founded the Horse Spirit Society, put it more succinctly. If alcohol comes to Pine Ridge, he said, “Then we go to war.”

Long at odds with the tribal government, the activists did not expect what happened after a judge refused an injunction to stop the vote. The horses were in their trailers, the marchers heading back to their corners, when word came from tribal headquarters: The council had scrapped the election. Alcohol on Pine Ridge was off the table for good. At least for now.

“I’m against it too,” said John Yellow Bird Steele, the tribal president, addressing the protesters. “It’s not good for us, not good for our children.”

It was a glorious moment for the warriors striving for a return to pre-Indian Wars ways. Pine Ridge, as Sen. Bernie Sanders pointed out in a campaign stop last week, is one of the poorest reservations in the country. But the tribe of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Black Elk is also one of the proudest. Stories that keep trotting out the tribe’s extreme poverty almost always miss the transformative power of the tribe’s cultural revival. Over the last 15 years, a movement to return to Lakota’s spiritual and cultural traditions has regained momentum. Lakota language studies and culture are taught in schools and camps. Sweat lodges, sundances and other spiritual practices are proliferating. More Lakota are giving their children Lakota names. More men and boys are growing their hair long. Respect for Mother Earth is the given.

But alcohol is the scourge of Pine Ridge (pop.: between 25,000-40,000), as it is across Indian country. Alcoholism, affecting every family on Pine Ridge, is blamed for most of its problems. Car accidents, domestic violence, diabetes, depression and early death from all of the above, not to mention suicide, are traced to those demonized by firewater.

Most of the alcohol comes from an unincorporated border town, Whiteclay, Nebraska (pop.: 10) whose four package stores sell the equivalent of 13,000 cans of beer a day, virtually all of it to Oglalas.

The debate over legalizing alcohol has brewed for years, in part because the non-native White Clay businesses are reaping all the money while Pine Ridge suffers all the consequences. But alcohol is legal on South Dakota’s eight other reservations and they too are in dire straits, with the same load of problems as Pine Ridge and little money to show for the sales. It turns out that their many of their members go to their old, off-reservation haunts to buy their booze.

The referendum would have made it legal for only the tribal government to sell alcohol. Steele said tax revenues gained from sales, an estimated $350,000 a year, would be used exclusively for alcoholism treatment. That argument, given the conditions on the neighboring reservations, failed to sway the warriors.

“We call alcohol liquid genocide,” said Olowan Sara Martinez. She carried a placard on Monday that said: “What Would Crazy Horse Do?”

Martinez knows too well that keeping alcohol illegal won’t stop people from walking half a mile from Pine Ridge to White Clay. Once, she did the same. Now a fervent warrior who has led several protests against White Clay, Martinez said canceling the vote was about standing up for being Oglala Lakota.

“Trying to vote it into our homelands, to me that’s a big no-no,” she said. “That’s disrespecting our ancestors and the grandfathers of the universe.”

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