"Few places in America are as scarred as Pine Ridge, a sunburnt expanse of sand hills and buttes that crumble into the Badlands.
The Oglala band of the Lakota nation, known to outsiders as the Sioux, live today in some of the nation’s worst poverty conditions. The Pine Ridge prairie landscape is scattered with junk cars, rotting trailers and graffiti-laced, 1970s-era federal housing. Beat-up vans rumble down bumpy roads, past sickly dogs and toddlers in the street.
Unemployment hovers around 80 percent, according to tribal census figures, and one-third of those with jobs live below the federal poverty line. Teenagers commit suicide at a rate nearly twice the national average. Life expectancy is lowest in the northern hemisphere, except for Haiti. One in three women have been raped.
Police blame alcohol for many of the problems, but the debate has raged on Pine Ridge for years. Advocates who want to legalize alcohol say the tribal ban buries police in simple possession cases and creates a forbidden allure that encourages binge drinking. Others say lifting the ban would worsen the tribe’s long, ugly struggle with alcohol.
Tribal council candidate Denver American Horse says he will push for a ballot measure if elected in November.
“I’ve always had a lot of faith and confidence in the tribal members,” says American Horse, who stopped drinking 22 years ago. “I feel they can handle alcohol if it’s legalized.”
Alcohol possession arrests inundate the short-staffed, high-turnover tribal police department. The current certified force of 42 would need to at least double before the department could serve all of the reservation’s needs, says Oglala Sioux Public Safety Director Everett Little Whiteman. The alcohol ban is “not working, and has never worked,” Little Whiteman says.
Ninety percent of the 25,000 adult trials and arraignments scheduled next year in tribal court are alcohol-related, and juvenile crime is expected to generate an additional 10,000 cases, says Marwin Smith, the reservation’s attorney general."
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On the Bootleggers’ Trail in Indian Country
(The Crime Report 10/11)