Jun 15, 2013 - The Great Experiment By Brandon Ecoffey

Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” -Alexis De Tocqueville

When the Oglala Sioux tribal council voted 9-7 to allow the people to decide whether or not alcohol should be legalized on the reservation, the Oglala Nation entered into the greatest experiment in the history of the tribal constitutional democratic process. 

For the first time in the history of the IRA government, the Oglala Lakota people will have the opportunity to decide both collectively, and as individuals, which direction their community and tribe will go moving forward. This epic policy decision, which will either open Pandora’s Box or unlock the gates to our mythical destination of economic self-sufficiency, is not in the hands of politicians this time; it is in the hands of the people.

Many questions arise. One of which is, “Will democracy actually work?” The modern constitutional democracy that is currently used on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a far stretch from the consensus based decision-making process that our people once used. The notion of one voice and one vote has been proven to be imperfect throughout history and when forced upon societies and cultures who have governed themselves in a different way for millennia, it has failed miserably. For evidence of this, one must simply look to Iraq and the over 1 million dead Iraqi citizens who the mainstream media have chosen to ignore. George Bush’s modern day experimentations in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan have undoubtedly failed- but then again, maybe more time is necessary for those countries to get the hang of the democratic process like reservations in the U.S. have, right? If alcohol is legalized, will those opposed to it respect the vote of those in favor and vice versa? That, I cannot answer.

Nonetheless, this system will ultimately be the mechanism used to determine if alcohol will be allowed to be legally consumed and distributed on the reservation.  How often have we heard complaints that the tribal council does not represent the people? Having grown up on the reservation I have heard that my entire life. So now that the keys to the decision-making machine have been handed over to the people, how will the people react?

The pressure from outside agitators on the ground and on social media sites will undoubtedly be immense, (for whatever reason, outside activist groups and news pundits enjoy making Pine Ridge their business), propaganda will fly, and feelings will be hurt. We are used to that. It is not a new occurrence. However, this is a decision for tribal members, who are more than capable of choosing for themselves.

If legalization is rejected, the status quo will remain, addiction will still be there, poverty rates will still be through the ceiling, and our dollars will continue to leave the reservation for markets where alcohol can be purchased. Prohibition of anything that is in high demand is an unenforceable and an untenable policy.

For example, the American drug war has been waged for the past forty years and has seen over 1 trillion dollars spent on the attempted eradication of illegal narcotics. During that time, drug use amongst individuals has remained stable while the number of nonviolent offenders incarcerated in state and federal prisons has skyrocketed, especially amongst minorities. Today, there are more people incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes combined in 1970. It is obvious prohibition does not benefit anyone unless you are the white establishment or a profiteer of incarceration. The economic power dynamics of the drug war are very much like those in place on our borders where non-Natives profit off of our people’s suffering. On the rez, 90% of the crimes are alcohol related, so do we expect that number to increase if we legalize it? Is that even possible?

On the other hand, one must ask the question, “Are we ready as individuals, as communities, and as a government to take this on?” If you ask many white South Dakotans, they will tell you that an Indian cannot handle his liquor. In reality, some Indians cannot handle their liquor and neither can some whites, blacks, and Asians. Let’s not take stereotypes created by outsiders and commit the moral crime of lateral oppression against our own people.  I know many people who have had access to drugs who have not become addicts. Some have even been responsible users. I also know many people who have hit rock bottom because of their addiction, I know firsthand because I was one of them. Addiction is an individual struggle that some of us are more susceptible to than others, plain and simple.

As a community, our law enforcement does the best job they could possibly do while operating on a budget and staff that is a fraction of what it should be, the same goes for IHS. To ask them to take on the enormous amount of work that will initially accompany legalization, without finding additional funding up front, is preposterous. Financial safeguards for these programs must be put in to place prior to legalization. If they are not, the financial inadequacies of these civil institutions will be magnified and the damage to our communities brought forth by unchecked legalization will be catastrophic. I, like many of you, have lost a best friend and countless family members to alcohol-related deaths during the prohibition. When these same tragedies occur after it is lifted do we abandon the voice of those who voted in favor of it?  

To paraphrase Alexis De Toqueville in his classic book Democracy in America, “the greatest threat to a constitutional democracy is the tyranny of the majority.” On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the greatest threat to democracy is the majority not going to the polls. Whichever way you do vote is irrelevant to me. I only hope that you do vote.  

 Brandon Ecoffey is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and is a lifelong resident of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Brandon earned his education at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH where he majored in Government and Native American Studies. He is currently the managing editor of Native Sun News Weekly and a contributor to LastRealIndians.com and can be reached at staffwriter2@nsweekly.com

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