Pine Ridge Reservation Considers Legalizing Alcohol

By Chrisanne Grise 07/10/13

Proponents say regulating and taxing alcohol could help fund much-needed substance abuse prevention and treatment.

"Prohibition didn't work" Photo via

South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is now considering lifting its 100-year ban on alcohol sales and using the tax money to help fund substance abuse treatment and prevention. The reservation has long been plagued by alcoholism and related poverty and crime. As a new approach to the problem, the Oglala Sioux's tribal council voted in June to hold a public referendum on whether to legalize alcohol sales. Those in favor argue that alcohol is already widely accessible in nearby towns or from bootleggers, and regulating its sales could provide much-needed revenue for the reservation, which has an unemployment rate near 80% and a per-capita income of $7,890 in 2011. “I see it as a way to get revenue to support prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and education," says Robin Tapio, a tribe member who has been sober for 12 years. But opponents say legalization of alcohol would only bring more problems to the reservation. "To have such easy access to alcohol just opens the door to worse things," says Cordelia White Elk, director of a tribal employment office. "It's like saying, 'Let's kill our own people to save them.'"

Still, evidence suggests that opening casinos and other businesses can help boost reservations' economies, and nearby tribal leaders say drunk driving accidents decreased after their booze bans were lifted. "The alcohol is here and it's not going to go away," says Larry Eagle Bull, a council member who endorses the coming referendum. "Prohibition didn't work. If we legalize alcohol, the tribe will be sellers and we'll generate the money ourselves." Almost every household in Pine Ridge has at least one family member who abuses alcohol, and a quarter of children are born with alcohol-related disabilities. Currently, life expectancy on the reservation is estimated at 45 to 52 years. Ultimately, those in favor of lifting the ban believe it will improve overall quality of life. "It's not all about the money," says Tapio. "It's about trying to heal our people, and move in a new direction."

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices,,, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.