The Prohibition Debate: Myths and Realities

If you haven’t read your Oglala relative or friend’s recent Facebook status update about the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s consideration to put up for referendum its longstanding prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol, you may be out of the loop. Or, like myself, you may have simply overlooked yet another “alcohol story” coming out of Pine Ridge–until of course a relative asks your opinion. My answer: I do not care if people drink or not. What I do care about is how we perceive alcohol abuse and the realities young people face in spite of prohibition.


Before I go into this essay, I do not mean to make light of the effects of alcoholism and the material realities many Native peoples and communities face. With respect to those concerns, I would also like to remind the reader that mythologizing alcohol and alcoholism is two-fold. First, we’ve all heard the statement that alcoholism is a disease. True. Second, we’ve all heard that Indians are more succeptible to alcoholism. True/False. Biologically, there is nothing encoded within anyone’s DNA that makes them more likely to become anything more than a human being. Socio-economic factors are large contributers to alcoholism, poverty, suicide, violence, etc.

Let’s take this second factor into historical consideration. A common myth settler colonial narratives perpetrate about Native peoples of North America is that upon contact some divine force intervened and de-populated the land for settlement–thus, clearing the land of people and morally relinquishing settler populations from doing the dirty work of physical elimination. In contemporary academic debates, such as evidenced in Jared Diamond’s New York Times Bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, biological determinants factored heavily in the depopulation of the Americas because Native peoples–because of isolation–did not have inherent biological immunities from European-introduced diseases. Yes, that was true in some instances and very catastrophic for many. But that was not the sole cause for the rapid and systematic depopulation. What is not accounted for is the human factor–that of the actual violence of conquest.

The point is that although biological factors in the forms of diseases did contribute to the mass deaths of Native populations, it was by no means the sole cause nor the main factor in elimination. Early Indian wars of attrition and subsequent policies of biological (blood quantum) and political elimination contributed greatly to depopulation. Coming to terms with these violent histories means abandoning the disease and biological inferiority paradigms of Native depopulation. That also means that alcoholism needs to be re-examined as not a biological (disease) phenomon among Native peoples, but one that coincides with settler colonialism. We too often readily accept the clinical diagnoses of diseases and biological inferiorities as the root causes for the rampant destruction of our kinship structures and the unmaking of our Nations. Attributing the escalating phsyical decimation of any notion of a sustainable relationship to the environment with biological or “natural” imperatives of human greed and avarice follows this same logic. Somehow people are inherently violent or determined to be violent when it comes to competition and capitalism, so the thinking goes. This is also a form of determinism that humans are somehow genetically wired to destroy their environmnent and oppress perceived inferior groups.


Perhaps the opposite is true: capitalism via settler colonialism creates the drive for the destruction of Native kinship and the unmaking of our Nations. Most of the debate centers the economic viability of alcohol sales as being a way to fund social service programs and preventative care. But when has alcohol legalization made any tribe economically self-sufficient or prosperous? The legalization of alcohol cannot cannot become an economic panacea.

Instead of working through the pros and cons of prohibition, perhaps we should be asking Native young peoples what they think about their communities. Too often do we as young people inherit the problems created by previous generations. Too often will you hear that there is some sort of disconnect between the youth and the older generations. Well, if the rhetoric of the Seventh Generation or wakanyeja (holy ones or children) were such an important kinship aspect of Wolakota, then why does the debate of alcohol take precedent? If communities on Pine Ridge are mostly under the age of 25, then why are their needs not prioritized above all if they make up almost half the population? The harsh reality is that we are a young Nation made up mostly by young people. How does the current debate of alcohol prohibition respond to the needs of young people? Will it make us fluent speakers of our Lakota language? Will it help us learn our histories? Will it guarantee that when we go off and get educations that we can expect to find employment on the reservation or in our communities? Will it prevent our fathers, uncles, brothers, and cousins from raping our mothers, aunties, and sisters? Will it prevent us from being put into foster homes? Will it make our parents better parents? Will it make sure that we have a safe place to sleep at night and enough food to eat? These are real concerns many young people face.

The debates surrounding alcohol seem to obscure the realities that face our young people. I do not think that anyone knows if there are easy answers to the above questions. But I do know that too often decisions or hot topic debates tend to overshadow what most young Native people deal with on a daily basis. The values of our Nations are reflected in the laws and policies our tribal governments create. If they do not reflect the realities of our young people, then they do not reflect the majority of our populations. When this debate over prohibition takes seriously that we are a young Nation, then we can expect that young people will take their tribal governments more seriously. Until then, we will continue to be the voiceless majority.