Melvin "Dickie" Brewer, a classmate of mine at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and a lifelong friend, like so many Indian boys and girls faced with the hardships of growing up in poverty, developed a drinking problem.
It became a little more pronounced while he served in the military and one day while in Paris he was arrested and spent a couple of days in the infamous Bastille. He used to quip, "I'm probably the only Sioux Indian that ever did time in the Bastille."
This wasn't something he was proud of but it was the irony of the situation that settled in his mind. It also motivated him to do something about it. He went on with his education and eventually became a substance abuse counselor at Pine Ridge. He and his then-wife Alma bought an old house and tried to refurbish it and turn it into a home where homeless alcoholics could stay while undergoing rehabilitation. Of course they didn't count on the near impossibility of raising money. They searched high and low through every agency and program they could find, but it seemed that treating alcoholism on the Pine Ridge Reservation was not too high on the priority list of anyone.
As a lifelong resident of the reservation, Dickie saw the problems presented to the residents of Pine Ridge because of the easy availability of alcohol in the nearby, just across the border, community of Whiteclay, Neb. It didn't deter him from doing his job and working with the heavy drinkers to find a cure.
Dickie used say, "You know, when I was a drinker nobody put a gun to my head and said drink that beer. I did it all by myself."
Dickie believed that the prohibition of the sale of alcohol on the reservation was a bigger problem than opening the reservation. He firmly believed that as long as the sale of alcohol was forbidden on the reservation those prone to alcohol consumption would just go across the border to buy it.
"If we had legal sales here at Pine Ridge we could use the tax dollars to combat the disease. We could have well-funded programs, more counselors and more control over the sale of liquor and this would go a long way to help us cure this terrible disease," he used to say.
That was many years ago and today one of the strongest advocates of legalizing the sale of alcohol on the reservation is an elected member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council from the Pejuta Haka (Medicine Root) District of the reservation named James "Toby" Big Boy. When a lawsuit was brought against the alcohol distributors and manufacturers and four liquor stores in Whiteclay, Big Boy knew the suit was frivolous, but he also felt that at least something was being done.
Suing a liquor store is like suing a gun manufacturer because a gun was used in an armed robbery or murder. It was not the gun that did the damage but the person using it. And the same can be said of alcohol.
The reasons there is a problem with alcohol consumption in Indian Country are many and it would take volumes to explain it. One that is either overlooked or downplayed happened when thousands of Indian children were institutionalized beginning in the late 1800s and continuing into the 1960s. They were taken from their homes and families and placed in Bureau of Indian Affairs or church mission boarding schools in an effort to de-Indianize them.
Like the Jews interred in concentration camps during World War II, they were stripped of their clothing and issued identical clothes, had their heads shaved, pushed into dormitories, forbidden to speak their native tongues, beaten and abused for the slightest infraction, taught that everything "Indian" was bad including their parents and grandparents if they still were clinging to the old ways. Thousands of these children had never before experienced corporal punishment until the boarding schools. Beaten with leather belts and locked in dark closets for hours, two or three generations of Indian children were pushed out of these schools and onto the reservations or streets totally confused about who they were and what life expected of them. More often than not, many of these children were sexually abused by their keepers.
Again, thousands of these children, now adults, turned to alcohol to forget and probably because it numbed them of these memories. The abused, as often happens, became the abusers and another generation of children experienced the trauma of their parents. It is a cyclical thing that the Indian people themselves are trying so hard to break.
There is another entire chapter that must be written about the loss of land, traditions, culture, dignity and self-esteem as perpetrated by the United States government over the past 200 years that greatly contributed to the problems related to the alcohol and drug consumption among American Indians. Indians were the guinea pigs of social experiments for more than 200 years. Esteemed attorney Felix S. Cohen called Indians "miner's canaries" because every social experiment intended to improve life in America was tested on them first to see if it would fly. As can be expected, many of the social experiments did more harm than good, but as one anonymous government official said back then, "What the hell, they're only Indians."
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. Giago was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder of Indian Country Today. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net.