Thursday, July 16, 2009

Take It Away

I'm baffled by this op-ed by James Abourezk, former Democratic senator from South Dakota, in today's NY Times:

Fourteen years after the Great Sioux Reservation was established in western South Dakota in 1868, President Chester Arthur issued an executive order creating a 50-square-mile buffer zone on its southern edge, in Nebraska. This was meant to prevent renegade whites from selling guns, knives and alcohol to Indians living on the reservation.

The buffer zone was ratified as law when Congress divided the Great Sioux Reservation into smaller units in 1889. But when Roosevelt became president, the liquor industry convinced him that the buffer zone should be abolished, which he did through an executive order in 1904. This move was, however, illegitimate from the start, because an act of Congress cannot legally be reversed by an executive order.

Today, the tiny Nebraska hamlet of Whiteclay has four liquor stores, ostensibly to serve its population of 24, but really more for the bootleggers and alcoholics living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the border. The result has been murders, spouse beatings, child abuse, thefts and other undesirable consequences of the free flow of alcohol into the reservation.

The long history of alcoholism among Native Americans is well documented. Abourezk isn't exaggerating about the scale of the problem either, a this woman's experience and a handful of articles make clear. So I'm trying to be generous, but I don't see how this article doesn't merely reflect a similarly long history of patronizing Native Americans. If Natives get drunk...well then take their firewater away from them! To be fair, the sale of alcohol on the Pine Ridge reservation is banned by the tribal government, not the American government, and Abourezk assumes they'd do they same over any area under their jurisdiction outside of reservation boundaries, an assumption that is almost certainly correct. But Pine Ridge is one of the most desolate and hopeless parts of the country; according to this Wikipedia article the average life expectancy for men is 47 years, unemployment stands at around eighty percent, and almost half the residents live below the Federal poverty line. The alcoholism and drug abuse that permeates the reservation is a symptom of the hopeless and despair that is the natural result of over 200 years of material degradation and deliberate cultural annihilation. None of these staggering problems can be fixed by simply making it harder for people to get drunk (and make no mistake it would only be harder, and if they can't get alcohol they'll huff paint, or do meth or other harder drugs.) The real solution is money, and time, and something to replace a lifestyle that was lost the century before last (but most helpfully, money.) But none of these are as "easy" as simply getting somebody to undo an illegal executive order that's over a hundred years old.

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