Last month, Nebraska officials voted to revoke the licenses of four liquor stores near the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is supposed to be a dry reservation but its residents regularly procure alcohol from these stores. Tribal officials argue that if these stores were closed, residents would have limited access to liquor and the high rates of alcohol abuse on the reservation would diminish. Since the reservation is almost 3,500 ostensibly alcohol-free square miles, it seems unlikely that cutting off these stores is going to stem the tide.
Like many of the responses by American Indian leaders to the scourge of drugs and alcohol on reservations, this one seems unlikely to improve matters because it pretends that the problems lie mostly off the reservation. The Cherokee tribe, for instance, recently filed a class-action suit against Walmart, CVS and Walgreens for not doing more to stop illegal opioid prescriptions from being filled by residents of its territory.
It’s true that something has to be done. Indian youth have the highest rates of alcohol use disorders of any racial group in the country, according to the National Institutes of Health. And among some tribes, the rates of fetal alcohol syndrome are as high as 1.5 to 2.5 per 1,000 live births, compared to the general population, which is between 0.2 and 1.0.
American Indians have a long and difficult history with alcohol and there is certainly plenty of reason to blame the early settlers for introducing liquor to Natives. In the early 19th century, Indian agents employed by the federal government actually enforced a ban on alcohol on reservations, on the theory that Indians would be more productive workers if they were sober. But then nearby settlers realized they could make a lot of money selling liquor to the Indians and the rules were loosened. Indian leaders like Joseph LaFlesche, chief of the Omaha in the early 19th century, outlawed alcohol when he saw its effects on his people, but successive leaders allowed its return.
Today the problem of alcohol abuse is often blamed on history. And there is some evidence that those with certain genetic composition are more prone to alcohol addiction — though the researchers caution that there is no simple explanation like an “alcoholism gene.”
Instead, history itself has become the explanation. A recent story on NPR explained that “high rates of addiction in Indian Country stem from the violence and cultural destruction brought down upon Natives over the past 200 years…. [resulting in] generational trauma.”
Unfortunately, the result of this diagnosis (which is frequently used not only to explain addiction but also violence, low rates of education and high rates of poverty) is that little can be done to change matters. Who can fix generational trauma?
But many Indian leaders believe that people inside of these communities are perpetuating the problem. Ben Chavis — a Lumbee Indian who has worked with Apache, Lumbee, Papago, Pomo, Pima, Yaqui and Navajo Indians — says the closing liquor stores won’t do any good. He thinks that the move in Nebraska is the result of “bootleggers” on reservations who are trying “to prevent competition… Closing liquor stores near Indian communities will be good for [them].”
So what can be done? Alcohol abuse is hardly unique to reservations and in a rural state like South Dakota, drunk driving is a big problem. In 2005, the state instituted a program called 24/7 in which people who are out on bail after an arrest and people on probation must check in with local law enforcement twice a day to take a breathalyzer test. If they are found to have been drinking they will have to spend a night or two in jail.
Despite some early skepticism, the program has been enormously successful. According to a RAND study, between 2005 and 2010, more than 17,000 residents of South Dakota had participated in the 24/7 program. RAND reported: “At the county level, we documented a 12% reduction in repeat DUI arrests and a 9% reduction in domestic violence.” And given that the median time in the program is six months, it may be more effective than other treatment programs in simply getting people to stay sober.
Amazingly, though, the program does not exist on reservations. Bill Mickelson, the former director of 24/7 in South Dakota, told me that the nine tribes in the state were not interested. “I personally have presented to the majority of the tribes over the years and the tribal councils chose not to adopt and participate.”
Doing so would require acknowledging that the problems in Indian country may not simply be the result of generational trauma or of white people out to harm them today. Manny Jules, the former chief of the Kamloops band in British Columbia, told me that a few years ago he was at a meeting of Saskatchewan chiefs discussing the problem of crack cocaine in their communities. One chief proposed a solution: “We need a billboard outside the communities that says ‘don’t bring drugs here.’” Jules sighed. “They think the problem is people outside bringing it in. The problem is in our community.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and the author of The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.