The 10,000 Sioux Indians on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota are coming through another difficult winter. The temperature dipped recently to 25 below; unemployment hovers around 80 percent; alcoholism is rampant and special education classes are attended by more children with alcohol-related birth defects. Almost every family has a tragic story -- an accident, an illness, a breakup -- in which the antagonist is alcohol.
And yet, Indians at Rosebud say there is reason for hope, with the closing of the municipal liquor store in the town of Mission. In most places, the passing of a liquor store is hardly a major event, but to Mission, the reservation's major supplier of liquor, it was cataclysmic.
The store was open late, the wine was cheap, and there was a steady stream of Indian customers. But the store was not owned by Indians. As the chief source of revenue for white-dominated Mission, the liquor profits paved the streets, paid the police and kept the town swimming pool open.
Last year, the liquor profits totaled $89,000, three-quarters of the town budget. Not one penny went to the tribe. The store became the focus of much anger and resentment for Indians who saw it as a merchant of misery.
For years, the Rosebud tribe fought for control of liquor sales on the reservation. After a 1982 federal court ruling gave the tribe authority to regulate liquor sales, tribal leaders asked Mission for 50 percent of the liquor profits for alcohol treatment programs. The town refused, and its mayor, Raymond Fernen, accused the tribe of blackmail and meddling.
To George Whirlwind Soldier, a member of the Rosebud tribal government, that was enough. Supported by other Rosebud Indians, he proposed that the tribe ban liquor sales on the reservation. It would not be prohibition -- people could still drink in their homes -- but they would have to drive 30 or 40 miles to reservation border towns to buy liquor.
Mission was in an uproar. Town meetings were held. Some residents, like Margaret Figert, the feisty editor of The Todd County Tribune, strongly supported the closing.
"While some people, especially those with pessimistic outlooks, are carelessly predicting that Mission will become a ghost town without its liquor outlets, I feel otherwise," Figert wrote. "When they're not drinking or trying to survive other people's alcoholic behavior, people can think for a change. Good, healthy thinking is powerful stuff . . . . "
But Fernen said he would go to jail rather than accept the tribe's edict. On Nov. 14, however, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota told Fernen that he had no legal grounds for a fight, and the store was closed.
By all accounts, Mission is a quieter place. The effects of the lost liquor revenues have been felt everywhere, Fernen said. Business is slow. Municipal services have been cut. Potholes go unfilled. The town police officers have been let go. The fire department is broke. The swimming pool will not open this summer.
But Rosebud Indians say there has been a parallel decrease in alcohol use.
Marilyn White Horse, a tribal mental health worker, said the number of Indians seeking alcohol counseling last month rose from 2 to 23. The battered-women's shelter reports fewer clients from Mission. Police calls are down 29 percent. Courthouse telephones have been disconnected because not enough fines were coming in to pay the bill. Fewer students are truant. A court official says many vagrants are returning to their families.
"If you just go to Mission any time of the day or night, drive up or down Main Street and cruise the two alleys where the winos used to hang out you're lucky if you see one," tribal police officer Duston Whiting said.
Meanwhile, Fernen was arrested after all -- for allegedly bootlegging whiskey and wine from his living room. "You know, I'm getting damn tired of Rosebud shoving white people around," Fernen told The Tribune after his arrest in January.
Besides bootlegging, the disinfectant spray Lysol, whose active ingredients include 79 percent ethyl alcohol, has been selling by the case. More than 200 reservation alcoholics are drinking Lysol, according to recovering Lysol addict Alfred Bone Shirt. It is usually drunk straight or mixed with water or milk, and the bootleg price for a container can go as high as $7 or a monthly ration of food commodities. Some merchants in Mission no longer stock Lysol; others have put it behind the counter. Bone Shirt has gathered 323 signatures on a petition asking the tribe to ban Lysol as well. "I just couldn't sit back and do nothing," he said.
Retorted Fernen: "When they take Lysol off the shelf they'll have to take off rubbing alcohol, hair spray and Listerine mouthwash because they'll drink that. Anything with alcohol in it, they'll drink."
Whirlwind Soldier agreed that it will take generations to rid Rosebud of the discord caused by alcohol, and he wants get started.
"What is a poor man?" he said, quoting a tribal elder. "A poor man is a man who lives by the water and he's dying of thirst. A poor man is a man who lives under the sun but his bones are cold. A poor man is a man who lives in an infinite universe but remains a prisoner."
The tribe, Whirlwind Soldier said, has long been a prisoner of its inaction. "Once we decide we no longer want to be prisoners, we will have begun to change all this."