The full moon is slowly sinking to the west behind a nondescript butte dotted with pines. A warm light glows in the east the world stands still silently holding its breath as the Sun Dance ceremony is about to begin. The Oglala Lakota have held this ceremony for over 2,000 years to mark the end and start of a new year. “We dance for the people, we dance for healing and we dance for peace” the Sun Dancer says with a sigh. “In times like these, we have to dance now more than ever.”
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation comprises some 3,468 square miles in the western corner of South Dakota, in an area unsuitable for farming or industry. It is the last toehold of what was a nation of the seven tribes of the Lakota, whose lands once covered what are now five U.S. states. Today, the reservation consists of nine districts with council representation in the centralized Tribal government.
Pine Ridge holds the distinction of being the poorest reservation and county in the United States. Alcohol rates are high, drug use is steadily climbing and unemployment stands at 85 percent. Lakota suicide rates are the highest in the nation among the youth and growing among the old, although “old” is a misnomer in a place where the life expectancy for women is 52 years, and just 48 for men.
The Sun Dance chief arrives, setting off a buzz of activity around the Inipi lodges as young men with pitchforks fish red-hot rocks out of specially tended fires. Participants will deny themselves food and water for the next four days, and the main fire will not be allowed to go out. The Inipi ceremony is held in a dome-like lodge, where those heated rocks are placed in the center pit.
Men crowd into one of seven darkened structures, and the women file into a single, larger lodge, after which a bucket of water and a pitcher are brought into each lodge. The prayer is invoked, as sacred songs from our ancient past are sung, asking for pity and blessing in the coming four days. Water is ladled over the red-hot rocks, hissing out the only source of light in this circle of faith. The steam burns the tips of ears but prayer holds the pain in check as the purification ceremony thinly bathes the body with warm water.
When we burst from the lodge, the cool air reminds us that we are human, and we begin our preparations to enter the sacred circle.
The Pine Ridge Tribal Government is, by all accounts, inept but grossly arrogant when addressing poverty on the reservation. Its latest brainstorm is a referendum to legalize the sale of alcohol on this historically dry reservation. The council hopes alcohol revenue will fuel the economy, since the border towns plying that trade reap huge profits. The most notorious is the township of Whiteclay, Nebraska, which is walking distance from Pine Ridge Village, the largest populated community and the center of government. Whiteclay has a population of around 14 souls (2000 Census), buts its four liquor stores paid $413,932 in sales taxes to the state of Nebraska in 2012. In 2010, those four stores reported $3 million in gross sales, on an estimated 13,000 cans of beer per day. The tribe is seeking to tap that revenue stream to combat the social ills created by liquor. The goal is to create treatment centers that would encourage alcohol consumers to stop consuming.
At the center of the sacred circle stands a tall cottonwood tree that was felled yesterday, carried to the site, and lifted upright where it now stands. A circular shade was built around the circle for spectators and Sun Dancers to rest under. Long bolts of blue, red, yellow and white cloth hang from the tree’s branches, each one holding a portion of chanshasha (native tobacco)—an offering tied with a prayer. Ropes of various makes and colors are tied around the tree trunk; these will be used by the dancers when they pierce themselves.
A breeze catches the leaves of the cottonwood, causing them to gently clap as the first rays of the sun slowly rise from behind a butte. The dancers are dressed in the Sun Dance regalia of red skirts, crowns, wrist and ankle bands made of sage and adorned with eagle feathers. The women’s dresses are made of the simple calico of their grandmothers, and on their wrists, ankles and head they have the same sage adornments as the men. The men line up silently, with the older dancers in front and the new ones toward the end of the line. The women line up in similar fashion, with the chief, headmen and headwomen at the front of this procession. The ceremony starts with a prayer, then a song and then the drums start up their beat as the men’s eagle bone whistles take up the tempo, and the four-day ritual begins again.
The regular Tribal election is slated for next year but a special election to legalize alcohol sales is set for Tuesday, August 13. This makes some people wonder what the rush is about, since the tribe can’t really afford a special election and this issue is over 100 years old. “Whatever is motivating this referendum is also motivating the speed it is reaching the polls,” a former South Dakota state representative says. “Follow the money and you will find the answer.”
The first day of the Sun Dance will be the hardest. It rained last night, which keeps the dust down but has left the hot air humid. Over 100 dancers are arranged in a huge circle around the cottonwood tree with women on one side and men on the other. As the heat of the day climbs, two dancers will succumb, and walk away.
Year after year the dancers work together to pay for supplies and organize the Sun Dance ceremony, a ceremony that few people even know about and fewer still participate. In the late 1800’s the United States government outlawed the Lakota traditional religion, forcing practitioners to celebrate the ceremony in secret during those long years of oppression. It wasn’t until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was signed into law, that the Lakota could worship their creator openly. And now we openly dance and pray with our pipes because we believe that should we stop, our world will surely end.
The proposed legalization of alcohol would mean that liquor stores would open up in distressed communities. Starting a business on Pine Ridge is difficult for many reasons, including the fact that there are no empty buildings to lease or basic infrastructure. So a business plan would have to include not only the cost of construction, but finding a water course piping it miles to the site and building a septic sewer system. In the case of a liquor store it would have to be built like a fort, with concrete cinder brick walls, heavy steel doors, barred windows and a roof reinforced with steel. The costs associated with that kind of construction have throttled even the best businesses plans before they could leave the cradle.
Who will pay for the costs of building district liquor stores is anybody’s guess. Most likely a local tribal member will be the ‘front’ for a liquor license, with the financial backing coming from outside interests.
Or maybe the fact that each district was awarded $1 million ($1,000,400.17, with interest) for economic development (courtesy of the recent Salazar settlement) has something to do with the sudden urgency on this matter. One veteran politician believes the council wants to move on the referendum before the Salazar monies can be spent on something other than liquor stores.
In any case, no one trusts the Tribal government to run a business as complicated as a franchise of nine liquor stores and an alcohol regulating commission with a tribal council that has changes in leadership every two years and nepotism is the norm. When you are talking about that much money, politicians are the last people to trust.
TOMORROW, PART TWO: Vote for the Future, Not for Alcohol