In December 2012 Bryan Brewer became president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Considering Brewer has had to tackle things like a referendum vote to lift a reservation-wide alcohol ban, the potential auction of the site of Wounded Knee and rumors that Johnny Depp was on the rez, the past 9 months have been a handful.
During the Native Trailblazers online radio show, Brewer discussed his first year in office with host Vincent Schilling.
There was a recent referendum vote on Pine Ridge to lift the alcohol ban. What are your thoughts?
The people have spoken. They have voted to have alcohol on the reservation so I respect the vote of the people and my job now is to make sure that we do it right, and that the protocols of the law are followed.
So we, the tribe are actually going to sell it. In my research, I discovered you can manufacture it, distribute it or retail it. But I figure, if we are going to do it, we are going to do it right and I am going to do all three to create jobs. If we are going to do this and if our people are going to suffer, I want all of the money. All money should go back to our people to service their needs.
Do you support the use of alcohol?
I am against it because alcohol has affected 100 percent of our families. I do not know one family on the reservation that has not been affected by alcohol. A number of our people have been killed because of it and Whiteclay is a horrible place. People are dying up there.
The current landowner of Wounded Knee, James Czywczynski, is now selling to anyone that is interested. Does this concern you?
He has been threatening to sell this land for years. This isn’t the first time. He wants to sell it and it has only been valued at about $8,000. The owner has valued this land at $6 million, I say to him, ‘then why aren’t you paying taxes on land that is valued at $6 million?’
Some people have said they want to buy this land and return it to the tribe. This would be of great benefit. But if that happened, the owner would be the only one to benefit financially. I told him that we would gladly offer to support and bless the sale if he could find a place in his heart to give half the money to the descendants of Wounded Knee so that we could fix up the area so our own people could learn about what really happened in Wounded Knee.
This massacre used to be called a battle, so we will not accept federal money to fix up this site. The National Park Service has made us offers in the past to make this a national park, but we refused to accept any federal money.
No one is going to try and develop that land.
About two months ago there was a rumor that Johnny Depp came to Pine Ridge is this true?
Well, you shouldn’t laugh about this topic because Johnny Depp is sitting at my desk right now (laughs) Oh no another rumor is going to start now. (laughs again)
I was in a meeting. Suddenly a lot of people started texting me saying ‘you have to come back, Johnny Depp is in Pine Ridge right now.’ There were so many rumors, some said he was with me. For two days I had every woman on the reservation calling me or texting me telling me to give Johnny Depp their telephone number.
In an interview Depp said he would like to buy Wounded Knee.
A reporter in England a journalist in the UK called me to ask what my thoughts were.
It would be nice if it were Johnny Depp because he does have Native blood in him and I thought that sure would be a good gesture. I thought that would be pretty cool, but nothing has happened and I haven’t heard anything more about it.
On a national level, Pine Ridge gets a lot of bad press. Does Pine Ridge need saving?
In some instances, national exposure is really great and it can help us. But we do get tired of constantly hearing about Whiteclay and all of the negative things. There are so many good things that are happening here. The documentaries are mostly about our problems, and that is good because people do need to know about our poverty and our problems.
The federal government has never honored our treaties and because they do not honor them, they will never meet the needs of our people. It’s because of this that our tribe will never be able to meet the needs of our people either.
We do get funding but with sequestration and a suit we have going against the federal government right now we only receive 50 percent of what is allocated to us. Congress says we’re going to get a certain amount of money, but we only get 50 percent.
What is the best way to help Pine Ridge without being disrespectful?
This is something that we have been talking about, specifically our housing issue. We have so many organizations and church organizations that come here in the summer during good weather. They really do help our people by going to their homes. They put roofs on the homes, make porches and install windows. They really do help our people because we do have very little money.
We have been talking about the best way to get them all coordinated. There are many times people come in to help and we have no idea who they are. We want to coordinate a way so that if someone comes in to help there will be a specific person they can go to to make sure the most needy are getting the help first. The same thing goes for people who send money to organizations, we have no idea who some of these organizations are and the money is probably not getting here.
What about Pine Ridge never gets to the press?
Our reservation is so beautiful, it takes a couple of hours to drive across and it is about the same size as the state of Connecticut. There are over 30 million acres of land and there is so much to see, it can't be done in one day.
We have the beautiful Badlands, the prairies… 30 minutes later you can be in a wooded area. Our land is beautiful. And now with the threat of the [Keystone] XL pipeline our water is precious, that is why we are fighting the pipeline. Even though the pipeline is not coming through our reservation it is still coming through our treaty land. Our land is beautiful and we want to protect it.
Our culture is also really coming back. In the 1970s, we couldn’t really practice our ceremonies. My parents and I couldn’t speak our language in the schools or you were punished. The federal government and Christian churches try to destroy our culture and our language. The federal boarding schools are now teaching Lakota and they’re trying to bring it back after they almost destroyed it.
I want to tell the federal government it is time to allow the Lakota to teach what we think our children need to learn. The way they have been doing it is a failure. This is something that we’re going to continue to fight for. Education is so important to us and right now we are losing the battle due to the high dropout rate.
We are real Indians out here and we do real things. I do want to say one last thing about the Black Hills. I did write a letter to President Obama and I said ‘with the stroke of a pen he could give us 3/5 of our treaty lands in the Black Hills back to us. He could do this alone. He could really help us if he did that. I just wanted to end with that.
I also want to say, we all need to care about each other, we need to love each other, we need to look out for each other—we are all brothers and sisters. I pray everyone has a good winter.