I got an email from Lonnie Burnett this morning. Lonnie is a Tribal Council Member of the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma. He started by saying he has been a fan of mine for many, many years and then he got to the subject of his letter.
He mentioned a comment I made in my last column in which I said I met with some old friends "over a glass of beer." He wrote, "Honestly, I was shocked when I read those words."
Lonnie continued, "I mention this not as a teetotaler on a soapbox; I mention it merely to point out that, due to your status and ability to reach thousands of our Native relatives, your reference to your use of alcohol was shocking to me. As we all know, alcohol is a poison to our people and remains an epidemic in our communities."
There is no argument with the assessment of Mr. Burnett. He is absolutely right in saying that alcohol is a poison to our people. I have witnessed firsthand the destruction alcohol has caused in everything to the health of our Nations to the social damages it has wrought. So many valuable lives have been wasted to the ravages of alcohol.
Like many, maybe even most Native American, there has been times in the past when I overindulged in my consumption of alcohol, but I never let it come between me and my job. I stopped overindulging, but I still like a cold beer while watching a football game on television or a good glass of wine with a good meal. That is the limit of my alcohol consumption to date. But social drinking has never been a big problem in the white community. No doubt there are an abundance of alcoholics in the white community, but so many more hold themselves to a limit of one or two drinks at social occasions, and that is a lesson that needs to be taught in the Indian community.
One of my oldest friends, Melvin "Dickey" Brewer served as an alcohol social worker on the Pine Ridge Reservation and was in favor of legalizing the sale of alcohol on the reservation. He used to say, "Nobody ever put a gun to my head and said drink that beer."
He believed that learning to drink responsibly was a key issue with Indians.
Making Indian reservations dry often leads to binge drinking. Some of our people go to an off-reservation establishment, purchase a couple of cases of beer, and then try to consume it as rapidly as possible while heading back to their homes on the Indian reservation. Also, because of the lack of a steady job and income, many drinkers are limited to purchasing the cheapest, and probably the most damaging of alcohol, cheap wine, that can be the most devastating.
When I was sixteen I recall visiting my cousin Delbert Tapio at Pine Ridge and we shared a bottle of cheap wine they called "Green Lizard" and I got so sick I never touched any alcohol again until I went into the U.S. Navy. Now I had to deal with two images of alcoholics because the general public often spoke of "drunken Indians" or of "spending money like a drunken sailor." Now I was an American Indian and I was also a sailor.
All of my life and the last 34 years as a newspaper publisher, I have fought the damaging effects of alcohol. I terminated the most talented Native American employees that I had because they could not control their taste for alcohol. I have fired brilliant writers, cartoonists and press operators because of their false love of alcohol. And every step of the way I encouraged them to get help, but the urge to drink far outweighed their ability to accept their responsibilities. But some I did save and they are brilliant journalists to this day.
In the 1920s America attempted to stop alcoholism by outlawing the sale of alcohol. It was called Prohibition and it was a disastrous failure. It was the initiator of organized crime in America.
I will continue to have a cold beer on occasion or a good glass of wine, but I agree 100 percent that the problems caused by alcohol in the Indian communities have been a nation-wide disaster and somewhere out there is a young Native American man or woman who will find a solution to this social problem that has wrought such harm to an entire race of people. Lonnie Burnett is absolutely right and after this column responding to his comments I will never using alcohol again in any of my columns.
Learning to stop at one and always at two drinks has been my solution.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net