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Ivan Starr: Don't treat alcoholism like a crime - it's an illness

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: ivan starr, liquor, native sun news, oglala sioux, south dakota, whiteclay
     

The following opinion was written by Ivan F. Starr. All content © Native Sun News.

Alcoholism is not a crime: It is an illness
By Ivan F. Starr

I know the alcohol ban on the Pine Ridge began in the mid-1800s. It was an embargo initiated by Lakota leaders wanting to deter French traders from selling whiskey on the reservation. They wanted to keep their young men from consuming it due to the havoc it was causing to their ancient way of life. It appears their rationale was to attack the problem by blocking or removing the source.

Obviously, this strategy has not worked because our reservation is now renowned for its excessive alcohol consumption, poverty, and a general despondency. It appears Pine Ridge has become a petri dish for the national media.

I often think about other IRA-reservations. Why aren’t they in the news? Do they not have alcohol-related social complications? In other words, are we the only ones with alcohol/drug and poverty related adversities? I look to those reservations that have legalized alcohol and ask if legalizing alcohol reduced alcoholism and related difficulties?

Perhaps it is the sensationalism of White Clay (NE) that created this public attention for us. The absence of clear state and tribal jurisdictions there has allowed major crimes against local ailing “Indians.” Their deaths remain unsolved while the rest are conveniently labeled “derelicts” and “drunks” and ignored or arrested without concern for their emotional and physical health.

A severe flaw with this scene is that state and tribal officials, police, courts, and the tribal constituent majority are naive about this disease called alcoholism. They simply make, enforce, and obey laws. I think these key officials need to be adequately trained in the psychology of this disease. Being a recovering alcoholic, I know that this disease is incurable and is not an easy one to deal with.

Actually, alcohol and alcoholism are not the same. Alcohol is a colorless liquid derived from the fermentation of sugars and starches. It is used either pure or denatured, in solvents, drugs, cleaning solutions, explosives, and beverages. Excessive consumption, spurred by a psychological dependence on it, undeniably leads to the deterioration of the nervous and gastrointestinal system.

Essentially, alcohol is a tangible and can be controlled by law. As odd as it sounds, only the afflicted person can control the disease. First, one must have a desire to sober up and then one must learn about this devastating disease. On top of that they must have professional guidance to help them understand what they are dealing with.

Only the individual holds the key and authority to stop and control it for him or herself. However, such a person needs the guidance of a quality-trained person and this individual does not have to be a tribal member. In other words, a certified counselor cannot heal or cure alcoholism, only the afflicted person wanting to sober up can control it. A therapist can only provide guidance.

Our tribal courts have ordered many an afflicted person to treatment for the disease. The fact that it has not worked for a majority remains obvious. If the person does not want to sober up, it is not going to happen. I’ve always said that even the U.S. President with all his military and economic might couldn’t stop me from drinking. I am the only person who can control the disease.

Alcoholism has absolutely nothing to do with being Native because other races are just as susceptible to it. However, as Natives, we seem to be afflicted and affected by it much more than other groups of people. We need to figure this out too. Again, how much of this disease do our legislators, police and court personnel understand?

Aggravating the disease is the fact that it is perceived and treated as a crime here on the reservation. We have federal and tribal laws prohibiting possession and consumption of the substance. So if an afflicted person is caught possessing or consuming alcohol, he or she is deemed a criminal. There is a thin line here. Yes, they are violating law but they are not immoral, they are ill.

The strongest argument by those against legalizing alcohol on the Pine Ridge is that it will increase the social problems that have endured here for more than 100 years. I believe it will initially but, more importantly, we should be concerned with understanding alcoholism and drug addiction. This lack of understanding is what has kept us on our knees.

Legalizing alcohol will certainly make it convenient for the ailing. Ideally, an ailing alcoholic should somehow be included or detached from regulatory laws. We ought to be concerned the bigger and more serious problem of tending to the afflicted.

Based on my personal observations, most people on the reservation don’t think they are afflicted or even influenced by this destructive disease. Being alcoholic doesn’t necessarily mean living in White Clay. I am a recovering alcoholic going on my 35th year and I live at my home with my family. The reason I avoid alcohol is because I was made to realize the fact that I cannot control it.

I am reminded of the famous firearm enthusiast’s slogan, “Guns don’t kill, people do.” In other words alcohol doesn’t make one consume it to excess, the ailing person does. We must understand that drinking and drugging are symptoms of a much greater problem. Unresolved trauma and its symptoms (alcoholism and drug addiction) get progressively worse with time.

Treatment for these conditions does not render a person less than his or her peers. In fact, this popular attitude or perception has been a powerful social stigma that prevents an alcoholic or drug addict from seeking help. In essence, the powerful effect of this popular stereotype is keeping indisposed people from recovering.

I believe the legalization of alcohol is going to happen. I know a lot of people who want it so and most if not all of these people drink habitually. As a recovering alcoholic, I have reached a point where alcohol is not of primary importance in my personal life. However, the reservation has an overabundance of people who are unaware of how alcoholism affects them and much less how to treat it.

The big question remains though, will the legalization of alcohol increase the existing alcohol/drug related disorders? Perhaps, initially, but our officials, police, and court personnel ought to be more concerned with understanding how alcoholism and drug addiction works and what trauma is and how these illnesses affect us.

This is the only way to cope effectively with this decades-old devastation we have endured. At any rate, I anticipate that the contents of this little article will be ignored by those who can truly make a difference. That is how it is here on the home land of the Oglala.

(Ivan F. Starr, P.O. Box 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448; mato_nasula2@yahoo.com)


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