New tribal president: Issues on reservation are deeply intertwinedAt first, the agenda of the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s newly elected president might seem overly ambitious. But Bryan Brewer says the issues on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, ranging from a housing shortage and high unemployment to alcoholism and violence, are deeply intertwined.
By: By Kristi Eaton, Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — At first, the agenda of the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s newly elected president might seem overly ambitious. But Bryan Brewer says the issues on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, ranging from a housing shortage and high unemployment to alcoholism and violence, are deeply intertwined.
Brewer, 65, beat out incumbent John Yellow Bird Steele during an election held earlier this month to become president of the tribe, which is headquartered on the reservation in southwestern South Dakota. He’ll be sworn in on Dec. 7.
“Things aren’t getting better. I had a feeling people wanted change and I’m a new face, you know, brand new,” Brewer said.
Brewer, a military veteran who is three years removed from a 30-year education career, said there are about 10 different issues he hopes to address during his two-year term — all of which depend on the others.
“You may have a home but no job, or you may have a job but no home. I have to work on all those things. If we get housing for all the people, they have to have a job to keep the houses up,” he said, adding unemployment on the reservation is at 89 percent. In comparison, South Dakota’s unemployment rate was at 4.5 percent in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
One of the biggest obstacles to creating change on the reservation is a lack of statistics. Tribal data simply doesn’t exist for various things, including the amount of violence or the number of children living away from their parents.
Brewer plans to initiate task forces in order to change that. One will examine the high amount of violence on the reservation, and another that will look into the welfare of the tribe’s children, including how many have been placed in foster homes. He also wants to create a safehouse for children to turn to when they are in trouble.
“That’s a big priority right now,” said Brewer, who’s married and has four adult children and five grandchildren.
Alcoholism is another issue Brewer hopes to address, seeing as the disease is rampant on the reservation despite a ban on alcohol. Tribal members smuggle in booze from nearby towns — including Whiteclay, Neb., which sold the equivalent of 4.3 million 12-ounce cans of beer last year.
Brewer, like his predecessors, wants to shut Whiteclay down.
“I believe it’s killing our people,” Brewer said. “I want to meet with the people in Nebraska. I’m going to ask them to close it down, take their license away and if they don’t, you know, we’re going to have to try to figure out something else. It’s just terrible up there.”
In October, a federal judge dismissed the tribe’s lawsuit against four beer sellers in Whiteclay and some of the nation’s biggest breweries, saying the suit belonged in state court.
Brewer said he does not plan to make a push to re-file the lawsuit — which sought $500 million to cover the cost of health care, social services and child rehabilitation programs — until speaking with tribal council members and the tribe’s lawyers.
One thing the president-elect knows for sure: He does not support legalizing alcohol on the vast reservation because it isn’t ready to handle the initial uptick in violence that he said is common when a community becomes “wet.”
“Until we have infrastructure and we can start educating our people and getting our people jobs and things like that — right now I’m against it,” he said.
For now, Brewer, who was convinced to run for office by the tribe’s military veterans, is busy visiting with tribal members and learning about the more than 60 tribal programs and services ahead of his first council meeting on Dec. 4 in Wounded Knee.
“I’m ready to do it. I’m anxious. Let’s get this going,” he said.