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Navajos rule out legalization of alcohol

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FARMINGTON – Although the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota has voted to lift a ban on alcohol, the Navajo Nation said that is not an option for its reservation.

A majority of residents on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation voted in favor of overturning the 124-year-old alcohol prohibition, by a 52 percent majority. The reservation is the eighth-largest in the country, and has been plagued by alcoholism, poverty and other problems for decades.

Oglala Sioux officials hope to build education, detoxification and treatment centers with tax revenue from alcohol sales.

Navajo Nation officials say they are tracking the situation but are not considering a similar push to lift their ban.

American Indians and Alaska Natives die of alcoholism at a rate 514 percent higher than other Americans, according to Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim’s address to the New Mexico Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee meeting in June 2012.

Although alcohol is illegal on the Navajo Nation, residents in cities and communities such as Shiprock can buy alcohol just a few miles away in so-called border towns like Hogback, Farmington and Gallup.

“I’ve been up there many times, and I’m familiar with the issues that plague (the reservation),” said Russell Begaye, Navajo Nation Council Delegate for Shiprock. “We’ve consistently voted down proposals to legalize. We do have bootlegging, but more than 80 percent of crimes here involve alcohol.”

Crime on the Navajo Reservation is often exacerbated by alcohol abuse, he said.

“We don’t have enough prosecutors to deal with the alcohol problems,” Begaye said. “We don’t have enough police officers.”

Totah Behavioral Health in Farmington is one social service organization geared toward serving Navajo alcoholics. Board member George Francis agreed that legalization is not an option for the Navajo Nation.

“Pouring fuel on the fire only makes it bigger,” he said. “In the long run, it will create a new cycle of drinking. We need to be careful and search for the root issue.”

Some Shiprock residents say they think there is no solution to alcohol abuse on the reservation.

“I see a lot of people hitchhiking to get (liquor),” said 28-year-old Duane Juan, who lives just south of Shiprock. “They’ll get it. If they legalize it, there will be more trouble here for people that don’t drink.”

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