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Since taking office, President Obama has overturned several of George W. Bush’s executive orders. I would like to recommend he also overturn one of Theodore Roosevelt’s.
Fourteen years after the Great Sioux Reservation was established in western South Dakota in 1868, President Chester Arthur issued an executive order creating a 50-square-mile buffer zone on its southern edge, in Nebraska. This was meant to prevent renegade whites from selling guns, knives and alcohol to Indians living on the reservation.
The buffer zone was ratified as law when Congress divided the Great Sioux Reservation into smaller units in 1889. But when Roosevelt became president, the liquor industry convinced him that the buffer zone should be abolished, which he did through an executive order in 1904. This move was, however, illegitimate from the start, because an act of Congress cannot legally be reversed by an executive order.
Today, the tiny Nebraska hamlet of Whiteclay has four liquor stores, ostensibly to serve its population of 24, but really more for the bootleggers and alcoholics living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the border. The result has been murders, spouse beatings, child abuse, thefts and other undesirable consequences of the free flow of alcohol into the reservation.
In 2000, I asked the Clinton administration to overturn Roosevelt’s illegal order, but was unable to get anyone’s attention. In 2001, I asked Vice President Dick Cheney to do the same, but he referred the matter to the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who decided that bringing back the buffer zone would, as he wrote me in a letter, take land away from white landowners. In fact, overturning the Roosevelt order would not transfer any land titles, but would merely give jurisdiction over the buffer zone to the Oglala Sioux tribe, automatically making alcohol sales illegal.
President Obama could right a century of wrongs by re-establishing the buffer zone. It would alleviate the overwhelming social ills that result from easy access to alcohol, and help end the violence tribal members too often visit on each other and on their families.
James G. Abourezk is a lawyer practicing in South Dakota. He is a former United States senator and the author of two books, Advise and Dissent, and a co-author of Through Different Eyes. Abourezk can be reached at email@example.com
This article ran as an op-ed in the New York Times. A longer version orginally ran in the print edition of CounterPunch.