An 1834 law banning distilleries in Indian Country has been repealed by Congress and now awaits the signature of President Trump. However, it's not immediately clear if any distillery will open anytime soon on any reservation in South Dakota.
"I think any tribe will have to do a lot of soul-searching before doing that," said Remi Bald Eagle, director of intergovernmental affairs for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
The bipartisan legislation, HR 5317, titled "the Repeal of Prohibition on Certain Alcohol Manufacturing on Indian Lands Act," passed the Senate on Tuesday on a voice-vote after similarly passing in the House in September. The bill was presented to President Trump on Thursday.
In a floor speech in September, bill-sponsor Washington State Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler said the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation in southwestern Washington state approached her to repeal a law that passed when, in her words, "the federal government took a more paternalistic stance with Indian tribes."
"While many provisions of the larger statute have been repealed," Beutler went onto say, "somehow the distillery prohibition has remained."
While a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., said police officers with the agency had no records of enforcing this prohibition on manufacturing of ardent spirits on Indian lands, Beutler said the tribes from the Chehalis reservation had been told by federal law enforcement agents that they could not sell craft spirits distilled on the reservation at a restaurant in their Lucky Eagle casino.
Sponsors of the 19th century law, which was signed by President Andrew Jackson, claimed a desire to prevent bootleggers setting up on reservations and manufacturing whiskey or malt beverages free of taxing jurisdictions. Some others saw a paternalistic motivation in wanting to prevent the spread of alcoholism among indigenous populations.
But Bald Eagle sees economic suppression.
"It was economic," he said. "They wanted to prevent tribal residents from setting up and profiting off alcohol and instead preferred them to purchase off-reservation products."
The South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations said that liquor is legal to sell and manufacture on eight of the tribal nations in South Dakota. However, any distillery may face taxing regulations and rules from the South Dakota Department of Revenue.
Liquor is illegal to possess or sell on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Last year, the Nebraska Liquor Commission denied applications for liquor licenses to beer sellers in Whiteclay, Neb., just across the state line from Pine Ridge. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council also has never passed regulations enabling the sale of liquor following a reservation-wide vote in 2013 to legalize alcohol.
The decision for each tribe is different, Bald Eagle said.
"We made it legal because we kept seeing our relatives who suffer from addiction going to bars in border towns and facing prejudice and discrimination," he said. "We thought, if they're going to drink, we'd rather have our relatives closer to home."