Published November 20, 2014
As vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Tom Poor Bear has been tapped by his people to advocate for their rights, their land and their health. Yet, Poor Bear is also one of his people, not immune to the problems facing the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.
Just weeks after the Native American tribe filed a lawsuit against some of the world's largest beer makers and distributors, Poor Bear was arrested in an alcohol-related incident that he believes was, in some ways, a good thing. It showed who really believed in him.
"People came to me and said, 'Tom, we don't care what they write about you. We know who you are. We know where your heart's at and your commitments at,' " said Poor Bear, speaking candidly about the February arrest for the first time.
"I tell you, it makes a man's heart beat good to hear his people commend me instead of condemn me," he said.
Poor Bear, 57, was arrested Feb. 19 on a charge of obstructing government function while receiving treatment at a hospital. A police report not subject to public records laws but obtained by The Associated Press listed Poor Bear's blood-alcohol content at .306, nearly quadruple the legal limit for driving.
While Poor Bear said the charge has been dropped, tribal law prevents non-tribal members from obtaining information about cases, so the AP could not independently confirm Poor Bear's assertion.
In early February, the Oglala Sioux Tribe filed a high-profile lawsuit alleging that several beer makers are knowingly contributing to the devastating alcohol-related problems on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which has banned alcohol since 1832.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska, seeks $500 million in damages for the costs of health care, social services and child rehabilitation caused by chronic alcoholism on the reservation, located in one of the poorest regions in the United States. Approximately 40,000 people live there, half of whom are tribal members.
The lawsuit also targets four beer stores in Whiteclay, Neb., a town near the reservation's border. The town has only about a dozen residents but sold nearly 5 million cans of beer in 2010, according to the suit.
Poor Bear knows how his alcohol-fueled arrest looks to those within and outside the reservation.
"They think I'm a hypocrite because I filed a lawsuit against the alcohol companies and then I go and have a few myself," he said.
It wasn't, however, his decision to file the lawsuit, but the tribe's Law and Order committee. He does support the lawsuit, and believes alcohol should be legalized on the reservation to help increase revenue, but only if there is a referendum vote and proper laws are in place.
"I don't drink every day. I'll maybe have a beer once or twice a month, if that, especially during the summer, and I'll go to good Indian rodeos," he said.
Poor Bear's battle against Whiteclay is a personal one: The bodies of his brother, Wally Black Elk Jr., and cousin, Ron Hard Heart, were discovered June 8, 1999, near Whiteclay. Their deaths are unresolved.
Each June, Poor Bear organizes a Justice March, a two-mile trek from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay. This year's march is scheduled for Saturday.
Poor Bear said his original intent for the march was to "find justice" for his relatives' deaths, but that the media discussion about Whiteclay seems only to focus on alcohol.
Poor Bear and James Toby Big Boy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the tribe, also wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, asking him to re-open and re-investigate 39 deaths in and around the reservation, dating back to the 1970s. Johnson has said he will re-examine the cases.
Poor Bear believes his activism sets him apart from other tribal council members, past and present. He has argued in front of a United Nations special rapporteur that the Black Hills should be returned to the Lakota people, and regularly protests the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
An Oglala Sioux flag pinned to Poor Bear's trademark black vest bears witness to his leadership lineage — his father, Enos Poor Bear, was president of the tribe in the 1960s and designed the flag.
Tom Poor Bear is unsure if he'll run for re-election in the fall. He's been involved with the American Indian Movement since the 1970s and tribal government since 1998.
"You have to have thick skin to be in tribal government. You get attacked," he said.
His mission, though, remained at the front of his mind: "I want to give my people hope of a better tomorrow."
Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kristieaton.