When the South Dakota legislature expanded its public smoke-free policy to include bars, restaurants and casinos in 2009, Rae O’Leary was an excited supporter. She works as a nurse and respiratory therapist at Missouri Breaks, a private, Native-owned research firm located on the Cheyenne River Reservation in rural Eagle Butte, SD.
“I care a lot about lung health,” she said.
However, the law’s passage wouldn’t affect the Cheyenne River Reservation because of tribal sovereignty. O’Leary’s husband and children are Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe members, and she is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota. “I knew that the state law couldn’t be enforced with tribal members or tribal businesses on reservation property.” As a health professional, O’Leary wanted the benefits of a smoke-free ordinance for the reservation because she knows how profoundly commercial tobacco affects her tribal community.
“Our smoking rate is 51%, which is higher than the U.S. rate in 1964 when the surgeon general first declared that smoking was harmful,” she said. “That was the motivation for developing the Canli Coalition.” Canli [pronounced CHUN-lee] is the Lakota word for commercial tobacco, distinctly different than the traditional plants that are used in tribal ceremonies.
After O’Leary made a few calls to others who wanted smoke-free air for the tribe, the Coalition first met in 2009. They all cared about the issue, but none had any experience with community public health policy.
“Very early in the process, I contacted the Public Health Law Center,” she said. “I was set up with Mike Freiberg. At that time, I don’t think he had a lot of experience with tribal law, but he had extensive experience with smoke-free policies.”
Freiberg recommended they start by reviewing the South Dakota smoke-free law together. After many phone calls and emails, the Coalition created a draft of a tribal commercial smoke-free law that was similar but stronger than the South Dakota law, with an exemption protecting the use of traditional tobacco.
“Mike helped us understand the importance of definitions in a law, and the integration of local, relevant research about the health impact of tobacco on our community,” O’Leary said. But despite its legal work with the Center, and its efforts to educate the community about second-hand smoke, the tribal council remained hesitant to move forward for several years.
“Mike helped us review the ordinance every time the council had concerns,” she said. “We changed the definition of commercial tobacco to include e-cigarettes, because e-cigarettes weren’t even a thing when we started! We always knew we had Mike there as a resource.”
Finally, the Coalition’s efforts were rewarded. At an emotional meeting in April 2015, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council passed the smoke-free ordinance after dozens of tribal supporters, many of them children, spoke to the council about how commercial tobacco had affected their lives. There wasn’t a single ‘no’ vote that day.
"The Public Health Law Center helped us use tribal sovereignty as it is intended – to protect the health, safety and welfare of tribal citizens within tribal territory,” O’Leary said.
“Every time we share our experiences with other tribes, we recommend the Public Health Law Center, because I absolutely believe that we would not have been successful without their support."