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Beer Profiteers Fight Oglala Lawsuit That Seeks Control of Alcohol Sales

A story about the alcohol problem surrounding the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, focusing on Whiteclay, Nebraska.

The Oglala Lakota elder spread out the map on her kitchen table. It showed the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where possessing, consuming or selling booze can land you in jail. “People living in the western part of the reservation can get alcohol in the border town of Oelrichs, South Dakota, where carryout is available, and I hear a second bar has just been built,” she said, sweeping her hand across the left side of the map. “If you live on the eastern side, around Allen, for example, you can drive over to Martin to drink or buy carryout. In the northern part of the reservation, you can go to [the town of] Interior. And of course, there’s Whiteclay, to the south of us in Nebraska.”

Though the town of Whiteclay, population about 12, is the most notorious of the tiny, alcohol-soaked border towns surrounding the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, there are plenty of places where booze is easily available to Oglala Sioux Tribe members. Like gruesome beads on a giant necklace, bars and carryout stores ring the reservation. They also help drive its generations-long, alcohol-related public-health crisis: one in four babies born with fetal-alcohol effects, an infant mortality rate 300 percent higher than the country as a whole, youth suicide 150 percent higher than other Americans and life expectancy at least 25 years shorter.

The towns all have one major industry: selling beer to Indians. On the drive to Interior, just north of Pine Ridge, numerous road signs promise beer, wine and liquor. Once in the sleepy little burg, population 67, visitors can choose from half a dozen places to buy alcohol, to drink on the spot or carry out. On a recent Saturday night, the Wagon Wheel Bar & Grill served beer and whiskey to a mixed clientele of cowboys and Indians. A huge sign proclaiming INDIANS ALLOWED on the defunct bar in neighboring Scenic, South Dakota, now a near-ghost town, long pointed Lakotas to the bar—and adjoining jail.

Some on Pine Ridge are determined to maintain its dry status, while others want to repeal the tribe’s temperance law. The elder with the map, who asked to remain anonymous, explained: “I know it would mean liquor stores would open on the reservation, but we’d get the taxes and could spend the money on treatment programs.”

A Wounded Knee resident agreed, recalling what he observed when the prohibition was briefly lifted in the 1960s: “The bootleggers were put out of business. They didn’t like it, so they supported reinstating prohibition. That was done, and they were back in business.”

That business is booming, especially in Whiteclay, where four ramshackle stores annually sell the equivalent of more than 4 million 12-ounce servings of beer (though not spirits or wine), according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. “Whiteclay is a unique situation,” said attorney Tom White, of White & Jorgensen, in Omaha. Through his firm, the tribe has filed a federal lawsuit in Nebraska against those who manufacture, distribute and sell the beer available in Whiteclay—including local retail outlets and the Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Molson Coors and Pabst brewing companies. The tribe demands as-yet-unspecified damages from the businesses for knowingly engaging in illegal sales and contributing to the epidemic of alcoholism on its impoverished reservation.

Most Whiteclay sales are inevitably illegal, said White, because the town has no public establishments, such as licensed bars or cafés, in which to consume alcohol lawfully. Virtually all booze sold there must be either drunk in public in violation of Nebraska law or carried onto the dry reservation in violation of Oglala Sioux Tribe law. “When a liquor store elsewhere sells its goods, it can assume they will be used lawfully,” White said. “In contrast, in Whiteclay, with no publicly accessible place to consume alcohol legally, the stores sell it knowing that, without a doubt, it will be used unlawfully.”

The amount that can be sold legally will be very small; residents of Nebraska towns with their own bars and carryout stores are unlikely to drive to Whiteclay to shop. So lawful booze purchases may be limited to just what Whiteclay’s few residents can drink—nothing like the millions of dollars in store sales and hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state excise taxes that Nebraska’s liquor commission says are generated yearly in Whiteclay.

The tribe has no jurisdiction over Whiteclay. Though the town lies on land claimed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, that claim is disputed by both Nebraska and the United States, tying the tribe’s hands when it comes to enforcing liquor-control laws there. According to tribal Judiciary Committee head James “Toby” Big Boy, the tribe has pleaded with Nebraska to crack down on illegal sales in the town and set up tribal-police blockades of the road to Whiteclay. Tribal members march annually to protest unsolved murders and unexplained deaths of Natives in the Whiteclay area, he said. The new lawsuit follows decades of attempts to stop alcohol’s devastation.

On a recent sunny afternoon, virtually all the busy car traffic in Whiteclay arrived from or departed to Pine Ridge village, the reservation’s population center, with about 5,000 residents, a couple minutes’ drive to the north. Residents of the nearest Nebraska towns, such as Rushville, 22 miles away, or Gordon, 37 miles away, would he unlikely to drive to decrepit Whiteclay to buy alcohol, as they have their own local bars and liquor stores.

At any given time, as many as a couple dozen men, along with a few women, drink on the street, leaning against fences or sitting under the sagging porches fronting dilapidated buildings. “When they see police, they hide the open beer behind them,” said Sergeant Ken Franks, of the tribal police department’s highway-safety division. It’s common to see people lying in the street or in ditches, sleeping off drunks.

It’s also increasingly common to see coverage of Whiteclay in major news outlets—both The New York Times and the BBC had stories recently, for example. This phenomenon prompted prominent Oglala newsman and commentator Tim Giago to write on the Huffington Post that they all missed the longtime efforts of the people of Pine Ridge to combat alcoholism in the face of the mainstream world’s determination to feed this terrible ill. Equally, in focusing on Whiteclay, wrote Giago, none uncovered the wonderful and successful aspects of the reservation community—its college, its Boys & Girls Club and more.

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Meanwhile, the legal struggle—and the tribe’s effort to do something definitive about a major source of illicit alcohol—continues. At the end of April, the most profitable of Whiteclay’s four liquor stores, Arrowhead Inn, filed a motion requesting that the court dismiss the tribe’s suit. In 2011, the store sold 66,857 cases of beer, or more than 1.6 million 12-ounce servings, according to Nebraska Liquor Control Commission figures. At about $30 per case—about double the going rate—that means annual gross revenue of a little more than $2 million. The store’s motion to dismiss the tribe’s recent lawsuit says that figuring out what the tribe is asking for—that it sell only what will be consumed in accordance with the law—is not “practicable.” The legal document asks: “Would [Arrowhead Inn] be required to keep daily accounting of sales to certain individuals? Would this permanent injunction force Arrowhead Inn to cease operating?”

In their motion, Arrowhead Inn’s owners even claim that they will be forced to be perpetrators of racism if the lawsuit is upheld. “Plaintiff is, in essence, asking this court to disallow Arrowhead Inn from selling alcohol to Plaintiff’s Tribe members residing on the [Pine Ridge Indian Reservation],” Arrowhead Inn’s brief claimed. “This would present significant implications regarding prospective racial and ethnic discrimination in violation of constitutional protections. Worse yet, this could subject Arrowhead Inn to further litigation for discrimination based upon race or ethnicity.”

State Line Liquor’s motion to dismiss claims that restraining sales would interfere with Native American customers’ constitutional rights. State Line sold 41,852 cases—more than 1 million 12-ounce servings—in 2011, according to Nebraska’s liquor commission figures, for a gross of about $1.26 million.

The Arrowhead motion also introduced the specter of Native drinking spreading to other northwestern Nebraska towns, should booze be harder to obtain in Whiteclay: “If the Court were to grant a permanent injunction to only those retailers in Whiteclay, would those seeking alcohol drive to other areas to obtain it?” In filmmaker Mark Vasina’s 2008 documentary, The Battle for Whiteclay, Nebraskans openly expressed their desire to confine Indians and their alcohol consumption to Whiteclay.

Nebraska politicians have a very practical (and personal) reason to avoid offending alcohol manufacturers, distributors and sellers. The liquor industry was the top contributing sector for Governor Dave Heineman’s 2010 campaign, giving it more than $96,000, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Candidates for other in-state offices that year, including the attorney general, received amounts ranging up to several thousand dollars. Contributors included Oglala tribal-lawsuit defendants Anheuser-Busch and Jeff Scheinost of High Plains Budweiser, the largest distributor serving Whiteclay.

The four incredibly high-volume liquor stores in Whiteclay are not the only reason for the contributions, according to Vasina, who says that the alcohol companies’ overarching goal is really a continual loosening of state liquor laws (such as longer selling hours). However, he said, all that liquor money sloshing around the state means politicians have little will to stand up to liquor makers, distributors and sellers and resolve the Whiteclay problem.

So, it’s left to the tribe to seek a solution in court, said Big Boy: “Alcohol is depleting our people and our culture.”

Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, executive director of Four Directions Community Center, in nearby Sioux City, Iowa, has fought for more than a decade to close down Whiteclay’s liquor trade. He called Whiteclay a “hellhole,” adding: “The Oglala Lakota relatives bleed to death under the color of law. The free-enterprise mumbo jumbo spewed by [Nebraska officials] serves no purpose other than to reassure good ol’ boys and the liquor industry that all is okay as long as the countless victims of murder, rape and exploitation at Whiteclay aren’t white.”

LaMere said white officials had chided him for saying Nebraska has blood on its hands. “Do I still believe that?” he asked rhetorically. “You’re damned right I do!”


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