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Whiteclay: Oglala Lakota Lawsuit Keeps Alcohol Problem on Front Burner

A column by Mary Annette Pember about alcoholism and addiction.

As a Native American woman and recovering alcoholic I am grateful for Whiteclay, Nebraska for the simple reason that it keeps the disease of alcoholism and addiction right where it needs to be for our people: front and center.

Having seen many failures and successes in sobriety, I am convinced that the message in the often-quoted recovery phrase willingness to do whatever it takes is the key to successful sobriety.

The Oglala Lakota lawsuit against beer companies and stores in Whiteclay is a bold step that reveals the communities desperation. Social and health services on the reservation are overwhelmed. As a recovering alcoholic, however, I see their desperation as a good thing. It is helping the community gain the willingness to put aside shame, embarrassment, denial and public censure. Although the lawsuit may be destined for failure, it could be an important move towards changing the public narrative surrounding alcoholism as a disease of “choice.”

In an earlier article in ICTMN, Terri Hansen wrote about the research of two Native women journalists who were examining the way in which diabetes is also framed in the popular press as a disease of choice. They compared this perspective with the way in which tobacco addiction has changed in the public view and how greater understanding of the addiction has resulted in increased public funding for anti smoking programming. They also noted how the public subsequently exerted greater pressure on tobacco companies to take responsibility for their roles in this public health crisis.

Although alcoholism is a disease, greed is not—it is a choice. The people working for corporations such as Miller Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch and the liquor-store owners in Whiteclay are actively making a choice to profit from the sales of a product that fuels addiction and kill others. In an Associated Press story, Randall Goyette, an attorney for the Jumping Eagle Inn, one of the Whiteclay liquor stores named in the lawsuit, “alcohol problems on Pine Ridge can only be due to personal conduct.” Do such statements really absolve alcohol producers and sellers from culpability in this equation of addiction? Is publishing the disclaimer Drink Responsibly really enough?

Tribal attorney Tom White told Indian Country Today Media Network in February, “This case is to show that this volume of alcohol sold to a reservation just destroys it and debases it. This case is real simple. Everyone from Anheuser-Busch on down knows that 4.9 million 12 ounce servings of beer sold in a town of 11 people with no other population around except a dry reservation knows that there is no way that that amount of alcohol could be lawfully consumed.”

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I became addicted to alcohol because I have the disease of alcoholism. Alcoholism and addiction are major public health issues for everyone, not just Native peoples. The disease is usually more visible among Native peoples because we have far fewer economic and/or social reserves that do white folks. A whole lot more has to happen for the alcoholic white CEO of a corporation to end up on the street than for an unemployed Native person living on a reservation.

Like all alcoholics and addicts, Native peoples are not inherently weak willed or morally bad people. As part of my recovery work, I often visit the county jail here in Cincinnati to share my experience, strength and hope with fellow alcoholics and addicts. I have seen first hand that this disease spares neither race nor economic status. Clearly, however, the poor are far more vulnerable to the fall out from addiction and alcoholism.

I imagine the alcoholics in Whiteclay and other vulnerable communities; have been raised with the experience that drugs and alcohol are the basic tools for living life. This was the case for many in my family. Many of the adults in my life drank when they were sad, they drank in celebration and to enjoy one another’s company; they drank because it was Tuesday. Drinking was what adults did, and the rest of us dealt with the complications without question. I did the same until I had a spiritual awakening for which I can take absolutely no credit. One day I became sick and tired of being sick and tired. I hit bottom and was morally and spiritually bankrupt. I was ready to do whatever it took to live sober. I acknowledged that addiction spirit and its power over me. How do we get other alcoholics and addicts to this jumping-off place? I have no idea. Sobriety for me was an act of God; it was gifted to me only when I accepted that my way of living life just wasn’t working. I admitted that I needed help and became willing to do whatever it took to stay sober.

That addiction spirit is out to destroy us and no amount of economic development programming will change that until Native peoples take a stand and fight that spirit with any means necessary.

Goyette noted in the same AP story that a ruling in the tribe’s favor would create a “paradigm shift: in the way alcohol is sold nationwide. A paradigm shift may be exactly what we need.

Mary Annette Pember is a member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. She is an independent journalist whose work focuses on Native peoples and issues. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children.

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