Carnage on the Plains, part 3

Part three of an article series published in Indian Country Today in 2012. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....
I spoke to a tribal member who spent years patronizing Whiteclay’s beer stores but has now sobered up and turned his life around. He described alcohol’s devastating, multi-generational effects. He also asked to remain anonymous, for fear of retribution.

Will the tribe’s lawsuit against the beer makers, distributors and sellers help?
I think it will, because Whiteclay is where a lot of people on Pine Ridge get alcohol. Its a short walk [as shown below] from Pine Ridge village, the biggest population center on the reservation, right over the South Dakota–Nebraska line. Sometimes people go several times a day. So if you stop the liquor trade in Whiteclay, you severely limit access to alcohol on Pine Ridge.

Is policing effective in Whiteclay?
The tribe doesn’t have jurisdiction in the town, so all you get is an occasional patrol car coming by from the county sheriff in Rushville, 20 miles away. But I’ve watched the law just sit there while people get beaten. At night, you can hang around Whiteclay and watch the fights. There’s all kinds of lawbreaking; I observed a child selling beer in one of the stores. The white people of Whiteclay don’t care about any of this, Nebraska doesn’t care, and the federal government doesn’t care.

Why do you think that is?
Alcohol is a weapon. It’s like dropping a virus on us. They’re letting us kill ourselves with liquor. My grandma told me this long ago, and she was right. Alcohol touches every one of our families in one way or another, which creates complete and total misery. I know that for a fact. I’ve seen so many people die—some of alcohol’s direct physical effects, such as cirrhosis of the liver, some in drunken car crashes and others, including children, committing suicide, hanging themselves in sorrow over a relative’s death from alcohol. This is true in my family and everyone else’s. Often several people you’re close to—family and friends—will die in the space of a few weeks.

Is racism a factor?
Around here, in South Dakota and northern Nebraska, there’s a lot of racism, and that feeds any problems on the reservation. Racism is a constant. If I, a Native person, go into one of the little Nebraska towns, the cops stop me right away and ask if I’ve been drinking. ‘Have you had a drink?’ they ask. Shopkeepers follow me around their stores, watching to see if I’ll steal something. It makes me so angry. I went to Lincoln, Nebraska, and found no racism. It was strange to me. But they have a lot of cultures living together there, and that helps people understand each other.

What about the money connection?
Many white towns in the area are like ghost towns—tiny, nearly empty. Then you’ve got Whiteclay, which is also very small but very busy [as shown left], doing millions of dollars in business off Native Americans. Liquor stores in Whiteclay charge relatively high prices—$30 for a case of beer, when it’s less than $20 in nearby towns—which means they can be more profitable in Whiteclay than elsewhere. That’s hard to fight.

You mentioned children. How early do alcohol’s effects begin?
If their mothers drink, it starts before they’re born. One of four children here is born with fetal-alcohol effects. Some parents even put beer in their kids’ bottles to put them to sleep. Because alcohol affects us like crack cocaine does other people, they can become addicted. And with 85 percent unemployment on Pine Ridge, there are obviously no jobs and not a lot for young people—or anyone—to do all day, so they drink to forget. What this all means is that children’s lives may be over before they even find out what life is about.

How did the effects of alcohol play out in your family?
I was brought up by my grandparents, but they were helpless against my uncles, who were very violent men. When they were drunk, they’d tie me and my cousins together at the wrists and make us fight each other. Then they’d tie the loser to a pole and beat him up with whatever they had—fists, sticks and so on. When I was 10, my father handed me a beer and said, ‘This is what you are.’ The stores don’t card you in Whiteclay, so you can buy beer there when you’re a young teenager; I bought my first beer there at 14.

What changed in your life?
One day, I woke up, looked around, saw what alcohol had turned my life into and just stopped. I haven’t had a drink in years. I wish I could say that for the rest of my people. I wish they would open their eyes. I wish people in power could see. Maybe they would understand.

Is anything improving?
White people show up on the reservation, and my people put so much hope into the idea that this person or that one might get something done, but nothing ever changes. I think the general feeling in society at large is, if you’re selling alcohol to Native Americans, who cares?

What’s your outlook for the future?
Very frustrated. I want to do something, but it’s hard to make sense of insanity.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo.

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