Carnage on the Plains, part 1

Part one 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....

One of the bars and liquor stores in the bordertowns ringing the legally dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The Oglala Lakota elder spread out the map on her kitchen table. It showed the legally 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 [shown here] where carryout is available. 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 Interior. And of course, there’s Whiteclay, to the south of us in Nebraska.” 

Though the town of Whiteclay, shown here, 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 liquor stores ring the reservation. They also help drive its generations-long, alcohol-related public-health crisis: one in four babies are born with fetal-alcohol effects, and it has an infant mortality rate 300% higher than the country as a whole, a youth suicide rate 150% higher and life expectancy at least 25 years shorter.

The towns all have one major industry: selling booze to Indians. On the drive to Interior, just north of the reservation, many road signs (shown here and below) promise beer, wine and liquor. Once in the sleepy little burg, population 67, visitors have a half-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 whisky to a mixed clientele of cowboys and Indians. A huge sign on the defunct bar in neighboring Scenic, South Dakota, now a near-ghost town, long welcomed Lakotas to a bar (and adjoining jail, seen here) with a sign proclaiming “Indians Allowed.” 

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 on treatment programs.” A Wounded Knee resident agreed, recalling what he observed when prohibition was briefly lifted during 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 four 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 and Jorgenson, 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 caf├ęs, 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 carry-out 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 has set up tribal-police blockades of the road to Whiteclay. Tribal members march annually to protest unsolved murders and unexplained deaths of Native Americans in the Whiteclay area, he said. The new lawsuit follows decades of thwarted attempts to stop alcohol’s devastation.

On a recent sunny afternoon, virtually all the busy car traffic in Whiteclay, shown here, arrived from or departed to Pine Ridge village, the reservation’s population center, with about 5,000 residents living a couple minutes’ drive to the north. Watching the traffic pattern, it was easy to believe that most of the beer sold was headed to the reservation. Residents of the nearest Nebraska towns, such as Rushville, 22 miles away, or Gordon, 37 miles away, would be unlikely to drive to decrepit Whiteclay to buy alcohol, since they have their own local bars and liquor stores.
 A visitor can observe booze being consumed openly in Whiteclay itself. 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 that front dilapidated buildings. “When they see police, they hide their open beers behind them,” said Sergeant Ken Franks, of the tribal police department’s highway-safety division. It’s common to see people lie in the street or in ditches, sleeping off drunks, according to a tribal member familiar with the situation.
 It’s also increasingly common to read about Whiteclay in major news outlets. Both The New York Times and the BBC sent reporters during a recent week. This prompted prominent Oglala newsman and commentator Tim Giago to write in The Huffington Post that they all missed the longtime efforts of the people of Pine Ridge to combat alcoholism. Equally, in focusing on Whiteclay, wrote Giago, none uncovered the wonderful and successful aspects of the reservation community—its college, its Boys and Girls Club and much more.
At the end of April, the highest selling of Whiteclay’s four stores, Arrowhead Inn, filed a motion requesting that the court dismiss the Oglalas’ lawsuit. In 2011, the store purveyed 66,857 cases of beer, or more than one and one-half million 12-ounce servings, according to Nebraska Liquor Control Commission figures. At about $30 per case, that means annual gross income of over $2 million for that store alone. The store’s motion to dismiss says that figuring out what can be “reasonably” consumed in accordance with the law is not “practicable.” The legal document asks: “How would Arrowhead Inn account for a ‘reasonable level?’ Would it be required to keep daily accounting of sales to certain individuals?  Would this permanent injunction force Arrowhead Inn to cease operating?”
Beer stores’ motions to dismiss also claimed they’d be forced to discriminate. “Plaintiff is asking this Court to disallow Arrowhead Inn from selling alcohol to Plaintiff’s Tribe members residing on the PRIR [Pine Ridge Indian Reservation],” Arrowhead Inn’s brief claimed. “This could subject Arrowhead Inn to further litigation for discrimination based upon race or ethnicity.” State Line Liquor, above left, sold 41,852 cases or more than one million 12-ounce servings in 2011, according to Nebraska liquor commission figures, for a gross of about $1.26 million; its motion to dismiss claimed that restraining sales would interfere with Native American customers’ constitutional rights.
The Arrowhead motion also introduced the specter of Native American drinking spreading to other northwestern Nebraska towns, should booze be harder to obtain in Whiteclay: “Would those seeking alcohol drive to other areas to obtain it?” In filmmaker Mark Vasina’s 2008 documentary, Battle for Whiteclay, Nebraskans openly expressed their desire to confine Indians and their alcohol consumption to Whiteclay. As recently as March of this year, the Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning said in an Omaha radio broadcast, “You shut down those folks in Whiteclay, and [the customers are] going to go somewhere.”

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

Whiteclay alone is not the reason for the contributions, according to Vasina, who says a continual loosening of state liquor laws (such as longer selling hours) is the main goal. However, he said, all that money sloshing around the state means politicians have little will to stand up to alcohol companies and resolve the Whiteclay problem. So, it’s left to the tribe to seek a solution in court, said Big Boy, adding, “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!”

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

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