Oglalas Ask Courts to Cap Whiteclay Beer Sales

Published in Indian Country Today in 2012. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Following up on a recently filed federal lawsuit against beer stores, breweries and other businesses involved in the Whiteclay, Nebraska alcohol trade, the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has gone a stop further and is requesting injunctive relief from the courts. The Oglala Sioux Tribe wants the court to limit total volume of beer sales in Whiteclay to the amount that can be consumed in accordance with Nebraska and Oglala Sioux Tribe laws. The original lawsuit demanded a still-unspecified sum—widely reported as $500 million—for damages done to the tribe by generations of alcohol sales. Whiteclay lies on the reservation's southern border, a quick walk from its main population center in Pine Ridge village.

An easy walk south from Pine Ridge Village to Whiteclay.
A tribal member who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution claimed the lawsuit would be a big help. “In a few minutes, you can stroll down to Whiteclay from Pine Ridge Village, the biggest population center on the reservation,” he said. “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.” 

How much can be sold legally in Whiteclay? Very little, according to tribal attorney Thomas White, of White and Jorgenson, in Omaha. Last year, Whiteclay’s four take-out beer stores purveyed the equivalent of 4.3 million 12-ounce servings. However, there is no place in the town, such as a licensed bar or café, in which the public may drink alcohol legally. Therefore, said White, it must be either consumed in public in violation of Nebraska law or bootlegged onto the adjoining dry reservation in violation of Oglala Sioux Tribe law.

The tribe’s latest legal filing was inspired by public remarks by Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who said during a radio program about the original lawsuit that shutting down beer stores in Whiteclay would mean Pine Ridge residents would simply travel to other Nebraska towns to buy alcohol. That sentiment was echoed in a recent newspaper story by a resident of the town and in interviews filmed for the award-winning 2008 documentary Battle for Whiteclay.

With Nebraska’s top legal advisor indicating the state would not enforce its own liquor laws, the tribe was left with “no adequate remedies at law” to stem the ongoing flood of alcohol across its borders, says its most recent complaint.

Sleeping it off in Whiteclay.
The reservation was first declared dry, with alcohol use and sale prohibited, when it was formed in the mid-1800s. Bootleggers set up shop across the border in Whiteclay, Nebraska, almost immediately and began to peddle booze onto Pine Ridge, which to this day suffers crippling rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related public-health issues, overwhelming the tribe’s health-care, social-services, education and justice systems. One in four children are born with fetal-alcohol effects. All told, alcoholism impacts 85% of reservation families, and nearly all crime on Pine Ridge is alcohol-related, says the tribe—which has no jurisdiction over Whiteclay.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo (top) and Stephanie Woodard.

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