Native American Tribe's Battle Over Beer Brews
Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and MillerCoors are among the big beer makers the Oglala Sioux tribe has accused of illegally selling millions of cans of beer each year in Whiteclay, Neb. The town borders Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is located across the state line in South Dakota and is dry.
The Oglala Sioux's federal case was thrown out, and the tribe is considering what to do next — legalize alcohol or go to state court.
Lying on sidewalks in Whiteclay, passed out against storefronts day and night, are some Native Americans who come here every day to drink. The town has just one central road, a grocery, a couple of abandoned buildings and four liquor stores. Each year, those four stores sell what amounts to 4 million cans of beer.
And who lives in Whiteclay? According to the latest census: 11 people. That's right. Only 11 residents in a town that sells 4 million cans of beer each year.
Nebraska lawyer Tom White is suing beer makers and those stores on behalf of the Oglala Sioux. The suit was dismissed. But White says the federal judge acknowledged the tribe's claims and left the path open to continue the fight in state court.
White says nearly all the beer sold in Whiteclay is smuggled across the border onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where 40,000 people live.
"Well, there are 11 people. There's three houses in Whiteclay. [The beer] can't be drunk in public, but it is. And it can't be brought into the Pine Ridge, but it is openly right in front of the retailers, and everybody knows it," White says.
Lawyers for the beer makers won't comment for this story. But in asking the court to dismiss the suit, they argued it would force the stores to discriminate against Native American customers, and that the tribe has no legal standing to sue.
A few miles east of Whiteclay, Gayle Kocer runs one of the few addiction centers serving Pine Ridge. She too says suing beer makers isn't the answer.
"It's not Whiteclay's problem and fault, it's not the state of Nebraska's fault. We as people have to make this choice to get in there and do something," Kocer says.
She points to Oglala Sioux leaders and suggests they could slow the flow of alcohol by setting up checkpoints on the road from Whiteclay. The Pine Ridge has been dry since 1832. In the 1970s, alcohol was legalized but the ban was quickly restored after a public outcry. Today, some younger tribal leaders think the ban should be lifted, but many elders continue to resist that. Kocer says tribal leaders also need to acknowledge the scope of alcohol addiction here and look to other tribes for help.
"No, we're going to ask for money from the state of Nebraska and from all those beer companies because they're destroying our people. Well guess what? This has been going on for generations," Kocer says.
Frank LaMere is a longtime activist and a member of the Winnebago tribe on the other side of Nebraska. He says alcohol continues to flow because of inaction on both sides of the border.
"When I hear somebody say, 'Well, that's their problem. They've really got to deal with that issue on Pine Ridge.' That's like code. It's a subtle message to you that we're not going to do a damn thing," LaMere says.
Fellow Winnebago member Lance Morgan agrees. Morgan is a Harvard Law School graduate who has studied Indian law. He says the property rights of the store owners are being valued over tribal law and the rights of Native Americans.
"Any time you talk about property rights to Indians, it's sort of a joke to us. I have a map on my wall of us owning Wisconsin before we got moved to a small, tiny corner of northeast Nebraska," Morgan says.
Morgan says Nebraska would have shut the liquor stores down in Whiteclay a long time ago if the stores had a different customer base.
"If it was anywhere else, it would have been hammered down. If it was any other group — if it was white people laying in the streets and Indians selling to them — well hell, they'd have the cops in here. They'd try to shut us down, they'd take us to court. So for us, it's just obvious and ridiculous and ironic. And in the end, tragic," Morgan says.
As the sun sets in Whiteclay, a couple of people spontaneously begin to chant as they mill around on the steps of a liquor store. That sad ritual will continue into the evening and every night, so long as the political and economic battle over who's to blame for alcoholism on the Pine Ridge continues.
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