Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Oglala Sioux file suit against beer distributors

A student called to my attention last month a law suit the Oglala Sioux have filed in federal court against Anheuser-Busch and some other large breweries, along with four stores that sell beer in tiny Whiteclay, Nebraska, population 14. Turns out, more than 13,000 cans of beer and malt liquor are sold in Whiteclay every day, and the reason lies across the South Dakota state line: the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The New York Times reports on the lawsuit today, and the headline for Timothy Williams's story sums up the situation well, "At Tribe's Door, A Hub of Beer and Heartache."

The Pine Ridge Reservation has been "dry" (an alcohol prohibition area) since the 1970s, but a devastating alcohol problem persists there. The Oglala Sioux blame the beer distributors, accusing them of "encouraging the illegal purchase, possession, transport and consumption of alcohol on the reservation" where "[f]etal alcohol syndrome, fatal drunken driving accidents and beer-fueled murders have cast a pall over Pine Ridge for decades." The Sioux are seeking $500 million for costs that the tribe has borne for health care, law enforcement and social services linked to chronic alcohol consumption. The suit also seeks to limit the amount of beer that stores in Whiteclay can sell. The complaint alleges that the defendants "know that they are selling alcohol to people who have no permissible place to consume it, and who are smuggling it onto the reservation for illegal use and resale."

Williams describes the devastation that is Whiteclay:
After the lawsuit was filed, Whiteclay's two-lane road, Highway 87, bustled with traffic driving to and from the beer stores. Dozens of people in various states of inebriation wandered along the road. Other men and women were passed out in front of abandoned buildings. A Hank Williams, Jr. 45, "I'd Rather Be Gone," was among the detritus along the road, as well as empty liquor bottles, a copy of "Tabernacle Hymns No. 3," soiled clothing and a dead puppy.
Williams also explains some of the law enforcement limitations related to the easily available alcohol. First, the Sheridan County sheriff's department employs only five deputies, and the department is based 19 miles away in the county seat, Rushville. Those five deputies serve a county with just 5,469 residents spread over 2,446 square miles. That's a population density of just 2.2 persons/square mile. The Sheridan County sheriff says his deputies patrol Whiteclay two or three times a day, but with budget cuts, they cannot expect to do more.

Meanwhile, across the state line, the Pine Ridge Reservation is roughly the size of Connecticut, but it, too, is sparsely populated, with just 45,000 residents. The tribal police department has just 38 officers, a drop from 101 just six years ago. Ninety percent of the criminal cases in the tribe's court system are linked to alcohol, as are a similar percentage of illnesses among tribal members. Tribal police made 20,000 alcohol-related arrests last year. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, any sign of alcohol use, e.g., slurred speech, walking funny, can get a person arrested.

Williams shares an anecdote that highlights the inefficacy of the various law enforcement agencies in this place that he characterizes as "lawless." Williams describes a gathering of Sioux drinking in Whiteclay; one shouts obscenities as a Nebraska State Patrol officer passes. "The trooper slammed on the brakes and shouted obscenities back, threatening to call in the sheriff to 'clear this town.' An hour later, there was no sheriff, and the crowds had grown thicker."

Williams touches on another rural angle in this story--the role of the beer stores in Whiteclay's survival. In addition to the beer stores, the town has two grocery stores and an auto body repair shop. Williams quotes Victor Clarke, the owner of one of the grocery stores, which does not sell alcohol:
People don't want Whiteclay to go away ... The state of Nebraska doesn't want Whiteclay to go away because it allows problems to be isolated in this one little place. You hear people in the towns around here, saying, 'We don't want these guys in our town.'
Clarke makes the point that if the Sioux weren't getting their beer in Whiteclay, they could get it in any number of other places an hour away. By permitting the sale of unlimited beer in Whiteclay, the problem is cabined and concentrated.

This seems to me a truly pitiful effort on the part of all of the governments involved to address a complex and entrenched problem.

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