Wrongs in Whiteclay

Alcohol has been a volatile subject in Indian Country since explorers and settlers and sneaky land-stealing government officials introduced it during expansionist efforts of yore. Recently, the Oglalas of Pine Ridge, S.D., one of the nation’s poorest areas and a dry (alcohol-free) reservation, filed a lawsuit against major breweries and alcohol distributers for abuses suffered primarily at the hands of establishments operated in the nearby town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

A brief, if incomplete history:

There have been theories and proof the indigenous peoples of North America enjoyed mind-altering substances (peyote, anyone?), although those studies show the substances were utilized as spiritual tools, and generally came from the natural world.

For most of Western society, alcohol in its various forms has been enjoyed through the ages, giving those populations unique, evolutionary advantages in absorbing the effects and processing the sugars and yeasts and hops and whatnot (#notabeerconnoisseur). Native people, by comparison, were only very recently introduced to Western spirits, and it’s never enjoyed a positive place in our histories.

In the past, alcohol meant tricking Natives into signing over land rights and creating dependency. Today, it means much of the same, except that dependency has yielded to family destruction and death; studies show 1 in 10 Native American deaths are alcohol-related.

What’s Whiteclay got to do with it?

You need to put Whiteclay into perspective. It’s a town with a population size equal to the average age of Justin Beiber’s fanbase. Don’t let its small size fool you, though: Whiteclay sells about $5 million worth of alcohol annually. How is it possible for the towns four or five businesses to sell hundreds of cans of beer each week? The answer is its proximity to the Pine Ridge reservation (and by “proximity” I mean less than a stone’s throw away; someone can blindfold you, spin you, and send you toward Whiteclay, and you’re gonna have no problem pinning the tail on that donkey) whose largest town is within walking distance of Whiteclay. Since the reservation does not allow alcohol within its borders, people who want to imbibe must get their drink on elsewhere, and Whiteclay = easy access. Let me be clear: the town of Whiteclay exists solely to sell alcohol to the people of Pine Ridge.

That’s not free-market economics, folks; that’s predatory and abusive practices. Businesses in a whiter world are punished for less. Alcohol companies are targeting Pine Ridge – there’s no other way to say it.

And yet sadly many are saying it in other ways:

  • This is the Indian’s fault.
  • No one is pouring the beer down his throat.
  • I was an alcoholic for X years and I stopped on my own without blaming the beer companies.
  • They should focus on 12-step and recovery programs, not lawsuits.
  • If it’s not Whiteclay, those Indians will go somewhere else. We don’t want them here.

I’ve seen and heard other comments, but these seem to be the thoughts on most people’s minds. They are legitimate statements, for the most part, if you’re comparing Pine Ridge and its inhabitants to any other town or population (and if you’re a racist bigot, but that’s another post).

Disparities, Disenfranchisement, Disease – Oh my!

And there’s the rub. Indian people and reservations are unlike any other place on Earth. We are not simply a racial box to be checked on the Census sheet; we are socio-political, sovereign entities, and our relationship with the US government is akin to being an unwanted ward of the state. We are very recently conquered nations that have been allowed to continue a separate but equal way of life while enjoying the comforts and progress of Western civilization. Our numbers once reached into the tens of millions; Native Americans now account for less than 1% of the total US population, while our spiritual leaders and fluent language speakers account for much less than that. The efforts to bring our tribes to near-extinction are emblazoned in our hearts – all Natives are genetically wired for historical PTSD.

Sometimes, knowledge (and experience) of this trauma drives Natives to seek stronger, better lives. This happens in many forms, both on and off the reservation. Good on them! More often than not, however, this trauma repeats itself in a cyclical fashion. The disparities faced by Natives across all areas means the potential for continued trauma is greater than for non-Natives. It’s just so pervasive. Unemployment, poverty, education, disease, and other areas are so affected by trauma that each compounds upon the other to create suffocating conditions. To put it another way: Most people deal with poverty, and that’s it. Or just disease. Or a lack of educational opportunities. Sometimes people will deal with a combination of one or two issues, but they still have direct access to infrastructure, resources, and political ears. Natives deal with three or four or five issues at a time. It’s not just diabetes, but depression and alcoholism and a dropping out of school. It’s hard enough to dig your way out of one issue; try digging your way out of five. To make things worse (yeah, gets worse), Natives often live in geographic isolation, making access to resources difficult, if not impossible. Then, there’s political limbo – local and state officials and authorities are often reluctant to assist Natives as we’re under federal jurisdiction. A common refrain from state representatives here in South Dakota is “Why would we put money into Native programs when they can get the money from the Feds?” (BTW – there’s not a lot of – if any! – federal money funneled into social, academic, or employment programs, so the above excuse is BS.) Don’t get me started on fighting crime – money from Washington is often shoved in the direction of the tribal police force; that’s not bad per se, but what happens after the arrest? Take into account also that on the Pine Ridge reservation, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, 50-some tribal officers patrol the borders — down from over 100 officers in years past. To say there is a lack of resources would be the understatement of the century.

And there’s no holistic approach to overcoming all these issues Natives face. There might be a 12-step program, but the nearest therapist to help you deal with depression and suicidal thoughts (suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native American youth) is a three-hour drive away and you don’t have a car because you’re unemployed – no one is hiring in your small town (90 percent unemployment rate in the nation’s poorest county, Ziebach, which houses my reservation, Cheyenne River). And, statistically speaking, you probably also have diabetes or some other disease, which probably means your outlook isn’t at 100 percent and that you are also dealing with the underfunded, bureaucratic behemoth that is Indian Health Service. So while non-Native people may experience all of these issues on the surface, Native health issues (specifically addiction, disease and mental health) are compounded and often treated as separate, stigmatized problems that need “dealing with” versus total healing. A brilliant medicine man recently spoke at the Sioux Falls Diversity Conference here in Sioux Falls talking about holistic Native health care. Donald Warne, MD, MPH, called it the “Indian Health Trifecta” in which the patient is experiencing the three major health issues faced by Native Americans: diabetes, depression, and alcoholism. Because of the way the US health system operates, these three issues are never treated wholly or in conjunction with the others. What happens is the person never truly heals, and because of the compounding nature of these three boomerang-type issues, the individual is, in a word, screwed.

Not the Same Thing; Not the Same Ballpark; Heck – Not Even the Same Sport!

Saying, “Oh, it’s the Natives who have to stop – no one’s forcing them to drink,” is an overly simplistic and presumptionary stance to take. Because, really, they are being forced to drink. The news reports and lawsuit describe how people pay for their alcohol with their bodies, with SNAP (food stamps), with… anything. Alcoholism is a disease and you can’t hold people suffering acutely from any disease accountable for actions taken when they’re under the influence. You hold the people who sell the beer accountable, because they’re selling to people already intoxicated, or knowing full well they can’t afford it, or abusing/raping women, and they’re selling knowing full and well the majority of people purchasing the alcohol are heading back into a DRY reservation (dry as in prohibition – no alcohol allowed). This is what we call PREDATORY! Think about it: Our country went through similar issues in the 80s and 90s when health advocates began blaming cigarette manufactures for cancer-related deaths, accusing them of targeting and advertising to at-risk populations, like teenagers – who couldn’t even legally purchase cigarettes in the first place. If our communities can summon the energy to ban smoking in public spaces, surely we can band together to figure this out…?

What’s Left?

Beyond all of this – and I’ve only grazed the surface of all the issues that should be taken into consideration – what else is there to do? Where do you go if your back is perpetually against the wall? Desperation makes heroes or idiots of us all and at this point, what does Pine Ridge have to lose here? Children are dying – being brought into this world with brains befuddled by fetal alcohol syndrome. Men and women and families are drowning in alcoholism and its pervasive effects. Something needs to be done. Is this the best way? I don’t know. But it’s action, and action is needed. To those who mock or bemoan this particular action I say, “YOU do something, then.” Because chances are, you’ve done nothing.

I applaud the tribe for trying.

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