Video: Whiteclay opinions on alcohol sales
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WHITECLAY, Neb. — The beer flows on the doorstep of the nation's second-largest Native American reservation about the same time many Nebraskans pour another cup of coffee.
Three Oglala Lakota men sat on the ground about 9 a.m. last Wednesday, their speech acquiring a slur that had been absent 15 minutes earlier.
They downed beer purchased from one of four liquor stores in Whiteclay, an unincorporated Nebraska village just a short walk from the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation across the state line in South Dakota.
The men pondered a time in the near future when they may not have to drink in this dusty, litter-strewn outpost.
“If we could have beer in our own homes,” said Dan “The Man” Garnier, “we would have a good time like normal Americans.”
Prohibition may have ended across America in 1933, but the experiment continues on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. At least for a few more months, that is.
The tribal council recently voted to allow tribal members to decide whether to repeal the ban. The referendum will likely take place in November.
If the descendants of Crazy Horse and Red Cloud repeal prohibition, they won't be alone. More than 60 percent of the nation's 337 recognized Native American tribes allow liquor sales on their reservations.
Given that an estimated 66 percent of the Lakota people suffer from alcohol addiction, a ban on the sale and possession of alcohol has long seemed the only rational policy for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Others, however, say it's more practical to control alcohol sales rather than allow store owners in border towns to reap financial rewards while the tribes are left with the problems.
“I would say legalize it. They're going to get it anyway,” said Gerri Night Pipe, liquor commission chairwoman for the neighboring Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, which repealed prohibition in 1977.
It's an issue that haunts Indian country.
“It's a problem, no matter what,” said Winnebago Police Chief Jason Lawrence.
Though alcohol is not sold outside of casinos on the Winnebago Reservation in northeast Nebraska, residents drive or sometimes walk six miles to buy beer at a convenience store located off the reservation.
Winnebago Tribal Chairman John Blackhawk said the highway to Homer, Neb., is dotted with flowers and memorials marking the spots where people died in alcohol-related crashes. The tribe holds an annual spiritual walk to remember those who died.
“We have to talk about alcohol, even though we don't want to,” Blackhawk said.
Efforts to restrict Indians' access to alcohol date to 1802, when Thomas Jefferson was president. In 1832, Congress specifically barred the introduction of “ardent spirits ... under any pretense” in Indian country.
Prohibition lingered on the reservations even after national Prohibition was repealed in 1933. It took two decades before federal law gave Native American leaders authority to allow alcohol on tribal lands.
Still, it wasn't until the proliferation of Indian casinos in the 1990s that most reservations adopted ordinances allowing alcohol sales.
In 1975, less than 30 percent of federally recognized tribes allowed alcohol sales on their reservations, according to a survey published in 2007 by Oregon Health and Science University researchers.
The number had more than doubled by 2006, to 64 percent. The researchers categorized many tribes as “damp,” allowing liquor to be sold by the drink at tribe-operated casinos but not elsewhere.
The three reservations in Nebraska fall into that category. The Winnebago, Omaha and Santee Indian Reservations allow some alcohol sales on their premises, mostly at casinos.
Bars once were allowed on the main street of Winnebago, but after the businesses were shuttered in the mid-1980s because their owners had died or retired, tribal officials decided to close the door on reservation alcohol sales.
At Santee, tribal leaders are proposing ordinances that would allow beer sales in tribal-owned convenience stores on the reservation.
Tribal Chairman Roger Trudell said that if the tribe licensed and taxed alcohol sales, it could generate money that benefited the tribe.
“Being realistic about the use of alcohol ... and recognizing that people will use regardless of the laws to prohibit, it would be better to try and regulate the sales and use on reservation lands,” Trudell said.
Anne Kovas, one of the Oregon researchers, wrote that more recently passed tribal alcohol laws tend to be complex and nuanced. Rather than simply legalizing consumption, they often include licensing and tax provisions, restrict sales to the tribe only, or limit the locations where alcohol can be sold.
“These increasingly complex policies have allowed tribes to exert more local control over alcohol legislation and therefore influence drinking and problematic behavior,” she wrote. She cited eight studies that showed mortality and injury rates decrease when alcohol is made legal.
Philip A. Mays of the University of North Carolina began studying the effect of alcohol policies after he became a U.S. Public Health Service worker at the reservation in Pine Ridge in 1970.
He was assigned to study the results of a two-month experiment that legalized alcohol consumption on the Pine Ridge reservation in June and July of that year.
Mays compared arrest records for the same two-month period in 1969, 1970 and 1971. He found that arrests of Indians in neighboring Sheridan County, Neb., where Whiteclay is situated, were more than 30 percent lower during the experiment. Meanwhile, arrests on the reservation remained stable or declined slightly.
Those in the legalization camp say the Lakota people suffer the devastation of alcohol without capturing what could add up to millions in revenues. The proposal would earmark sales and tax revenues for alcohol dependency treatment, which is the sticking point for some.
Those who support prohibition point out that the brief repeal in 1970 led to public drinking and intoxication on the streets of Pine Ridge and other reservation towns.
“I don't want to heal our people with this blood money,” said tribal President Bryan Brewer. “This blood money has to stop.”
Lloyd Night Walker agrees with the president. He works for Anpetu Luta Otipi, which translated means “living in a red day.” It's the sole chemical dependency treatment center on the reservation and always has a waiting list for its seven inpatient beds and 10 outpatient slots.
During his career, Night Walker said, he has seen alcoholics as young as 11 years old. He has known of people in their early 20s who have died of liver damage caused by drinking. And that's not to mention the traffic deaths, domestic abuse, child abuse and assaults all tied to alcohol.
Yes, the reservation needs more treatment options, he said, but legalizing alcohol to get that is like making jaywalking a felony so you can build more prisons.
“It's not worth it,” he said.
The council vote to allow the referendum was 9-7. That split reflects the larger divisions that exist over the matter among the nearly 50,000 people the president says live on the reservation. Brewer predicted the repeal vote will be close.
Repealing the liquor ban could also have a major impact on Whiteclay, which has long represented a battleground in the region.
The four off-sale stores in the village sell the equivalent of about 4 million cans of beer annually, mostly to residents of the reservation. That amounts to 456 cases of beer per day.
One beer store owner said that if the tribe started selling alcohol, it would undoubtedly cut the sales volume in Whiteclay, but he questioned whether that would “be enough to shut us down. We've got a lot of loyal customers.”
In Whiteclay, anger over the sales of alcohol to tribal members erupted in 1999 after the murders of two Lakota men who were last seen in the village. Tensions have spiked again this summer with daily protests and reports of shots fired.
Shutting down the Whiteclay stores has been the goal of many, both in and outside the reservation. They say the stores exploit a people afflicted by addiction and thwart the tribe's efforts to cut off the supply of alcohol.
The open consumption of beer and other malted beverages on the dirt walking paths of Whiteclay leads to public intoxication, fighting, sexual assaults and even homicides, say opponents of the beer stores.
But despite marches, roadblocks and meetings between the highest elected officials on both sides of the border, the situation in Whiteclay — and the hard feelings it produces — remains largely unchanged.
Just last week, Brewer traveled to Lincoln to meet with Gov. Dave Heineman. The meeting ended in just minutes with each man accusing the other of being unwilling to accept responsibility for the problems in Whiteclay.
The law violations in Whiteclay fall to several law enforcement agencies, but most directly on the office of Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins.
Lately Robbins, his deputies and up to three Nebraska State Patrol troopers have been escorting beer delivery trucks to Whiteclay.
The law enforcement escorts are in response to two incidents this year in which trucks were vandalized, cases of liquor were smashed and a truck driver was threatened with a knife.
Last week the region's Budweiser distributor ended deliveries in Whiteclay, saying beer store owners would have to drive about 20 miles south, to Rushville, to make pick-ups. The decision was made after a delivery truck was struck by either a pellet or a .22-caliber bullet from the reservation side of the border, the sheriff said. No arrests had been made.
As he sat and waited Wednesday for a Miller Beer truck to make its deliveries, Robbins said that if the reservation repealed its ban, that likely would lead to less loitering and criminal activity in Whiteclay.
“I don't know if it would work or not, but I'd like to see them try,” he said.
A repeal also would save work for the Oglala Sioux tribal police, because consuming a beer in a legal setting no longer would be a violation. In theory, it also would sharply reduce what is now the common practice of bootlegging.
None of the arguments can convince some that repealing prohibition is in the tribe's best interest. Among the strongest supporters of the ban are participants in Camp Zero Tolerance, who have set up a tepee on the reservation side of the border to protest alcohol sales in Whiteclay.
The nearly three months of daily protests would be in vain if the tribe votes to allow alcohol in, said Misty Sioux Little, a member of the tribe.
“This is a test of our people,” she said. “Our ancestors are watching.”
Olowan Martinez, 39, a veteran of Whiteclay protests who leads the camp, used a bullhorn Wednesday to taunt law enforcement members who were protecting the trucks.
Martinez faces criminal charges in Nebraska related to the truck vandalism, but she can't be extradited as long as she remains on the sovereign reservation. That's why she used a bullhorn.
She sees signs the younger generations view alcohol as she does: as a tool whites used to carry out the genocide of indigenous people. As much as a protest against Whiteclay, the camp represents a call to all people on the reservation to get sober, stand tall and vote against the repeal, she said.
“How can we remain clear-minded and strong-hearted defenders of the land if we are drunk and deluded?”