By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS
Published: March 5, 2012
WHITECLAY, Neb. — Four rickety metal shacks that line the main road in this town of maybe 10 people sell an average of 13,000 cans of beer and malt liquor a day. The nearest sizable city is two hours north. But just 240 yards north — across the state line in South Dakota — is the sprawling Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol has been banned since the 1970s.
Nearly all the alcohol bought in Whiteclay winds up on Pine Ridge or is consumed by its residents, tribal officials say. Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe and is one of the poorest places in the country, according to 2010 census data.
In February, the Oglala Sioux filed a federal lawsuit against the stores, and Anheuser-Busch and several other large American brewing companies, accusing them of encouraging the illegal purchase, possession, transport and consumption of alcohol on the reservation. Fetal alcohol syndrome, fatal drunken driving accidents and beer-fueled murders have cast a pall over Pine Ridge for decades.
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.
Thomas M. White, the Omaha lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the tribe, describes Whiteclay as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” There is a lawless feeling in the town.
The Sheridan County sheriff’s office, responsible for patrolling Whiteclay, is 19 miles away and has only five deputies. The department says it lacks the resources to properly patrol the town. The tribal police department, which has 38 officers — down from 101 six years ago — lacks jurisdiction.
John Yellow Bird Steele, the tribal president, said 90 percent of criminal cases in the court system and a similar number of reservation illnesses were caused by alcohol — the vast majority of which, he said, was brought illegally from Whiteclay.
“We believe we can’t get ahead, or function, without Whiteclay being addressed,” he said.
On Pine Ridge, which is roughly the size of Connecticut but has a population of about only 45,000, the tribal police last year made 20,000 alcohol-related arrests. As an indication of the depth of the problem, Thomas Poor Bear, a tribal vice president who has been a leader in calling for change in Whiteclay, was arrested and jailed last month and charged with obstructing government function and having consumed alcohol. Mr. Poor Bear has denied the charges, saying he had taken cold medicine. But his lawyer, Tom Clifford, said that his client drank “a couple of beers” before his arrest.
The lawsuit seeks $500 million for costs incurred by the tribe for health care, law enforcement and social services related to chronic drinking, and to limit the amount of beer Whiteclay shops can sell. The legal argument is that the brewers and the stores 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. Any sign of alcohol — the smell of beer, walking funny, slurred speech — can get a person arrested in Pine Ridge.
The suit was filed in federal court because the federal authorities oversee Indian reservations and are the ultimate arbiters on alcohol issues. Anheuser-Busch and the other alcohol companies named in the lawsuit declined to comment or did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Excessive alcohol consumption is the leading cause of preventable death among American Indians, and they are affected at about twice the rate of the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The lawsuit comes amid a growing debate on Pine Ridge and other reservations about the wisdom of alcohol prohibition.
About a third of the nation’s 310 reservations ban alcohol, but Pine Ridge is the only remaining dry reservation in South Dakota. It abuts the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, which allows alcohol.
Proponents of repealing prohibition say legalizing alcohol would enable tribes to enact tighter controls and to use new revenue for treatment programs.
“Not to disrespect our elders and ancestors, but we’ve gone through several generations,” said Milton Bians, a tribal police captain, who was raised by grandparents because his parents drank.
Though the reservation is dry, nearly every aspect of life there is affected by alcohol. Tribal leaders say four in five families on the reservation have someone with a drinking problem, and one in four babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Rates of diabetes, teenage suicide, crime and unemployment are in some cases exponentially higher than national averages, according to federal and tribal data and officials.
The beer store owners declined to comment, citing the lawsuit. Whiteclay’s other businesses, which include two groceries and an auto body shop, say they feel little responsibility.
Victor Clarke, who has lived in Whiteclay 19 years and owns Arrowhead Foods, a grocery that does not sell alcohol, said there would be dozens of places within an hour’s drive where alcohol could be bought if the town’s annual sale of 4.9 million cans of beer and malt liquor was halted.
He said the widespread fear that Whiteclay’s troublesome customers would then move elsewhere virtually guarantees the town’s survival.
“People don’t want Whiteclay to go away,” he said. “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.’ ”
Each side blames the other for the drunken assaults, robberies and murders that are part of Whiteclay’s ebb and flow.
“A lot of times, there’s a problem that boils up in South Dakota and ends up in Whiteclay,” said Sheriff Terry Robbins of Sheridan County. About the prospect of more patrols, he said, “With the economy the way it is, I don’t see us doing anything that we’re not trying now.” Deputies patrol the town two to three times a day.
The Arrowhead Inn, one of Whiteclay’s four beer stores, has a sign posted saying, “Cash your income tax check here.” The store takes a 3 percent commission. Pine Ridge has no banks, so the liquor stores serve that purpose.
The shop sells a 30-pack of Budweiser cans for $27.25 — a price higher than in New York City, and nearly twice as high as elsewhere in the country. But the drink of choice in Whiteclay is Hurricane High Gravity Lager, a malt liquor brewed by Anheuser-Busch. A 16-ounce can costs $1.50 at the Arrowhead Inn. Its alcohol content is 8.1 percent; regular beer has an alcohol content of about 5 percent.
Daryl Walking, 46, a former Marine who said he has been drinking since he was a boy, said he spends three nights a week in jail for public intoxication and the other four in the cold.
“I’ll curl up against the wall and I’ll wake up half frozen, but I’ll still be O.K.,” he said.
His friend James Whiteface, 43, was recently released from the tribal jail. It was his birthday, and he showed the date of birth on his arrest form to prove it.
“I came here right after I got out,” he said, referring to Whiteclay. “This is where everybody meets.” he said. Mr. Whiteface, a slight man, said he could drink six 16-ounce cans of Hurricane in one sitting.
A Nebraska State Patrol officer drove past. Someone shouted an obscenity. 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 of drinkers had grown thicker
Published with photographs in the New York Times 3/06/12