Alcohol abuse solutions must be pursued in Whiteclay

Published Thursday October 1, 2009
DAILY NEBRASKAN
BY SARAH MELECKI

When you hear that a town with a population of only 14 sells around 12,500 cans of beer every day, like Whiteclay, Neb., does, you probably wonder what the hell is going on. There can only be a few possible explanations. The town could either be close to a college campus or a large colony of drunken leprechauns.

But neither is the case for Whiteclay, which sits approximately two miles away from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux nation. Of the reservation’s 20,000 residents, USA Today estimates that more than 50 percent live below the poverty line, and four out of every five are unemployed. In addition, an estimated 80 percent of the population suffers from alcoholism, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.

In other words, what is going on in Whiteclay is the targeted exploitation of the Oglala Lakota Sioux people.

Indeed, author Ian Frazier states in his book “On the Rez” that more than 90 percent of Whiteclay’s business comes from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Besides the four liquor stores (all of which are able to sell only beer and malt liquor), Frazier states that Whiteclay includes a car-repair shop, a convenience store, a secondhand store, a post office, two grocery stores and a pawn shop.

Pretty much the bare necessities. And beer.

While the residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation barely get by, some are so poor and desperate for alcohol that, according to Nebraskans For Peace, they buy on store credit of food stamps or sexual favors, the people of Whiteclay are making bank. According to the 2000 Census, not one resident of the small town lived in poverty, and the average household income was $61,250 per year.

Even those residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation who aren’t going to Whiteclay to buy alcohol on a regular basis can’t compete with Whiteclay’s wealth, as FEMA estimates the average household income on the reservation is only $3,700 per year. There is literally a difference of $57,000 in average household income in this two-mile radius.

The effects of alcohol are strangling the Oglala Lakota Sioux, and Whiteclay is providing the rope. Not only are the vast majority of the Pine Ridge Reservation’s residents suffering from alcoholism, but crime and other health problems are also rampant.

Whiteclay no longer has any bars because so many offenses were taking place under the influence of alcohol. Now, the only liquor licenses that are administered in the Nebraska border town are for the sale, not service, of liquor, meaning that alcohol cannot be consumed on the premises of the businesses.

Closing all the bars in town hasn’t proved very effective, however. When thousands of people are walking a couple of miles to buy alcohol that they aren’t allowed to take home to their dry reservation, they are left with basically two options: drink in the abandoned buildings or the street.

The alcohol consumers in Whiteclay take advantage of both. Thus, the town is littered with brawls and drunk drivers. It isn’t uncommon to see sexual favors being exchanged for a beer or two. A homicide in 1999, still currently unsolved, is even believed to be alcohol-related.

But the story doesn’t stop there. USA Today reports that suicide, infant mortality and fetal alcohol rates are higher than average on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In addition, the newspaper states that alcohol-fueled car accidents in the area are nearly three times as common as in the general population.

James Abourezk, a former Democratic U.S. senator from South Dakota who was the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in the late 70s, said in a New York Times op-ed that other consequences of the liquor problem at Whiteclay include spouse beatings, child abuse and theft.

In addition to all of this, though Whiteclay itself is technically in Nebraska, the majority of the Pine Ridge Reservation lies just over the border in South Dakota. So Nebraska’s government has to worry only about those things that take place within Whiteclay while our state simultaneously creates a problem, and large budget burden, for our northern neighbor.

If you don’t see the problem, you need to get your eyes checked. It’s staring us right in the face. Not only is Whiteclay’s setup causing numerous illegal actions to take place every day, but the state and national community’s lack of acknowledgement and action has allowed for the already victimized Oglala Lakota Sioux to be increasingly abused.

If we simply sit and do nothing, this situation and the people affected by it can only continue to deteriorate, but if we work to better the situation, we can at least hope to curb the negative effects and possibly gain some victories along the way.

Nebraska’s Legislature and numerous other groups have been trying to figure out exactly how to combat this problem for a while now, and as a result, very little has been done. The solution, however, is not one step, and it isn’t just one thing. We need to combine almost all of the ideas that have been thrown out and attempt to use them together.

One proposal that moves in the right direction comes from former Sen. Abourezk, who suggests reinstituting some type of buffer zone between the Pine Ridge Reservation and areas allowed to sell alcohol in an effort to keep alcohol further from the reservation. The proposal would move businesses selling alcohol far enough away that residents of the reservation would have to travel a significant distance to get there, which would be costly and time-consuming.

I don’t believe that Native Americans shouldn’t be allowed to access alcohol. I want to stress that I believe the Oglala Lakota Sioux are being taken advantage of because of the high rate of alcoholism in their community. This is why I propose that sites where alcohol can be purchased be moved further away. We need to cut off the hand that is feeding the addiction.

Another proposal that should be simultaneously implemented is the expansion of alcohol treatment facilities on the reservation. It is important that these facilities be culturally competent toward the Oglala Lakota Sioux people because it is widely accepted within the behavioral health field that people of different cultures respond to treatments in diverse ways. No one knows better how to help their own people than the Oglala Lakota Sioux, and their strategies for combatting alcohol abuse should be implemented by state governments, who are the recipients of hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales tax from the beer in Whiteclay.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is already working on this, as they applied for $2 million in South Dakota stimulus funding to build a drug and alcohol treatment center this past year. However, according to recovery.gov, the funds have not yet been awarded.

While the majority of the Pine Ridge Reservation is in South Dakota, the reservation itself does not adhere to state borders, and it is important to realize that a piece of the reservation, albeit small, lies in Sheridan County, Neb. Thus, Nebraskans have an obligation to the people of the reservation, not only because we have allowed liquor-selling establishments to target Pine Ridge, but also because part of the reservation is in our state.

Finally, it is imperative that the quality of education and number of jobs offered to residents of the reservation increase dramatically. If we are to solve this problem, not only now, but also for the future, we need to create both infrastructure and an educated citizenry.

We have a choice. We can continue to pretend Whiteclay and the problems surrounding it don’t exist, or we can do something about it. Do you have the courage to take action?

Sarah Melecki is a senior Political Science major. Reach her at sarahmelecki@dailynebraskan.com.

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