Editorial, 2/18: New ideas on Whiteclay


With millions of cans of beer continuing to flow unabated year after year from Whiteclay across the border to the Pine Ridge Reservation, it’s encouraging to hear some new ideas for addressing the problem.

A long-shot civil lawsuit filed by Omaha lawyer Tom White for the Oglala Sioux Tribe seeks $500 million from defendants ranging from major breweries to the little stores in the village of Whiteclay, population of 10 or so, that sell all that alcohol.

The sad scene in Whiteclay, where drunks often sleep in the street, has been documented time and again.

The tribe’s lawsuit contends that the defendants are liable because they are knowingly helping people break the law. With about 13,000 cans of beer being sold on average every day in Whiteclay, both merchants and suppliers have to know that buyers will be breaking the law, the argument goes.

Alcohol cannot legally be drunk in the stores in Whiteclay or on the reservation 250 feet away. In addition, it is illegal for people to resell the alcohol on the reservation.

Frank Pommersheim, a Native law expert at the University of South Dakota, said he had never heard of a lawsuit of this type.

Nonetheless, if the lawsuit results in a settlement, whether in or out of court, it could provide essential funding for alcohol treatment programs on the reservation, where one in four babies is born with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome disorder.

A more proven concept for confronting alcohol abuse in Whiteclay would be the creation of an “alcohol impact zone” that would be authorized by a bill introduced by Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth.

Under LB829, local governments could apply to the Liquor Control Commission to create zones where the commission would place special restrictions on the alcohol sales. For example, the commission might restrict the hours that alcohol sales are permitted.

Liquor Control Commission Director Hobert Rupe said the zones have been effective in reducing alcohol abuse in other states, including Tennessee and Washington.

“This is not reinventing the wheel here,” Rupe told senators. In addition to restricting hours, other states ban the sale of higher-alcohol malt liquors that are associated with alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abuse in Whiteclay and on the Pine Ridge Reservation is a tragedy that continues to lay waste to generations. But the possibility of trying new approaches renews hope that eventually the tide can be turned.

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