OPINION: The last effort

SCOTTSBLUFF STAR HERALD

The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota has a problem. Many of its members drink too much.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is officially “dry,” but many residents cross the border into Whiteclay, Neb., buy beer there and take it back across the border to drink or re-sell. There’s no news in that. In fact, when activists who have made a career of blaming Whiteclay for the reservation’s woes announced plans this week to sue major beer brewers, the report in the Omaha World-Herald began: “The latest effort …”

The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota filed a federal lawsuit Thursday in Nebraska, suing the beer stores in Whiteclay, four western Nebraska beer distributors and five of the world’s largest brewers. The stores sell an infamous 5 million cans of beer a year, almost entirely because Pine Ridge customers, who are of legal age and have the necessary money on hand, buy them. If they didn’t, the Whiteclay stores would go broke in a matter of days.

Virtually all the beer sold in Whiteclay is bootlegged onto the reservation. Omaha attorney Tom White, a former state senator who represents the tribe, said those who profit from beer sales know they are contributing to the illegal use of their product. The lawsuit is about “holding them responsible and stopping the devastation of an entire people and culture.”

“They are helping people violate the law,” White said.

That’s an interesting admission, because while those who sell the beer certainly know where it’s going, they aren’t breaking the law by selling it. On the other hand, the tribal police know too, and so does the entire tribe. There’s no dense forest or mysterious labyrinth of mountain back roads between Nebraska and South Dakota. There’s only one short road, and it’s used for only one purpose. The bootlegging is an open secret. Stopping it would be as easy as setting up a roadblock.

The tribe is a sovereign nation with its own police force. You’d think that if the tribe was united in its concern about alcoholism, members would lock arms at the border to keep people from shopping at Whiteclay. But when some activists attempted to do that a few years back, guess who stopped them? When Nebraska’s then-Congressman Tom Osborne got $200,000 in federal funding set aside to help tribal police become deputized in Nebraska so they could make arrests on either side of the border, the money sat unclaimed. Yet no one is insisting that the tribal government or tribal police bear any responsibility for what White calls “the devastation of an entire people and culture.”

The fact remains, after visits from presidents and governors and members of Congress, marches and protests, documentary films and legislative hearings and millions of federal dollars, alcoholism remains rampant on the reservation.

Curiously (or perhaps not so curiously) the alcoholism rate and unemployment rates in Shannon County, where the reservation sits, are virtually the same: More than 8 in 10. More than half the residents are unemployed, compared with the nation’s current rate of less than 9 percent. Nearly 54 percent live below the federal poverty level. Per capita income is less than $8,000 per year.

So where do residents of one of the nation’s poorest counties get the money to buy $5 million cans of beer? The answer: From the government. The rates of participation in welfare, food stamps and food distribution far exceed the national average. Even those with jobs draw virtually all of their paychecks from government entities, though not from tribal alcoholism treatment facilities, which are almost non-existent.

Blaming others for the problem seems to be an imperative. Doing something about it, not so much. As usual, there’s more smoke than substance in “the latest” remedy.

If sellers are the problem, then so are government policies that enable impoverished alcoholics to keep buying booze. So is a corrupt tribal government that could enforce its own laws but won’t. And so are well-meaning folks who continue to believe that Pine Ridge alcoholism is a problem of supply rather than demand.

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