Something Has To Change: The Oglala Lakota Lawsuit against Whiteclay

By Dana Lone Hill / LAST RED INDIANS

The first I noticed of the lawsuit recently filed in federal court, by the Tribe I am proudly a member of, was through a link on Facebook that led to an article in a local paper.  After I read it, I admit, I was astonished.  The person who put up the link was a Tribal member who had made the remark that the Tribe “just needed to legalize alcohol, already.”

This is a tough subject for me to write about.  The Oglala Sioux Tribe is suing the four businesses in Whiteclay, Nebraska, as well as the distributors, and the brewers.  It seems to have divided the people into what should be done and what shouldn’t be done, and that’s only from what I gather on social networks, talking to a few on the phone, and through a few emails.

I have been through the battle with alcoholism.  I know it’s not over.  I take it day by day, and am grateful every night when I close my eyes and I am sober.  Of course it wasn’t easy.  I had to hit bottom, and practically lose everything- including myself- to find myself.  Besides being a mother to four beautiful Lakota children, my recovery is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

When I heard about the lawsuit and saw some of the opinions from people back home posting from on and off the reservation, I wanted to look into it more.

I, myself am guilty of giving money to all four establishments for beer.  Nobody put a gun to my head and made me buy the beer.  It was a low point in my life.  I have no excuses.  I don’t know when I went from becoming the girl who wanted to have a few beers to watch a baseball game, to the girl who wanted a perpetual buzz; but I wanted a better understanding of why the tribe filed the lawsuit, when clearly, no one made me (or anyone else) buy beer.

The first thing I did was read the lawsuit, and I realized that to understand it, you have to understand the history of the Oglala Lakota.  After getting past the long list of defendants, which include retailers, distributors, and brewers, I finally found the part called ‘General Allegations.’   The first part talks about the Oglala Sioux Tribe being one of the Sioux tribes noted in the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty with the Government.  Therefore, the Tribe should have jurisdiction over all the lands agreed upon in the area called The Great Sioux Reservation, including lands that were unlawfully taken that the Tribes still lay claim to.  This would include all of western South Dakota, northern Nebraska, and eastern Wyoming, as well as the Sacred Paha Sapa, (the Black Hills).  This area originally included 60 million contiguous acres.

When General Custer set out in 1874 on The Black Hills Expedition with the U.S. Army in the hopes of discovering gold, the land was he found gold on was Sioux land.  Once that discovery was made public, miners began migrating there illegally.  Under presidential orders, no military action was to be made against the miners’ occupation of the sacred Black Hills.  These orders were to be enforced “quietly and confidentially.”

When the miners and settlers illegally occupying the sacred Black Hills became too numerous, the government decided to negotiate a price with the Sioux for the sale of Black Hills.  This failed because the Black Hills were considered to be sacred.  The Sioux refused to sell The Black Hills.  The US declared the Sioux Indians “hostile,” and resorted to military force in an expedition to remove the Sioux from the Black Hills.  This included the encampment along the Little Bighorn River, which is better known in history as “Custer’s Last Stand,” or to us Indians-”Victory Day.”

In 1877, Congress passed an act to make the 7.7 million acres of the Sacred Paha Sapa available for sale to private interests and homesteaders.  In 1889, Congress divided the Great Sioux Reservation into six separate reservations with defined boundaries.  The Pine Ridge Reservation,  with a land mass of over 2 million acres, has only 84,000 acres that are actually useful for agricultural use.  That made it hard to fulfill the purpose of The Dawes Act of 1887, which wanted to turn all Natives into farmers.  The Lakota way of life, of hunting and providing for each individual person’s own family, was gone.

You’re probably wondering why I am digging up so much history for a lawsuit filed a few weeks ago over beer.  There is a method to my madness, so bear with me.  I remembered something from my youth, at that point- about a man who had lived just south of Whiteclay, who fought to be able to have a reservation phone number, rather than a Nebraska number, which would have been long distance back then.  I remembered hearing how he had this number because he lived in the “Extension.”  There was a little country school on the back roads in Nebraska called Extension School, and a church called Extension church.  He had won his right to have a reservation phone number because he lived in a place that was still an extension of the reservation.  Then I looked up the history of the small unincorporated town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

The first thing I found out was that when you go to Whiteclay, Nebraska on Wikipedia, it redirects you to Pine Ridge, Nebraska.  Pine Ridge, Nebraska was referred to as Whiteclay after the Extension.  In 1882, after the boundaries of the reservation were established, the U.S. government added a 50 square mile strip of land called The Whiteclay Extension.  The area, under Executive Order, was created to serve as a buffer zone to prevent the sale of alcohol to the residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Well, now I realized why everything was called “Extension,” and also that Whiteclay had turned into the exact opposite of what it was created for.

In 1904, without consulting the Oglala Sioux Tribe, President Roosevelt signed an executive order removing 49 of the 50 square miles of The Whiteclay Extension.

Photo by Associated Press

Alcohol was immediately available for sale at a trading post near the border of the reservation.

That is where the four retailers named in the lawsuit have set up shop.  They sell approximately 5 million cans of beer a year in a town with the population of 12.  That’s 468,750 gallons of beer- enough to fill up 52 Empire State Buildings!  Mind boggling!  The life expectancy rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation is 54 for women and 48 for men.  It makes you wonder what took so long for anything to be done, or why nothing was done before.  Now, I don’t know much about gun laws- and this is only an example (not about gun control before anyone gets all up in my kool-aid), but it seems to me if a town of 12 had four gun shops and was selling nearly five million bullets a year, and residents in a much larger town nearby which sold no guns or bullets had the life expectancy of a third world country, the government would have stepped in.  It makes one wonder if the purpose of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order to make the Whiteclay Extension public domain was the same as handing out blankets with small pox.

None of the twelve residents live below the poverty line in this Whiteclay.  In fact, the median income for a family in Whiteclay is $76,250, with the median income of a male resident being $25,625, versus the median income for a female resident of Whiteclay being $53,750.  The average per capita income on the Pine Ridge Reservation is $6,286.

This per capita, along with the 80% unemployment rate and all the other statistics on the Pine Ridge Reservation that may only be compared to Haiti in this Western Hemisphere, are a part of what feeds fire of alcoholism.  Well, that and 5 million cans of beer a year- 5 million cans that are illegally transported onto the dry reservation.

It seems the lawsuit has divided the Tribe into those who want legalization of alcohol to those who want to remain a dry reservation.

The argument is definitely there for legalization.

I have heard many different opinions and facts as to why we should legalize alcohol. 1.) Take away the power from the bar owners in Whiteclay and other surrounding border towns.  2.) Use the revenue to help the people.  3.) To take care of our own, to build treatment centers, to take care of our youth, elders, etc.

Then there are those that say we should do something, but stay a dry reservation.  The belief is that making alcohol legal on the reservation will not change anything and only make things worse.

They believe that while the sales of alcohol can be regulated, the impacts cannot.  Although you have to take into account how much money is spent incarcerating everyone who is arrested for a liquor violations, rather than the recovery.

It appears to me, that in asking the few people I have asked about this lawsuit the Tribe, the Oglala Lakota who were led by Crazy Horse in preserving the Lakota way of life, remains divided and agrees only on one thing.

Something has to change.

-Said the woman who believes we should have asked for treatment centers, wellness centers, detox centers, and homeless shelters to help keep our people out of Whiteclay.

-Said the man who lost his sister, mother, and numerous other family members to alcoholism.   In fact, he asked me if I could name one person on the reservation who hasn’t lost someone to illness, death, or incarceration due to alcoholism.  I couldn’t.

-Said the elderly lady who was born in the 30’s and wasn’t raised by her parents because they were already lost to alcoholism.

-Said the man who believes we need to start working together and believing in each other again.

-Said my son, who not only lost grandmothers and an auntie to alcoholism but his mother, me, for a short time in his life.

-Said the woman who raised too many grandchildren and wonders when it all stopped being about the children.

-Said my mother, who 30 years ago wanted to shut Whiteclay down after seeing so many children being born with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Now this lawsuit hit the press like a train.  People are talking.  I have read some comments but I quit.  They will continue to talk about how it’s not possible, how nobody made the people drink, how the tribe will lose, etc.  They can talk, because they never had to live on the reservation.

At least they are talking.

As Lakota, we have the obligation to be sober, to take care of our own.  The healing needs to begin.  We recognize that we have had historical trauma and grief with all that was lost (historical trauma that I barely even began to write about here).  We recognize the need to begin the healing process.  Maybe this lawsuit will provide a way to build the facilities to provide the services to do that.  Whether that be via monetary settlement, or legalization.

Most of the Lakota from Pine Ridge that I ask about the lawsuit say the same thing:  “What took so long?”

We wonder what took so long for people, our people- to even talk about it, and we know clearly that something must change.

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