The $500 million Whiteclay lawsuit and a wide spot on the road called Swett

By Stew Magnuson / BUFFALO’S FIRE

I won’t presume to know what the true intentions of the Oglala Nation’s tribal leaders were when they filed the $500 million lawsuit seeking damages from the beer sellers in Whiteclay, Nebr., along with the distributors and brewers.

If they wanted to bring attention to the problem of chronic alcoholism on Pine Ridge where alcohol is prohibited, and the lack of resources being put toward the problem, then kudos!

In that respect, the lawsuit has already been a resounding success. I opened up the print edition of the Washington Post last week, and found the AP lawsuit story on page 2. USA Today, and other media outlets have picked up on the story. More importantly, eastern Nebraska newspapers have Whiteclay on their front pages again.

This brings me to a wide spot in the road just east of the Pine Ridge-Bennett County border no one talks about called Swett. Pine Ridge and Bennett County residents know this place, but few outside the area do.

There has never been a protest march on Swett that I know of. There are no Facebook groups devoted to Swett’s demise. If there is a group called “South Dakotans for Peace” that wants to shut down Swett, I have overlooked their efforts.

What is Swett? It does not appear on many road atlases or maps. But I assure you it exists. Punch Swett, SD in the Google Earth search engine, and it will swoop down and place a marker right in the middle of what appears to be a wheat field. What? “There’s nothing there!” One might say. But look to the east and west, and there are two circles along the side of U.S. Highway 18. These are the parking lots for two bars, where one can not only purchase off-sale beer, but sit down to drink and socialize.
I won’t repeat what misguided and incorrect reporters have said about Whiteclay: that “it exists only to sell alcohol.”

Whiteclay has several non-alcohol related businesses. That statement is not true, and never was. I won’t say that about Swett because one can also gamble on the “video lottery” machines, smoke, have a bite to eat, shoot the breeze with your friends and neighbors, and play games of skill such as pool and darts.

I went to Swett on a couple occasions back in 2003-2004 when I was researching The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder. One of Whiteclay’s staunchest supporters told me to go to one of the establishments. He said, “just go sit at the bar awhile and watch.” And so I did. And what I saw was a continuous string of Native American customers coming in to purchase cases of off-sale beer. I’m sure customers there do buy six-packs to take home to watch a game. All I can say is that in the couple hours I spent there, I did not observe this.

What I saw were customers driving in and getting two or three cases at a time, and leaving right away. I guess to be a diligent reporter, I should have followed these customers to see where they were going. It didn’t seem necessary. Maybe they were residents of nearby Martin. But why would they drive all the way to Swett to buy beer when there are plenty of liquor stores there in town?

So when the calculations for the amount of alcohol sold at Whiteclay are tallied (5 million per year) and put against the adult population of the “dry” Pine Ridge Reservation (possibly 25,000 or so), let’s not forget to factor in the amount of beer and spirits sold in Swett, Oelrichs, Gordon, Rapid City, Rushville and Chadron. (No one is keeping track of the ethnicity of customers in off-sale liquor stores in these establishments, so that number will always be pure conjecture.)

How and why Swett gets off the hook when it comes to selling alcohol that makes it onto the reservation is beyond me. Sad as it is to say, something tragic may have to happen there before it becomes as infamous as Whiteclay.

Which brings me back to the lawsuit. As far as bringing attention to the alcoholism problem on Pine Ridge, the lawsuit is already a success.

As far as making an impact on the real problem, that remains to be seen. If the tribe prevails, and wins a big chunk of money — and if that money is put toward effective and proven alcohol treatment programs, then it could help reduce the substance abuse rates on Pine Ridge. Or, if the brewers agree to build and fund a substance abuse center as a settlement, that would be a positive outcome.

Those are big “ifs,” though.

If through the lawsuit, the tribe manages to reduce the number of Whiteclay licenses, curtail the sale of beer there, or actually get the four stores shut down, it won’t result in a single sober day for a single person on Pine Ridge.

Why? The answer is Swett.

The shabby little town of Whiteclay is a symptom. The disease is drug and alcohol abuse.

Prohibition on Pine Ridge is not a treatment. It’s like a doctor entering the room of a cancer patient and telling him: “I don’t want you to have cancer.” Then expecting the tumor to magically go away.

Banning the possession and sale of booze on Pine Ridge as the Oglala Nation’s main policy to tackle alcoholism is an abject failure. Build a 20-foot high fence around Pine Ridge, fill up a moat with alligators and sharks, quadruple the number of cops, and give bootleggers the Death Penalty. None of that will help a chronic alcoholic get well and stop drinking.

Taking the analogy further, the oncologist will more likely put the cancer patient on a variety of drugs and treatments or recommend surgery to reduce the size of the tumor. Then he will have to continue to monitor the patient to ensure the disease doesn’t come back.

(Yes, alcoholism could be considered the symptom of larger problems on Pine Ridge. But for the purpose of this column, I have to stop the analogy here).

The point is that there has to be an overarching grand strategy with a multi-pronged approach to tackling chronic drug and alcohol abuse on Pine Ridge.

Maybe continuing prohibition, or getting Whiteclay beer sellers shut down, will be part of that strategy. Effective and widely available drug and alcohol treatment programs certainly will be. But there is no single solution to this difficult problem. The police and the lawyers can’t single-handedly reduce alcoholism on Pine Ridge.

The tribal government — not the Feds — needs to produce a document outlining its strategy for tackling the scourge of drug and alcohol abuse on Pine Ridge. If it already exists, my email is below. I would love to see it.

Stew Magnuson (stewmag@yahoo.com) is the author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns, which includes a detailed history of the first 80 years of Whiteclay’s existence.

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