Beer instead of pride

By Lukas Ondreka, Washington / March 27, 2012 / Sächsische Zeitung (Saxony, German)

Translation by H. Peter Reinkordt / View original news story HERE

In the Oglala-Sioux Reservation in South Dakota alcohol has been banned for 180 years – nevertheless alcoholism is a public disease. Now the Indians are suing several breweries.

Chief Crazy Horse, sublimely carved in stone from the boulders of the Black Hills, gazes over the barren expanse of the Badlands. It would sadden the warrior, who died in 1877, if he were to see the condition of his tribe in the Pine-Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The once proud Indians have become drunks. Alcoholisms is epidemic for the Oglala-Sioux. Alcohol has been strictly prohibited for 180 years in Pine Ridge. Nevertheless the Oglalas who live there battle the chronic alcohol dependence of many tribal members. After years of unsuccessful protests and appeals to politicians the tribe is now suing some of the worlds largest beer breweries as well as liquor stores.

According to the Oglala these concerns have substantially contributed to the consumption of alcohol and its aftereffects in Pine Ridge. “We are a sovereign state and act like the U.S. government in its various legal actions against the tobacco companies,” says John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala-Sioux. The tribal council has approved the action to protect the youth, according to Steele. The Indians are seeking $500 Million (€380 Million) in compensation for damages to health and other serious consequences from the breweries. “Alcohol is destroying our community,” says Steele. Four of five families are battling alcoholism according to the complaint.

The misery is great indeed. The reservation, about ten times as large as Berlin, contains some of the poorest swaths of land in the U.S.A. Life expectancy in the tribal community is “about 45 to 52 years,” the legal complaint states – and therefore is substantially under the U.S.-average of 77.5 years. Every fourth child suffers from long term effects because of alcohol consumption by their mothers during pregnancy.

The fact that you cannot purchase alcohol in Pine Ridge doesn’t alter that. Whoever wants to drink, only has to cross the nearby border to Nebraska: There, located in the tiny village of Whiteclay, which has only a handful of inhabitants, are four liquor stores. The merchants sold, in 2010, all together almost 5 million cans of beer, i.e. more than 13,000 per day, states the lawyer of the tribe, Tom White. Most of it ended up on the Indian reservation.

“I have met the governor and legislators of the state of Nebraska, yet they are all powerless,” says Tribal president Steele. For the Oglala-Sioux this is also financially a major concern: “95 percent of the costs of our health system and 90 percent of court cases are connected to alcoholism.”

In their despair only the path of justice remains to them. The breweries and merchants do nothing to prevent the smuggling of alcohol. “It’s as if one gives a baseball bat to a person – knowing full well that this person is about to crack another one across the head with it,” says White.

The corporations and merchants that have been sued are silent on this matter. “We have no comment on this suit,” is stated by the SAB Miller corporation. Also Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors, Miller Coors and Pabst Brewing Company are part of the suit.

Frank Pommersheim, law professor at the University of South Dakota, doesn’t believe that the suit will be successful. “There is no doubt that the trade in Whiteclay causes tremendous damage,” he said to the newspaper USA Today. “But the question is whether the claims can be actionable in a federal court of law.”

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