OPINION: Journalism loves Whiteclay

SCOTTSBLUFF STAR HERALD / May 3, 2009

Journalism loves Whiteclay.

Not Whiteclay, the border city in Nebraska, but “Whiteclay” the metaphor — the serial melodrama about modern-day snake oil peddlers who sell an ocean of firewater to innocent Indians.

“Four rickety metal shacks that line the main road in this town of maybe 10 people sell an average of 13,000 cans of beer and malt liquor a day,” began one of the most recent accounts in the New York Times.

“…Nearly all the alcohol bought in Whiteclay winds up on Pine Ridge or is consumed by its residents, tribal officials say. Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe and is one of the poorest places in the country, according to 2010 census data.”

We’ve read the same story, dozens of times.

But as the lawyers fighting a $500 million lawsuit filed by the tribe point out, there’s more to it than meets the eye. The alleged villains are Nebraska retailers who never set foot on the reservation. Their products might cause many of the tribe’s problems, but the naivete of the alleged victims doesn’t fit the script.

As the Times notes, retailers are accused of “encouraging the illegal purchase, possession, transport and consumption of alcohol on the reservation.” Whether the stores sell beer illegally is a matter of dispute. But even if they did, that leaves a lot of criminality to go around once the beer leaves the premises. As one lawyer points out, “The alleged harm cannot occur without several intervening acts of independent individuals: leaving the reservation; purchasing beer; illegally smuggling beer onto the reservation; illegally consuming the beer on the reservation or illegally reselling the beer to others on the reservation for consumption.”

The retailers could refuse to sell beer to Indians, but since the purchasers are free American adults who have money in their pockets — most of it provided by state and federal governments — you can imagine the sort of uproar that would cause.

And if the retailers sell 13,000 cans of beer a day, and alcoholism on the reservation is 80 percent, as some claim, the math quickly gets a little shaky. Whiteclay gets blamed for all of the reservation’s alcohol problems. Eighty percent of 45,000 residents is 36,000. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume Whiteclay is responsible only for the alcoholism in nearby Pine Ridge village, which has 5,700 residents. Eighty percent of that is 4,560. That’s still less than three cans of beer per day per alcoholic. Where does the rest of it come from? That story has never been told.

The reservation’s real problem is that it’s illegal to possess alcohol anywhere inside its borders, regardless of the source. The tribal government’s 38 police officers made 20,000 alcohol-related arrests last year. Meanwhile, Pine Ridge is the only reservation in South Dakota that’s officially dry. The adjacent Rosebud Reservation allows alcohol and taxes its sales. In fact, the tribe there owns most of the liquor stores.

According to the Times, a 30-pack of Budweiser cans sells for $27.25 in Whiteclay, a 16-ounce can for $1.50. That’s a big markup, but bootleggers pay it. None of that money goes to the Lakota Nation. If Nebraska shut down the Whiteclay stores, those sales would simply move elsewhere. If the tribe legalized, sold and taxed beer sales, it would still have a problem with alcoholism, but it would have a wealth of revenue to fund education, treatment and enforcement programs.

The stores in Whiteclay would certainly shut down. Big-city newspapers would lose a reliable, weepy drama to exploit. But tribal leaders would have to take on the responsibility of telling voting adults that they couldn’t always have as much beer as they’d like to buy, and confront a legion of unhappy, unemployed bootleggers. The biggest loss, though, would a dependable scapegoat for an alcoholism problem that they’ve been ducking for generations.

It’ll never happen. The truth is, the Pine Ridge Reservation — and the journalists who show up from time to time to rekindle its clichés — are as addicted to “Whiteclay” as Pine Ridge residents are to the beer they bootleg home on its dusty border highway.

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