Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is drowning in beer
The Oglala Sioux Tribe takes a stand for alcohol responsibility by fighting against illegal bootlegging on its reservation
By LISA WIRTHMAN / THE DENVER POST / May 27, 2012
Just six hours from Denver is the town of Whiteclay, Neb. Its population: about 12. Yet in 2010, this tiny town sold 465,000 gallons of beer, enough for nearly 5 million 12-ounce servings.
There’s no place in Whiteclay to legally consume beer, and state law prohibits its resale. So where is all that beer going?
Just 250 feet from Whiteclay’s border is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Lakota people of the Oglala Sioux Tribe — population about 40,000.
It’s illegal to drink, possess, sell or transport alcohol onto the reservation. Yet Pine Ridge is drowning in beer: Alcohol abuse impacts 85 percent of families and accounted for 90 percent of arrests in 2008.
In February, the tribe filed a $500 million federal lawsuit against Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors and other brewers, distributors and retail stores selling beer in Whiteclay, for encouraging the illegal bootlegging of beer onto their reservation.
“The volume of alcohol sold in Whiteclay far exceeds the amount that could be legally sold and consumed,” says the lawsuit. Money from the suit would fund alcohol treatment and prevention programs, says the tribe.
It’s not just adults impacted by alcoholism on the reservation: One in four children is born with a fetal alcohol disorder, infant mortality is 300 percent higher than the national average, and some 58 percent of grandparents are raising their grandchildren.
Those are the statistics — but there’s more to the story. Pine Ridge is also a place of hope and pride, says Dana Lone Hill, an author born and raised on the reservation.
“I am Oglala Lakota. I am neither a statistic to be put on a chart, nor are my children,” says Lone Hill, who just watched two sons (who don’t drink) defy statistics to graduate high school this month.
“We have eyes, we see the stats, we know them, we are related to them, we live them, we are them,” says Lone Hill. “But we are also the ones who must save ourselves.”
The Oglala Sioux Tribe doesn’t want pity. It just wants the brewers, distributors and retailers supplying beer in Whiteclay to stop sabotaging its fight for recovery.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe sets its own alcohol policies, but has no jurisdiction over Whiteclay — ironically first established as a buffer zone to protect Pine Ridge from illegal whiskey-sellers.
“Either the federal government shuts Whiteclay down in accordance with our treaties with them or we shut them down ourselves as a nation,” said Myron W. Pourier, Fifth Member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
The Oglala Sioux are the proud warriors who claimed victory in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, spread spiritual renewal through legendary ghost dances and survived the Wounded Knee Massacre at Pine Ridge in 1890.
Now the tribe is fighting to stem the torrent of alcohol onto Pine Ridge, including supporting legislation to declare Whiteclay an alcohol impact zone, which would enable tighter restrictions on beer sales.
Seven of the eight Nebraska state senators on the committee that killed the impact zone bill received contributions from Anheuser-Busch, reports The New York Times.
Compounding the issue, Nebraska officials prefer containing the problem to Pine Ridge to solving it: State Attorney General Jon Bruning said he “despised” Whiteclay’s beer sellers, but feared shutting down Whiteclay would cause patrons to travel to other Nebraska towns.
The role of law enforcement should never be to simply seal off troubled areas. “To keep Whiteclay open is another form of genocide,” says Lone Hill.
Rather than fighting lawsuits or legislation, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors should uphold the corporate pledges of alcohol responsibility emblazoned across their websites.
“Ethics and responsibility play an integral part in everything we do,” says the MillerCoors website.
“This is our world, and it’s our collective responsibility to care for it,” says Anheuser-Busch.
Yet, in a letter to The New York Times, Anheuser-Busch shifts responsibility to its partners: “Beer producers are prohibited from selling beer directly to retailers or consumers in Nebraska, and we obey all laws wherever we operate or sell beer,” wrote Luiz F. Edmond, North American president of Anheuser-Busch InBev.
When the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, it put alcohol regulation in the hands of the states — which led to a three-tiered chain of distribution for brewers, distributors and retailers where all are partners. And while brewers don’t sell directly to retailers, they shouldn’t supply more beer than distributors can responsibly resell.
If the post-Prohibition brewing industry can’t stay within the ethical and physical boundaries of its local distribution systems, and respect differing alcohol policies, it may invite a return of federal alcohol regulation — a solution few would welcome. Colorado is the nation’s largest beer-producing state. Our robust brewing industry contributes more than $12 billion annually to our state economy.
Anheuser-Bush and MillerCoors are both major players here. One of Anheuser-Busch’s 12 breweries thrives in Fort Collins. Breweries are the fastest-growing employers in Larimer County, adding $83 million to the county payroll in 2010, according to Colorado State University.
Golden is home to MillerCoors’ largestvolume brewery — also the largest single-site brewery in the world — where 1,100 employees brew and package 11 million barrels each year.
Colorado also has a booming craft brewing market, which produced nearly 5 percent of our beer in 2011, according to the Colorado Brewers Guild. Both large and small breweries are an integral part of Colorado’s beer heritage, from the brewery founded by Adolph Coors in 1873 to the Wynkoop Brewing Company founded by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 1988.
It’s precisely because of that interconnectedness that Colorado must demand that all brewers who operate here uphold the highest standards of alcohol responsibility in every market. Alcohol responsibility is the foundation of a successful brewing industry, and is critical to the marketing, sales and advocacy success of all participants.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called for a boycott of Anheuser-Busch as the largest brewer in Whiteclay. If the breweries refuse to regulate themselves, a boycott of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors may be an effective consumer-powered solution to fix what ineffective legislation and lawsuits cannot.
If so, Colorado’s voice carries a lot of weight. “Colorado is tremendously important to the beer industry,” said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute.
Let’s make that count for communities everywhere.
Lisa Wirthman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance journalist living in Highlands Ranch. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaWirthman.