Fighting alcoholism on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is about more than money

Robyn Wisch, KVNO News / NET Radio / July 20, 2012

PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, SD (NET RADIO) - Editor’s note: In the first part of our series on alcoholism and Whiteclay, we took you to this small Nebraska town on the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Four liquor stores in Whiteclay sell what amounts to four million cans of beer each year, helping feed a massive alcohol problem that pervades the reservation. Now, the Oglala Sioux tribe is taking on the beer manufacturers in a lawsuit that could send hundreds of millions of dollars to one of the poorest counties in the country. In this second segment, we go to the front lines of the battle against alcoholism on the Pine Ridge reservation to find out why some people there say throwing money at the problem might not be the answer.

“Everybody knows me as Babe’ around here.”

Standing by the main drag of Whiteclay, Neb. on a recent evening, Babe was trying to get a ride back to his mother. He hitched into town from his home, which he said is about 20 miles away. He lives on the Pine Ridge reservation, where alcohol is illegal – so he came to Whiteclay to buy beer.

“Me, I’m on a liquor diet,” Babe said. “I only have a couple months to live.”

Babe said he has cirrhosis of the liver, which he believed will soon take his life. And in Whiteclay, he’s likely not alone. That night, several men and women were passed out on the sidewalks and in the grass. Many would stay outdoors overnight.

“Look,” Babe said. “They’re sleeping, they have no jackets. Me, I have a place to go.”

In a small building on a quiet street in Martin, South Dakota, about 45 miles east of Whiteclay, Gayle Kocer and Suzy Dennis run one of the few addiction treatment centers that serve the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The reservation, which surrounds Martin, is home to staggering alcoholism statistics. The numbers are hard to pin down, but some estimates say the disease, directly and indirectly, affects 85 percent of people there.

“I always believe there’s hope,” Dennis said. “Or I would not do this.”

Dennis is a recovering alcoholic with 25 years of sobriety under her belt.

“I always believe that love and faith can conquer it all,” she said. “That’s where it’s got to begin. That spiritual piece that’s missing, that you see in that hell you see in Whiteclay, and I think that’s what hell is. That’s what’s missing.”

Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

From left: Suzy Dennis, Tracee Livermont, Sherry Peck and Gayle Kocer run Martin/Tiospaye Addiction Recovery Center in Martin, SD.

The center’s small staff works with people in varying stages of alcoholism. Some are so far along, they can’t be helped. Kocer said it can be traumatizing and overwhelming, and what adds to the stress is that the center can barely keep the lights on.

“We’re out knocking on doors constantly, trying to keep our doors open,” Kocer said. “And these guys don’t make big wages,” In fact, she added, she’s not making any. “I’m back to pro bono because there’s not enough to pay me to do what needs to be done here.”

She said the center won’t turn anyone away, but few clients can pay. Almost half of Pine Ridge residents live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data, but some put that number far higher. Now, the Oglala Sioux tribe has filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit that, if successful, could bring millions of dollars to Pine Ridge.

Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, said the suit targets the beer manufacturers that supply Whiteclay, and comes after years of impasse with Nebraska lawmakers over shutting the liquor stores down.

“With this lawsuit that our tribe filed,” he said, “maybe that will make this all go away.”

Poor Bear said he has participated in many demonstrations in Whiteclay, and it’s difficult to stay hopeful when the problem persists. He added Whiteclay is hardly the only place near the reservation to buy booze.

“We have Whiteclays all over,” he said. “All the border towns of all the reservations, they all have their Whiteclays.”

Poor Bear has had his own struggles with alcohol, and he said he won’t call the people who sleep on the sidewalks of Whiteclay “alcoholics.” He sees them as people in pain; people stripped of their pride.

“I can point my fingers at Whiteclay all day, but a couple of fingers will have to point back,” he said. “We’re very strong people but we become weak at times.” In one of the marches on Whiteclay in the late 1990s, Poor Bear marched with Frank LaMere. A member of the Winnebago tribe and long-time activist, LaMere said despite the demonstrations, alcohol has not stopped flowing through Whiteclay because of leaders on both sides of the border.

“It’s no different than what we see in the poorest parts of Central America,” LaMere said. “Whoever controls the flow of that alcohol controls much. It controls state government, controls county government, controls Tribal government. And I’ve said it. It controls all of them.” Though LaMere includes tribal government in that list, he cautioned not to dump this problem on the reservation. He said when he hears people say the people need to solve their own problem it’s “code for we’re not going to do a damn thing.”

But back at the treatment center, Gayle Kocer said the reservation as a whole has to get away from the addicted mindset. “You’re choosing not to be the victim,” Kocer said. “Choosing to actually admit that we have a problem in our community and we need to do something about it. It’s not Whiteclay’s problem and fault; it’s not the state of Nebraska’s fault. We as people have to make this choice to get in there and do something.”

As the sun set in Whiteclay, a couple people began to chant and sing as they milled around on the steps of a liquor store. While Kocer and Dennis say they’re chipping away at the problem one person at a time, it’s a daily struggle not to get bogged down under the weight of an overwhelming problem.

The devastation of that problem persists in Whiteclay, night after night.

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