Oglala Sioux tribe ponders options in alcohol lawsuit

LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR / Associated Press / October 4, 2012

Omaha, Nebraska (AP) – The Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, whose federal lawsuit against four Nebraska beer sellers and some of the nation’s biggest breweries was dismissed this week, may refile in state court, the tribe’s attorney said.

Tom White, an Omaha-based attorney for the tribe, said he’d urge the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s council to continue with its lawsuit against the alcohol manufacturers and distributors and four retailers in Whiteclay. The town of about a dozen residents on the reservation’s border sold the equivalent of 4.3 million 12-ounce cans of beer last year.

The tribe contends that the Whiteclay businesses have been profiting from rampant alcoholism on the impoverished reservation, where alcohol is banned. In its lawsuit, the tribe was seeking $500 million in damages to cover the cost of health care, social services and child rehabilitation programs.

The beer companies said none of the tribe’s claims were allowed under federal law, and they argued that they can’t discriminate in who they sell to or control tribal members who choose to buy alcohol.

A federal judge in Nebraska threw out the case this week, ruling that his court didn’t have jurisdiction to address the allegations.

“The federal court was very careful not to toss out any of the causes of action, even though that’s what the defendants really wanted,” White said. “That’s really encouraging to us.”

Tribal Councilman James “Toby” Big Boy said members knew the lawsuit was a long shot when they approved it last spring. He said they would discuss how to proceed, but he plans to introduce a November ballot proposal to allow alcohol on the reservation. The proposal requires council approval to appear on the ballot.

“It’s time,” said Big Boy, chairman of the tribe’s law and order committee. “It’s time to go ahead and bring this forward. Let the people decide. The feedback I’ve gotten from a large number of communities is they’re ready, also.”

White said the tribe filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska because the claim raised a federal issue and most cases involving sovereign Indian country are handled at that level.

The lawsuit alleges that the brewers, distributors and retailers worked together to sell alcohol in amounts far greater than what could be consumed legally in the area and knew customers would smuggle it onto the reservation.

Federal law bans alcohol sales in Indian Country unless the tribal government allows it. The tribe also accused the state of Nebraska of failing to enforce its own alcohol laws.

Opponents of the ban say lifting it would ease the workload on tribal police, who make thousands of alcohol-possession arrests each year, and generate revenue for the tribe. Big Boy said his proposal would allow the tribe to tax alcohol sales on the reservation and funnel the money into law enforcement, youth programs and other government services.

The tribal council considered ending the alcohol ban in 2004 and 2006, but the proposal was killed both times. The reservation legalized alcohol for two months in 1970, before the council restored the ban.

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