For Whiteclay protesters, blockade is personal

ASSOCIATED PRESS / December 31, 2012

Native American activists were planning to spend the last hours of 2012 trying to disrupt the flow of alcohol onto South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — a fight that for many members is rooted in personal pain and tragedy.

Members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Deep Green Resistance, which advocates for Native rights, were planning to form a blockade from 9 p.m. until midnight Monday on the road into the officially dry reservation from Whiteclay, just across the state border in Nebraska.

Despite having only about a dozen residents, Whiteclay’s four beer stores sold the equivalent of 4.3 million 12-ounce cans of beer last year. The surrounding area is a hangout for panhandlers who sleep in abandoned buildings and along the streets. Tribal leaders and activists blame the Whiteclay businesses for chronic alcohol abuse and bootlegging on Pine Ridge.

Protest organizer Autumn Two Bulls, of Oglala, S.D., said when she was a child her mother often left her with abusive caretakers while she went drinking in Whiteclay. She said she spent the first two months of 2000 watching her mother, who was 38, die of cirrhosis. Her brother died in an alcohol-related car crash on the reservation at 29.

“It is the most painful, devastating thing I’ve ever experienced,” Two Bulls said. “The children are the ones who are suffering, generation after generation. Whiteclay needs to be held accountable for once. They’ve made millions — millions — off our people.”

Another tribe member, Olowan Martinez, said she battled a drinking problem for years, and Whiteclay, two miles south of Pine Ridge, S.D., was the easiest place to buy beer.

“We’re Lakotas,” Martinez said. “We’re survivors. We’ll keep our hearts and spirits warm with our songs and our prayers.”

The Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Department of Public Safety didn’t immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment Monday. The Nebraska State Patrol was not planning to add more troopers than usual to the area, but officers were to be on hand if requested by local authorities, patrol spokeswoman Deb Collins said.

In August, five protesters in Whiteclay were arrested after locking arms and blocking the road in protest of the alcohol sales. The protesters were arrested about seven hours after they sat down on Nebraska 87.

In February, the tribal government filed a federal lawsuit against the beer stores, their distributors and global beer makers. The lawsuit, which sought $500 million in damages, was dismissed when a judge ruled that the case was a state issue. The tribe had argued the companies sold alcohol to Pine Ridge residents, knowing they would consume and resell it illegally on the reservation.

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