Nebraska must fight alcoholism on Pine Ridge Reservation

Published Wednesday February 4, 2009

Whiteclay, Neb., a northern border town with a population of only 14, has been making headlines for more than 10 years. Newspapers from as far away as Washington, D.C. have run stories on the town.

Reporters come to Whiteclay not to report on the good deeds of the community but to spread the story of the four businesses with liquor licenses and the thousands of customers who come to buy beer. 

Visitors are often greeted by the sight of a drunk person passed out on the side of the road, or a few people with beer cans getting into a fight. But even sights such as these don’t depict the scope of the problem in Whiteclay.

The nearly 20,000 Oglala Lakota Sioux residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a dry reservation, live just two miles from Whiteclay. Not all the Indians from Pine Ridge make the trek to the town to buy beer, but the Lincoln Journal Star reported an estimated 80 percent alcoholism rate exists among reservation residents.

Liquor store owners have noticed and taken advantage of the situation, and business is booming. Nebraskans for Peace estimates 12,500 cans of beer are sold daily in Whiteclay (hard liquor is not available for purchase). Yearly, the town sells about 4.5 million cans of beer.

USA Today reports that suicide, infant mortality and fetal alcohol syndrome rates are high on Pine Ridge. The Washington Post adds that alcohol-fueled car accidents are nearly three times as common on Pine Ridge and in Whiteclay than in the general population.

Crime is also a major problem associated with alcohol in the Pine Ridge and Whiteclay area. In 1999, the murdered bodies of two Oglala Lakota Sioux were found near the town. The case is still unsolved, but many believe alcohol was involved in the incident.

These problems are not necessarily caused by alcohol, but it is clear that alcohol abuse is a contributing factor to each.

Another factor that may play an important part in creating problems is economics. Whether alcoholism pushed many Oglala Lakota Sioux into dire financial situations, or whether their financial stresses pushed them into alcoholism, is unclear. In reality, it’s probably a little of both.

But the people of Pine Ridge are not wealthy, and the little money many of them do have is being poured into the Whiteclay businesses that so conveniently offer alcohol.

Of the about 20,000 people living on the Pine Ridge reservation, USA Today reports that more than half live under the poverty line, and 80 percent are unemployed. According to Nebraskans for Peace, sometimes liquor store owners will allow people to buy on credit, in exchange for food stamps or in exchange for sexual favors. This allows even the poorest residents of Pine Ridge to continue feeding their alcohol addiction.

It is obvious that something needs to change. Figuring out exactly what to do and actually implementing the plan, however, are easier said than done.

State officials have made a few efforts to combat the problems Whiteclay and Pine Ridge are facing but with poor results. The Nebraska legislature has looked at several bills that would either ban or limit the number of liquor licenses allowed in Whiteclay but none have become law.

On Sunday, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning attended a screening of the documentary “The Battle for Whiteclay” at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 313 N. 13th St., and spoke about his ideas to improve the situation.

Bruning said he has worked with tribal police in the past in an attempt to allow them to cross the state line into Whiteclay. However, the plan failed because tribal police were unable to meet Nebraska police requirements. Bruning said he will continue working on the problem.

A combination of many actions taken by many people must occur to fix the problems in Whiteclay.

First of all, simply curbing the supply of easily-located alcohol will not end the trouble on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Second, the reservation and surrounding areas need to build infrastructure so that jobs will become available. This will decrease the number of unemployed people, and therefore decrease the amount of free time many people currently have for drinking.

Third, an alcohol treatment center needs to be maintained on the Pine Ridge reservation to help alcoholic residents.

But mostly, Nebraskans need to make this issue a priority.

Ten years from now, if reporters from far-off cities are still traveling to Whiteclay to write stories on the problems in the area, we will know that we have failed.

We will know that, as a state, we have failed to help a group of people who are in desperate need. We will know that we have failed to improve laws so that multiple liquor licenses cannot be provided to towns the size of Whiteclay, where it is obvious that 14 people aren’t drinking 12,500 cans of beer each day.

But most of all, we will know that we have failed ourselves, because we will have neglected a problem that, without intervention, will do nothing but grow.

Sarah Melecki is a junior political science and philosophy major.

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