Surviving the Pine Ridge legacy: Alcohol propels cycle of despair

Published Sunday January 7, 1996
ROBERT NELSON
OMAHA WORLD-HERALD

WHITECLAY, Neb. — Dale Kean pulls into the parking lot of the Arrowhead Inn, steps out into the unseasonably warm morning and walks slowly toward the store.

He nods to an old man slumped against the stucco wall, enters and reappears minutes later with a pack of Marlboro Reds and a 12 – pack of Busch. Kean slides back into the old gray Buick, places an open can between his thighs and pulls onto Highway 407.

After crossing the state line on the edge of town, he heads north across two miles of rolling prairie to Pine Ridge, S.D.

Last spring, after returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation from a one – month alcohol treatment program, the 25 – year – old promised God he would never return to Whiteclay, a town of 22 people and four stores that sell beer. He had lived the life of those slumped, staggering figures who mill and congregate nightly in Whiteclay’s dark alleys and abandoned houses.

His promise lasted three months under his brothers’ relentless teasing. “Counselor is here!” they would say when he walked into a room. “Hide your beers!”

“They’d treat me like I thought I was all high and mighty,” Kean says. “I was an outsider in my own home.” One summer night, in a car full of prodding brothers and three cases of Busch, Kean gave in.

“I said, ‘All right, you bastards. Are you happy? Are you bastards happy?’ ”
He drank through the night and the next day, until he was in a stupor and vomiting bile and blood.

“They pulled me down,” he says in his slow baritone whisper of a voice. “I guess I let them pull me down.”

Desperation breeds alcoholism, tribal counselors say. And alcoholism – the No. 1 health hazard on America’s reservations – compounds desperation.

That vicious cycle is nowhere more entrenched than on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the nation’s most impoverished people have an alcoholism – related mortality rate of 61.9 deaths per 100,000 people, twice the average of the nation’s reservations and nearly nine times the national all – race average of 7.1 deaths per 100,000.

Demographics show the challenges confronting the Oglala Sioux of the Pine Ridge:

Shannon County, S.D., where most of the reservation’s 12,713 residents live, has the highest percentage of families below the poverty level of any county in the nation, according to 1994 U.S. Department of Commerce numbers. Nearly 70 percent of children younger than 18 live below the poverty level, also the highest percentage in the country.

The average annual per – capita income in Shannon County is $3,417, a national low.

Shannon County has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, 32.2 percent, and 80 percent of potential workers aren’t employed. It has the highest percentage of one – parent households in the country and the third – highest percentage of occupied housing units with more than one person per room.

The reservation has almost no private sector. Ninety percent ofthe tribe’s income comes from the federal government. Tribe members spend nearly 90 percent of their income off the reservation in nearby cities such as Rapid City, S.D., and the Nebraska towns of Whiteclay, Gordon, Rushville and Chadron.

Another complicating factor: Research indicates American Indians might be genetically more inclined toward alcoholism than the general population. According to a 1994 study at the University of Texas at Austin, 84 percent of American Indians have the “Al allele” gene, which is thought to be associated with compulsive addictive behavior. In nearly all other races, fewer than 50 percent have the gene.

“I truly believe we were never meant to be near alcohol. There’s no such thing as a casual drinker here,” said Everett Tuttle, a counselor with Project Recovery, an alcohol – treatment center at Pine Ridge. Tuttle is seven years into his own sobriety.

With poverty and alcoholism come high mortality rates. On average, 36 percent of residents die by age 45. The national average is 10 percent. Suicide, traffic fatalities and alcohol – related diseases such as cirrhosis are top causes of death on the reservation. The fatality rate on the reservation’s roads is three times higher than the South Dakota average.

The Oglala Sioux have made progress in the past decade: The alcohol – related mortality rate has dropped. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are now held nightly. Tribal council leaders have won on anti – alcohol platforms. Schools have alcohol and drug counselors. Beer distributors say sales have declined slightly.

But for the addicted and those trying to rout the disease from the reservation, Whiteclay – whose customers overwhelmingly are Oglala – is an ugly reminder of how far the tribe still must go.

The hopelessness and boredom that plague the reservation’s young must be replaced with reasons to be sober, leaders say. Positive role models and good – paying jobs must replace broken families and unemployment. And those who succeed must stay in Pine Ridge and build the tribe’s future.

The alternative is Whiteclay.

“If you’re hanging out there, you’re one step from dead,” Kean said. “It’s the lowest of the low.”

Kean stops in Pine Ridge for an early lunch at Taco John’s, then drives past the institutional – looking Bureau of Indian Affairs office and the old blue frame house that is headquarters for Project Recovery.

“I’m going to go back there again,” Kean says. “I just need some time.”

He accelerates as he hits the blacktop highway that leads to his family’s trailer home 14 miles west of town. Reaching the open road, he takes his first long drink of the day.

Kean turns left onto a dirt – and – clay road made muddy by melting snow. The car’s back right wheel spins, slinging mud balls against the undercarriage as the car fishtails the half – mile to his family’s land. He slides toward a patch of matted prairie grass in front of the trailer, stopping behind an engineless corpse of another Buick.

“We could use a little gravel, eh?”

Kean, a full – blooded Sioux whose family was placed on this section of land a century ago, seems at peace when he looks north at a vast and pristine landscape. Gusts of a warm south breeze blow through miles of tall, brown cheat grass. Cedar – topped buttes and ridges rise from the prairie. The meandering valley of the White River weaves north and east toward Badlands National Park.

“This is beautiful land,” Kean says.

He talks about the time he and a friend rode 20 miles on horseback to Chadron. He talks about hunting and camping with friends and about winning minor kickboxing tournaments, where pretty girls draped medals around his neck.

This is the land as it used to be, he says, before the Army slaughter of Oglala Sioux in 1890 at Wounded Knee 30 miles to the east, before the series of treaties and broken treaties that squeezed the nomadic, Lakota – speaking Oglala – the largest of the seven Sioux tribes – onto the Pine Ridge Reservation.

This is where Crazy Horse and his warriors, outmanned and outgunned, fought invasion with such cunning and ferocity they became legend in both Lakota and white cultures. Strength, pride, self – reliance and deep spirituality. Those qualities are hidden inside him, Kean says. But they die a bit every time he looks at what his life has become.

Behind him, three dead sedans, a particle – board outhouse and a bog of mud, old shoes, license plates, Busch beer cans and fast – food wrappers frame his family’s white trailer house. His nephews, Norman and Vincent, who live just up the hill in a two – room house with their parents, have built a slide by leaning a discarded green couch against a car hood.

“We’ve kind of let the place go to hell,” Kean says.

Kean lives in the trailer with his parents, two of his three brothers and Marty, a 28 – year – old taken in after his parents were killed in a car accident.

The family’s income comes from government subsidies and from the sale of jewelry they make and potatoes they grow.

Kean says he worries about his nephews, his older brother’s children. It’s tough not to drink when drinking is everywhere.

“I tell them not to mess with this junk,” he says as he flings a beer can to the ground. “I tell them they have a chance.”

Norman, 7, earned straight A’s on his most recent report card from Lone Man School, Kean says. Vincent, 8, has done well, too, but is starting to get into fights.

Later, after two hours of milling around and drinking with Marty, Kean reaches into the box and grabs air.

“Time to go to Whiteclay.”

“Alcohol is a way out,” said Tuttle, the Project Recovery counselor. “For a lot of people, it seems like the only way to feel good about who they are and where they are.”

Counselors, teachers, tribe leaders and police said they must work more closely to create a unified front against alcohol abuse. They meet monthly, but the talk is difficult to translate into action, said Lionell Iron Moccasin, captain of the Oglala Sioux Tribe police force.

“The light at the end of the tunnel gets a lot brighter when we talk,” he said. “But then we go back and get buried in our jobs. A lot of us are already trying to do too much with too little.”

The reservation has three small alcohol treatment programs: Project Recovery; Project Phoenix for adolescents; and the Flowering Tree, a long – term center for women.

Pine Ridge has no halfway house, no treatment center and no alcohol detoxification center, Tuttle said. Project Recovery sends those who need treatment to Rapid City or to the InterTribal Treatment Center in South Omaha.

Capt. Iron Moccasin’s 56 police officers must enforce the reservation’s alcohol ban over 4,000 square miles.

Congress has proposed cuts in Bureau of Indian Affairs programs. Iron Moccasin estimated he would lose 22 officers under the latest proposal. Project Recovery could lose one of its four counselors, said counselor Harriet Maea.

Legislators who support the cuts say they will encourage the tribe’s self – reliance. But tribal leaders say the government promised to provide health care, education and other basic necessities when the Sioux gave up huge tracts of land in treaties in 1851 and 1868.

When faced with the grim numbers, tribal leaders and counselors said, it’s important to focus on the successes.

Alcohol education and a rebirth of Lakota values and beliefs are helping hundreds of people to quit drinking, counselors said.

“When I was drinking, AA was unheard of,” Tuttle said. “The tribe is progressing. We are getting the word out. We need to remember that when things seem overwhelming.”

Just as importantly, nondrinkers and ex – alcoholics are becoming more vocal role models. “That’s where you break the cycle,” Tuttle said. “We are trying to help build a generation of people who have never drank.”

Often, though, the Pine Ridge loses its positive role models. Its best and brightest leave.

Dennis Janis, 21 and a nondrinker, left Pine Ridge after high school but has returned to help his mother look after his three younger brothers. His parents didn’t drink, he doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t want his brothers to start.

But he’ll probably leave again.

“I want to stay, but there’s no future for people my age,” he said. “Everybody just ends up getting bored.”

Indeed, for those who return with college degrees and hopes for their tribe, about the only jobs available are in social services. One tribal leader said there are many highly trained and successful Oglala scientists, entrepreneurs and leaders in the United States. They’re just not here.

Tuttle tries to be a role model in his own family. His children, 22 and 16, don’t drink, he said.

“I thank God for that,” he said.

Tuttle has become a role model for others, including Brian Sherman, 34, a Project Recovery volunteer who is trying to start over after 18 years of drinking.

Sherman started over seven months ago. Then he started over two months ago. Then he started over a month ago.

His slips in abstinence came while in the company of drinking friends.

“Boredom can get me. Friends can get me,” he said.

He plans his days now to steer clear of drinking friends and dead time. He fights dead time by volunteering and by reading affirmation – type books, the Bible and books on Lakota spirituality.

His other motivation for staying sober, he said, is his 6 – month – old daughter, Dana. Sherman wants her to have the home he didn’t have, one with love and without alcohol. “I really believe we’re all born beautiful and perfect. Then everything around us tries to tear us apart.”

As head counselor at the 374 – pupil Lone Man School northwest of Pine Ridge, Charley Ruffing sees children being torn apart every day. While the efforts of counselors have brought some results, he said, it still feels like “hundreds are lost for each one we help.”

“We’re seeing more gangs, more guns – more of the hard – core, inner – city – type problems,” he said. “And they’re showing up in the junior high and the elementary kids.”

When problems arise with children, counselors and teachers rarely find support from the parents, he said. Twenty percent of parents showed up for parent – teacher conferences in October, Ruffing said, even though the school offered them 25 cents for each teacher they spoke with.

At the heart of the problem, Ruffing said, is alcohol and drugs. Educators fight back by bombarding children with alcohol and drug education.

“I give them a heavy dose of reality therapy,” he said. “I say, ‘Do you want to be the guy that goes down to Whiteclay and crawls behind a shed and dies?’ ”

The children most at risk are those in environments where alcohol and drugs are omnipresent and where boredom is chronic. Kids have little to do in Pine Ridge, he said. And in the shacks and trailers throughout the reservation, they have nothing to do.

“When a kid here says he’s bored, he’s genuinely bored. You shove a kid into a trailer somewhere with a bunch of drunks and nothing to do, nine times out of 10 you’re going to make another drunk.”

Whiteclay is beginning to buzz by the time Kean makes his second beer run early in the afternoon. He crisscrosses the town’s 10 or so square blocks, looking for his girlfriend, Susan. He worries about her because she drinks and then gets into fights.

Kean, too, has been in his share of fights. One of those fights ended his kickboxing five years ago.

After he won a tournament, he says, “everybody thought I was thinking I was so great.” Deep into a family drunk that night, Kean says, a cousin beat him with an ax handle, breaking his jaw and injuring his back. His jaw, scarred and sagging, pops and aches still.

“If you get up, people here will beat you down,” says Kean, echoing a sentiment voiced by residents and leaders throughout the tribe. “People will bring you down with them so they feel OK with where they are. Pretty soon, you’re there, too.”

“There” is in one of the dozen or so roadside gatherings in Whiteclay. Or behind the H&M convenience store, in the tangled brush littered with old clothes and beer cans and shells of cars where people go to pass out and sometimes die.

Or one of the abandoned buildings, such as a brick house on the main street, filled with broken glass, food wrappers, empty beer cans, whiskey bottles and human feces. Next door is another shell of a smaller house, with an open cellar ankle – deep in trash. Two men crawl from the cellar as Kean drives by. They walk behind the convenience store and disappear amid the cars and bramble.

Originally named Dewing, Whiteclay was established on March 11, 1914, by Thomas and Caroline Dewing, who moved here to trade with the Indians to the north. After Prohibition, Whiteclay began to develop its reputation as Nebraska’s “Wildest Saturday Night Town,” a title noted in 1966 in The World – Herald.

In the early 1970s, sales of hard liquor and wine were banned, and the bars were converted into package stores, selling only beer.

The heavy level of drinking in Whiteclay contributes directly to traffic fatalities along the two miles of South Dakota Highway 407 between here and Pine Ridge. By 1989, more than 150 small white crosses memorialized those who had died.

Highway 407 was widely considered the deadliest road in America until it was straightened, widened and flattened in 1989. The highway was lined with street lights last summer. The improved road still is 25 times deadlier than the South Dakota average. Since 1989, five people have died on the two – mile stretch in alcohol – related accidents, according to the South Dakota Department of Transportation.

People still are getting hurt in Whiteclay, too, according to Sue Big Crow, director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Ambulance Service, which serves the reservation and some neighboring communities. Ambulances are called to Whiteclay three times a week, on average, she said. Assaults account for about three – fourths of the calls. The others are for alcohol poisonings or alcohol – related diseases, she said.

“We mark the calendar when the call isn’t alcohol – related,” she said.

In 1994, Whiteclay stores sold an estimated 115,000 cases of beer, about 216 beers a year for every man, woman and child on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Distributors said the number used to be higher. Anheuser – Busch sales have declined about 10 percent in the past decade, said Jim Hammer, president of Valentine Beverage in Valentine, Neb. Sales of Budweiser and Busch make up about 90 percent of beer sales in Whiteclay, he said, or about 100,000 cases in 1994.

Mike Mykris, co – owner of Mykris Distributing in Chadron, said his sales last year were half what they were in 1988, his company’s first year of business.

Why the drop?

Mykris contends that more Pine Ridge residents are driving to Rapid City, S.D., to buy alcohol and other goods. Lyle Schwarting, owner of the Arrowhead Inn, agreed, saying he has trouble competing with beer prices in Rapid City.

Mykris also blamed gambling at the tribe’s casino, which opened on the western edge of the reservation last year. He said his beer sales dropped the month the casino opened and have remained slow.

The other possible reason: Alcohol counselors might be succeeding.

“There’s no doubt there’s more awareness,” Mykris said.

Although alcohol is available in several South Dakota towns within a 30 – minute drive of the reservation’s borders, Whiteclay is the most accessible beer stop, especially for residents of Pine Ridge, the reservation’s largest town. With its four off – sale beer stores, cafe, small grocery store, tire repair shop and pawn shop, Whiteclay still appears to tribal leaders to be poised to feed off the reservation’s failures and problems.
But they acknowledge that getting rid of beer in Whiteclay wouldn’t end the problem.

“If Whiteclay wasn’t here, people would just drive the 20 miles to Rushville,” said Terry Robbins, Sheridan County, Neb., sheriff. “There would be a lot more people dying on that road.”

To many residents of the sparsely populated Sheridan County, Whiteclay is seen as a buffer, said Robbins and Linda Witt, deputy county clerk.

“The cold reality is the people who cause the problem there would come here,” she said from her office in Rushville.

Many tribe members and more than a dozen people interviewed on the streets of Whiteclay agreed that the town is a buffer. And that makes many people angry.

“They’re awfully happy to take our money,” said Frank, a 28 – year – old Pine Ridge resident who wouldn’t give his last name. “Then they’re awfully happy to run us out of here like dogs when they’re done taking our money.”

Another solution: Legalize beer on the reservation. This idea rarely finds much support on the reservation, Iron Moccasin said.

Tuttle, the counselor, said, “At least we would be keeping the money on the reservation. I’m not sure if that’s giving in or being realistic.”

Mona Wilson, director of Project Recovery, suggested that Whiteclay store owners who sell beer and the State of Nebraska help finance an alcohol treatment facility in Whiteclay. They say Nebraska has made money off of the reservation and should give some back. Whiteclay’s businesses generated an estimated $1.2 million in state sales tax revenues in the past decade.

Schwarting doesn’t buy the image of Whiteclay as a money magnet. He said he is “barely making a living” running the Arrowhead Inn and consistently gives to Pine Ridge charities and to “customers down on their luck.”

Whiteclay’s beer stores are housed in aging buildings with worn furnishings, tiny signs and small, gravel parking lots. The few windows are covered in heavy steel grating.

The Arrowhead Inn has been broken into 11 times in 14 years, Schwarting said.

He lives in Gordon, he said, because “this is no place to live. But I’ll stay up here sometimes just to keep the thieves guessing.”

Kean drives slowly past each cluster of people in Whiteclay. He stops by a group sitting on two cars.

“You guys seen Susan?” he asks.

“Naw. Not since last week.”

He drives into the lot of the Arrowhead Inn, where the old man from that morning still sits against the wall three hours later. Kean purchases a 12 – pack of Busch and drives toward home. When he arrives at the trailer, the cousin who broke Kean’s jaw walks out. They exchange greetings, and the cousin heads toward the road to hitch a ride to town.

“I forgave him a long time ago,” Kean says. “You kind of have to when everybody’s always around.”

Kean finds Susan at the trailer. She grabs a beer and joins Kean on the hood of one of the cars.

Susan, 25 and recently divorced after a nine – year marriage, is ready to leave the reservation. She can’t find a job here. Her ex – husband, who broke her jaw and cut open her arm, still is in town. And she wants Kean to get away from his family.

She would like to get control of her life so she can regain custody of her two children, who are living with her ex – husband’s mother.

Susan’s left cheek sags, an injury she says she received when her ex – husband kicked her face.

She has a finger – thick, light – pink scar running from her armpit to her elbow. “My husband sliced me with a beer tab when we were at a bar,” she says.

“I don’t know why he did it – I was thinner and still pretty then.”

But the scar that runs from her nose to her lip was her own fault, she says. She picked a fight with a woman in Whiteclay, and the woman fought back with a box cutter.

“We just need to get away. We’ve got to find a way to start over.”

In midafternoon, Susan and Kean’s mother take the Buick to play bingo in Pine Ridge. At 4 p.m., a yellow school bus slows to a stop on the road, and Vincent and Norman jump out and walk the half – mile to the trailer.

“Wanna play some football, uncle?” they ask.

“Yeah, sure, guys.”

Kean finds a plastic football, deflated, out along the road. The three run to a potato field, where Kean plays all – time quarterback and the two boys trade off receiving and tackling and calling interference on each other. After 30 minutes, the game deteriorates into a wrestling match.

Exhausted, the three walk to one of the cars and sit down. Kean reaches into the Busch box and drains a can in less than a minute. He grabs another and shakes the empty box.

“If we were smart, we’d get a case,” he says.

“Aw, just stay here,” Norman says to Kean.

As dinnertime approaches and a stream of relatives comes and goes, Kean finds a ride to Whiteclay.

The number of groups around town has doubled since Kean’s last trip. One of his brothers, Purvis, huddles with five other men warming their hands over a trash can fire.

The night is clear and cold with a cutting north breeze by the time Kean returns to the trailer in early evening. His aunt and uncle have started a bonfire on the hill, the only light on the landscape except for the moon and the dull glowing dome of low clouds above the Pine Ridge to the east. Kean joins his brothers and cousins at the bonfire in the serious, determined drinking of a Friday night.

Vincent and Norman pass the hours playing around their house, smashing Halloween pumpkins and jumping from tire to tire in the dim light of a half moon and the far – off bonfire. They find the dry corpse of a porcupine and study it for a while. They pull the teeth from an antelope skull and stick them in the last jack – o’ – lantern. “Boo,” they say, laughing and shoving the pumpkin at each other.

Kean walks from the bonfire to a scattering of tires near where the boys are playing. He kneels, vomits, coughs and then returns to the fire and grabs a beer from an open case of Budweiser.

“I still don’t get it,” Norman says, watching his uncle.

By 9:30 Kean again is out of beer. He knocks the empty box to the ground and staggers down the hill to the trailer. He walks into his bedroom, sits on his bed and buries his head in his hands.

“Screw you if you think I’m weak. You can’t even imagine.”

“Look at this place,” he says of his tiny cell of a room that stinks of old shoes and spilled beer.

Sometimes, he says, he sits for hours on this creaking, stained cot staring at the particle – board floors. He thinks about failures and enemies and boneheaded drunken stunts that landed him in jail.

“Then winter comes. You can’t even imagine.”

The deep ruts freeze, and snow smothers the prairie. Then Kean will sit for days, feeling trapped and alone, staring out a window as the north wind piles snow several feet deep against the trailer.

Watch the snow long enough, he says, and it begins to feel like dirt shoveled onto your coffin.

“You can’t even imagine. You either drink till you stop thinking or you kill yourself.”

Which he has considered. He says he has sat here twice with his mouth around the barrel of his hunting rifle. He couldn’t pull the trigger. What would his nephews think? His mother would be crushed. And, somewhere, he still has hope.

“I know, I know, I know I have to leave.”

He says he should go to Whiteclay and just keep going past Rushville and Gordon, 400 miles southeast to Omaha for treatment. Then he could get Susan, find a place in Rapid City or Grand Island or Omaha and start over. He could work construction or fix cars. They would get their own place and sober friends who chat and play Monopoly. And they could have children. Maybe then the demons would die.

His nephews walk into the room.

“Get a grip, uncle,” Vincent says.

Kean lifts his head and smiles.

“The car is back,” Vincent says. “They want to know if you want to go get beer.”
Kean sits for a few seconds, rubs his face and stands.

“How ’bout you stay?” Norman asks.

“Tell them I’ll be out in a minute.”

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