Alcohol: A tool of oppression against Native Americans

Published September 25, 2002
HOCAK WORAK: Newsletter of the Ho-Chunk Nation

Alcohol has been labeled cunning, baffling and powerful. But how about oppressive, to Native Americans? There is not one Indian Nation that does not struggle with the problem of alcohol. Sometimes it can be a touchy and uncomfortable topic. To calculate per capita the cost of alcohol to our Native people would be overwhelming at best.

One Indian Nation dealing with the negative effects of alcohol is the Oglala Lakota Nation located on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in Southwest South Dakota. Pine Ridge lies within Shannon County, the poorest county in the United States. The reservation has a population in excess of 7000 people. The unemployment rate is 75% – 80%, while the national unemployment rate averages around 5%. The lack of jobs and the desire to drink opens the lid on a can filled with other social problems, among them assault, robbery, prostitution, and murder. Since the Siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 there have been in excess of 95 murderers, almost all of them still unsolved, and other crimes mostly burglaries are at an all time high. Though the people that drink often use government issued checks to purchase alcohol, in some cases it’s not enough money. The first of each month has been nicknamed Veterans Day, when the Veterans receive their checks, and the second of each month called Mothers Day, when mothers receive their support checks.

At the heart of a heated situation on Pine Ridge regarding alcohol, lies a little unincorporated town two miles south of Pine Ridge, South Dakota: White Clay, Nebraska. White Clay has a population of about 22 people. It contains two groceries stores and four businesses that sell alcohol namely beer. It is the kind of town that if you blink you’ll miss it. Last year it was estimated that the stores selling alcohol sold over four million dollars worth of beer with almost all of it being sold to the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. This story if you have not heard, has been in and out of the mainstream press since June 8, 1999, when the bodies of Ron Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk Jr., two Oglala Lakota men were found mutilated and dumped just North of the Nebraska and South Dakota border onto the Pine Ridge Reservation.

When little investigation was done on the incident, people at Pine Ridge expressed an outrage of injustice. A brother to one of the slain victims Tom Poor Bear, and others organized a peaceful march to the town of White Clay. They also asked leaders of the American Indian Movement and supporters to come and stand with the Oglala Lakota people on this issue. Thus began the stage for a political battle for the Oglala seeking justice for these and other murders that have allegedly been in some way or another due to alcohol, predominately sold at White Clay. Tom Poor Bear, Webster Poor Bear, and Frank LaMere (Winnebago) along with other relatives of Ron Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk Jr., are just a few of the key people behind not only a call for justice to close the liquor establishments of White Clay, but to solve all of the murders of the Oglala Nation and start the healing process.

The roots concerning this issue of alcohol sales at White Clay run deep. Back in 1882, then President Chester A. Arthur issued an Executive Order creating a fifty-mile addition to the reservation as a buffer zone. This zone was created to give control of land South of Pine Ridge to the Oglala in order to keep the influx of alcohol and contraband off the reservation. At the heart of this zone was an express station and trading store, a source of alcohol and other contraband for Indians. This small little settlement would later be named White Clay. But when white settlers moved into the buffer zone and started to settle down, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 under pressure issued an Executive Order, which effectively retracted the previous order from 1882 and restored the fifty square mile buffer zone back to the public domain. This in turn brought back the alcohol among other bad things right next to Pine Ridge. The legality of Roosevelt’s Executive Order is still being questioned today.

This is part one in a five part series that will take a look into the issue of White Clay. In the next four parts, you will hear from people that drink in White Clay and hear how they are affected. Frank LaMere will discuss the formation of Camp Justice that is situated just north of White Clay. The BIA will discuss what role they play in the problem of alcohol and crime, and you will hear one store owner’s view, that White Clay is being unfairly targeted as the cause of the alcohol problem on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

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