June 05, 2012

Lakota lawsuit publicizes Whiteclay problem

Beer Profiteers Fight Oglala Lawsuit That Seeks Control of Alcohol Sales

By Stephanie Woodard[B]usiness is booming, especially in Whiteclay, where four ramshackle stores annually sell the equivalent of more than 4 million 12-ounce servings of beer (though not spirits or wine), according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. “Whiteclay is a unique situation,” said attorney Tom White, of White & Jorgensen, in Omaha. Through his firm, the tribe has filed a federal lawsuit in Nebraska against those who manufacture, distribute and sell the beer available in Whiteclay—including local retail outlets and the Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Molson Coors and Pabst brewing companies. The tribe demands as-yet-unspecified damages from the businesses for knowingly engaging in illegal sales and contributing to the epidemic of alcoholism on its impoverished reservation.

Most Whiteclay sales are inevitably illegal, said White, because the town has no public establishments, such as licensed bars or caf├ęs, in which to consume alcohol lawfully. Virtually all booze sold there must be either drunk in public in violation of Nebraska law or carried onto the dry reservation in violation of Oglala Sioux Tribe law. “When a liquor store elsewhere sells its goods, it can assume they will be used lawfully,” White said. “In contrast, in Whiteclay, with no publicly accessible place to consume alcohol legally, the stores sell it knowing that, without a doubt, it will be used unlawfully.”

The amount that can be sold legally will be very small; residents of Nebraska towns with their own bars and carryout stores are unlikely to drive to Whiteclay to shop. So lawful booze purchases may be limited to just what Whiteclay’s few residents can drink—nothing like the millions of dollars in store sales and hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state excise taxes that Nebraska’s liquor commission says are generated yearly in Whiteclay.

The tribe has no jurisdiction over Whiteclay. Though the town lies on land claimed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, that claim is disputed by both Nebraska and the United States, tying the tribe’s hands when it comes to enforcing liquor-control laws there. According to tribal Judiciary Committee head James “Toby” Big Boy, the tribe has pleaded with Nebraska to crack down on illegal sales in the town and set up tribal-police blockades of the road to Whiteclay. Tribal members march annually to protest unsolved murders and unexplained deaths of Natives in the Whiteclay area, he said. The new lawsuit follows decades of attempts to stop alcohol’s devastation.
Whiteclay: Oglala Lakota Lawsuit Keeps Alcohol Problem on Front Burner

By Mary Annette PemberAs a Native American woman and recovering alcoholic I am grateful for Whiteclay, Nebraska for the simple reason that it keeps the disease of alcoholism and addiction right where it needs to be for our people: front and center.

Having seen many failures and successes in sobriety, I am convinced that the message in the often-quoted recovery phrase willingness to do whatever it takes is the key to successful sobriety.

The Oglala Lakota lawsuit against beer companies and stores in Whiteclay is a bold step that reveals the communities' desperation. Social and health services on the reservation are overwhelmed. As a recovering alcoholic, however, I see their desperation as a good thing. It is helping the community gain the willingness to put aside shame, embarrassment, denial and public censure. Although the lawsuit may be destined for failure, it could be an important move towards changing the public narrative surrounding alcoholism as a disease of “choice.”

In an earlier article in ICTMN, Terri Hansen wrote about the research of two Native women journalists who were examining the way in which diabetes is also framed in the popular press as a disease of choice. They compared this perspective with the way in which tobacco addiction has changed in the public view and how greater understanding of the addiction has resulted in increased public funding for anti-smoking programming. They also noted how the public subsequently exerted greater pressure on tobacco companies to take responsibility for their roles in this public health crisis.

Although alcoholism is a disease, greed is not—it is a choice. The people working for corporations such as Miller Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch and the liquor-store owners in Whiteclay are actively making a choice to profit from the sales of a product that fuels addiction and kill others. In an Associated Press story, Randall Goyette, an attorney for the Jumping Eagle Inn, one of the Whiteclay liquor stores named in the lawsuit, “alcohol problems on Pine Ridge can only be due to personal conduct.” Do such statements really absolve alcohol producers and sellers from culpability in this equation of addiction? Is publishing the disclaimer Drink Responsibly really enough?
Comment:  The beer companies say they're only obeying the law. But they've spent millions of dollars lobbying for laws that favor their business at the expense of Indians. When they've basically bought the laws they're supposedly obeying, their protest ring a little hollow.

I discussed the Whiteclay lawsuit before. I said I didn't think it had a chance of winning, but it could serve to publicize the issues. I'd say it's succeeded at that, with stories appearing in major media outlets such as the New York Times.

Is this a waste of our court resources? No more than a heavily lobbied legislature is a waste of its resources. Rich people lobby for the laws they want; poor people file lawsuits to stop these laws. The two are opposite sides of the same coin.

If you want a level playing field, ban both tactics: unnecessary rich lobbying and unnecessary poor lawsuits. But don't ban one and not the other. No way is it fair to let the rich buy the laws they want while the poor can't challenge them.

For more on Whiteclay, see Stopping Whiteclay Won't Stop Alcoholism and Suing Beer Sellers for Treaty Violation.

1 comment:

Rob said...

For more on the subject, see:


Whiteclay Confessions: An Oglala Exposes Violent, Seamy Effects of Whiteclay’s Liquor Stores

We went to a tribal member who spent years patronizing Whiteclay’s beer stores, but has now sobered up and turned his life around. He asked to remain anonymous, for fear of retribution.

Will the tribe’s lawsuit against the beer makers, distributors and sellers help?

I think it will, because Whiteclay is where a lot of people on Pine Ridge get alcohol. In a few minutes, you can stroll down there from Pine Ridge village, the biggest population center on the reservation, right over the South Dakota-Nebraska line. Sometimes people go several times a day. So if you stop the liquor trade in Whiteclay, you severely limit access to alcohol on Pine Ridge.