By Stephanie Woodard
Most Whiteclay sales are inevitably illegal, said White, because the town has no public establishments, such as licensed bars or cafés, 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.
By Mary Annette Pember
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?
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.