This isn't a really hot topic right now, but since traffic on this blog is picking up, I wanted to do a bit of a primer on a favorite progressive topic out here where the buffalo used to roam: alcohol sales in the little town of Whiteclay, Nebraska. Population fourteen (14). Right on the state line between South Dakota and Nebraska. Just a few miles south of the headquarters of the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota. A reservation which prohibits the sale of alcohol to combat rampant alcohol among the Lakota.
In this wide place in the road, they sell 11,000 cans of beer a day. Of course the beer is going north to the Pine Ridge. It's often being drunk right there in town, too. (There are no taverns, no bars, nowhere to drink in Whiteclay except on the roadside or in cars). Needless to say, it undermines tribal efforts to eliminate drinking problems on the reservations. DWIs between Whiteclay and Pine Ridge are frequent. The sheriff of the county in which Whiteclay is located is notorious for picking up "drunken Indians." There have been at least two deaths of Lakota in the same county which went practically ignored by the sheriff.
Nebraskans for Peace, one of the organizations which stands tall and proud on the barricades, has lead the effort to control beer sales in Whiteclay. They've held "beer-ins" at the Nebraska Liquor Commission for failing to investigate violations of liquor laws in Whiteclay. The American Indian Movement has staged demonstrations there, with Russell Means making an appearance. One demonstration there turned violent. Two governors of Nebraska have expressed "concern." Still the beer sales go on.
That's the basic concept behind the issue. The leadership of the Pine Ridge wants beer sales in Whiteclay to stop. The elders of the Lakota want beer sales in Whiteclay to stop. Nebraskans for Peace want beer sales in Whiteclay to stop. If sales stop, there is no other settlement of any size near the Pine Ridge reservation with any kind of stores. The theory is that if they stop at Whiteclay, it will be much harder to get alcohol on the reservation, and the tribal leaders can go further in their attempts to fight alcoholism.
The store owners say that it's not their fault that Indians want to buy beer. They are just selling a lawful product lawfully (there are questions about whether all stores follow the regulations about selling to intoxicated persons, but otherwise the sales are pretty much legal). If the Indians want to stop Indians from buying beer, they should get them off the booze on the reservation. So goes the argument.
The discussion is not dissimilar to our ongoing debate about drugs. Conservatives say "cut off the supply by putting the sellers of drugs in jail, and the users will get off drugs." Liberals say "treat the addicts and the dealers will dry up." The Whiteclay issue is almost the mirror reverse: Nebraskans for Peace says "cut off the supply and the Lakota can deal with their alcohol problem." The beer store owners say "If the Indians would sober up, we wouldn't sell beer."
It is absurd to me that the store owners pretend the negative results of their beer sales are "not their problem." It is equally absurd to me that the Nebraska government refuses to take any action to enforce liquor laws in Whiteclay. The anecdotal evidence of violations is overwhelming; yet nothing is done. "Too few personnel" is the response we get from the State Patrol and the sheriff. It is also ridiculous to claim that the Lakota are doing nothing to control alcoholism on the reservation. Anti-alcoholism efforts are at an all-time high -- considering that money is as tight as ever.
My only concern is this: as with illegal drugs, if beer sales in Whiteclay are cut off, will booze still get onto the Pine Ridge? Certainly. Bootlegging will increase; those who have the ability to drive to other "wet" counties will bring back truckloads and sell them out of their houses at high markups. Is that an improvement? I don't think so. Perhaps the Lakota should consider legal sales of alcohol on their land, where they can control it themselves, instead of depending on the white man to do it for them.