Liquor stores divide a dry reservation
On a narrow road two miles from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, State Line Liquor beckons.
Inside, “Native Pride” caps line a wall and sodas fill a cooler. But more often than not, people come for Budweiser and malt liquors with names like Tilt Watermelon and Hurricane.
Alcohol has been banned on the South Dakota reservation for generations, so people come to State Line or three other beer and wine stores in Whiteclay for a case, a can or whatever a handful of change will buy.
Alcohol sales near dry reservations have long been a problem, but in Whiteclay the tension between dry and wet, between Indian and non-Indian, stands out in sharp relief.
On a recent winter day, a man idling near the stores said he had been drinking and sleeping in Whiteclay since the fall.
When night comes, the man, who calls himself Pokey, walks a few steps to an abandoned house of rotting whitewashed wood and heads down a decaying staircase to a basement littered with rags and beer cans. Two mattresses, one belonging to Pokey, the other to his uncle, provide inches of protection from the brutal December cold.
“We’re here because we drink,” he said.
Ten people live in this trace of a town. In 2011, its four beer and wine stores sold 403,118 gallons of alcohol, the equivalent of nearly 4.3 million 12-ounce cans of beer, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.
Over the years the people of Pine Ridge have tried to shut the stores down, but without success.
“As a people, we need a small victory,” said Tribal Council President Bryan Brewer. “We need to show that we are concerned about our young people.”
Pine Ridge is one of the nation’s largest Indian reservations — nearly 3,500 square miles. Horses roam and the sky is an endless expanse. The census lists the population as 18,800. The tribe says it’s closer to 40,000.
The reservation has often found itself at the center of Native American struggles for sovereignty and custom. And sometimes the Oglala Lakota have prevailed.
After decades of U.S. government efforts to wean Indian children away from their culture, an immersion school now teaches the Lakota language. Traditions, like the Sun Dance, are thriving.
But drink retains its allure in a place where at least 6 in 10 don’t have jobs and the scars of history run deep.
One in four children born on the reservation is diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the tribe says, and 90% of arrests by tribal police in recent years were alcohol-related.
“There’s 10-year-olds out there drunk already,” said Olowan Martinez, an activist and reservation resident. “It’s no joke here.”
There was a time when Whiteclay had real bars. But it was never a thriving city. Over the years, a few businesses have come and gone, leaving empty store fronts where people linger. Still, people persist in calling the liquor stores “bars” and referring to them not by name but by number. “Are you going to the first bar?” they say. “Is the second bar open?”
Martinez bought her first beer at the first bar when she was 14. Martinez, now 38, said no one asked for ID. “It never even came up,” she said.
Like many young people in Pine Ridge, she began drinking even as she struggled with the alcoholism around her. An alcoholic relative sexually abused her when she was a girl, she said. Her mother cycled between drinking and sobriety.
Before she turned 30, Martinez had been arrested multiple times for alcohol-related incidents. Eight years ago she was in jail when her mother’s liver gave way to cirrhosis.
“They talk about hitting your rock bottom and everything, and yeah, I know, because I hit it real hard,” she said. “Losing my mother — she was my best friend. She was everything and everybody to me.”
Sober for eight years now, Martinez looks at Whiteclay and sees a plague on her community.
“Everyone knows the Oglalas [are] fierce warriors. And we’re being poisoned daily,” she said. “People are telling me, ‘Well alcohol is a choice. Why don’t you just quit drinking?’ I wish it was that easy.”
Last June, she and about 150 people marched into Whiteclay and placed large eviction banners on the liquor stores. Two months later they returned with environmental activists who blocked traffic into town. Sheriff’s deputies ushered them into a horse trailer and hauled them away.
Recently, Martinez said she sat in on discussions with Department of Justice officials looking for ways to address health and safety issues in Whiteclay.
Martinez said many ideas were discussed: building parks, opening treatment centers, tearing down abandoned buildings.
But none addressed the heart of the matter.
The way she sees it: “There’s only one solution, and that’s for the alcohol sales in Whiteclay to end.”
About noon one Wednesday, with temperatures in the 30s, a handful of men and women in heavy jackets stood with beers in hand, their backs against a dilapidated building. Inside State Line Liquor, co-owner Dan Brehmer tended to his customers.
A thin man with deep wrinkles put a handful of change on the counter and asked for three bottles of Budweiser. Brehmer counted the coins and concluded it was enough for two bottles at $1.50 each.
Brehmer isn’t much concerned about protests or demands to close his store. He says the problem with Whiteclay isn’t alcohol sales; it’s men and women drinking on the street because they “ain’t got jobs … ain’t got nothing to do.”
“If they clean the streets up, it wouldn’t be much different from any other town,” he said.
On the door of his store is a copy of a cartoon by Lakota artist Marty Two Bulls. In it, protesters with signs that say “End Whiteclay” are met by two children holding a poster of their own: “Just quit drinking.”
Two Bulls published the cartoon in May, and some Lakotas hated it. But he too knows the impact of alcohol on his community.
“Most of my contemporaries — the people I grew up with, my cousins, my friends — a lot of them are gone,” he said. They all died from alcohol-related causes.
Two Bulls quit drinking 20 years ago and knows getting people to stop is not a simple proposition. But he sees it as the only real solution.
“The reality is that if you get rid of Whiteclay, there will just be another Whiteclay down the road,” he said.
After Whiteclay, the nearest town selling alcohol is about 22 miles away.
Again and again, tribal members have failed to persuade Nebraska lawmakers to shut down the liquor stores. There’s nothing we can do, officials say, because the stores are legal businesses.
And so the tribe continues searching for a solution. There’s even talk of legalizing liquor on the reservation. It wouldn’t stop the drinking, backers say, but maybe the tribe could control it better, or at least make money from sales to fund treatment centers and anti-drinking efforts.
Last year the tribe came up with a novel idea and, with the help and encouragement of a Nebraska peace group, filed suit in federal court against the liquor stores and beer makers who provide their goods. They argued that the stores and manufacturers knew, or should have known, that alcohol purchased in Whiteclay would end up illegally smuggled onto Pine Ridge. The federal judge hearing the case acknowledged a problem.
“There is, in fact, little question that alcohol sold in Whiteclay contributes significantly to tragic conditions on the reservation,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge John M. Gerrard in his order. “And it may well be that the defendants could, or should, do more to try and improve those conditions for members of the tribe.”
But the judge said that he did not have the jurisdiction to take the case.
Anheuser-Busch, which produces Budweiser and was named in the suit, has also expressed concern about alcohol abuse in Pine Ridge. In a statement, the company said it was advocating for legislation to increase liquor law enforcement personnel in Nebraska.
Martinez and others say they’ll keep searching for a solution. For as long as anyone can remember, alcohol has been an escape from the rigors and disappointments of reservation life.
More than 130 years ago, before the borders of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were even set, it was clear that the sale of alcohol to Lakotas would pose a problem. In 1881, the U.S. agent responsible for the reservation warned of the “introduction of intoxicating liquor from the whiskey ranches established just over the Nebraska line.”
To stave off the problem, the U.S. created a 50-mile “buffer zone” between the reservation and the rest of Nebraska. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt eliminated the buffer. Within months, the whiskey traders moved in.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.