'But we don't do that at Whiteclay': Health equity and social justice on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

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The numbers are eye-catching: A town of 11 people sold 4.9 million cans of beer in one year. But the story of the Oglala Sioux tribe's recent lawsuit against the country's largest brewers is about more than a startling statistic. It's another chapter in the tumultuous history of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (the setting of the 1973 Wounded Knee Incident and the shootout that lead to the arrest of Native American activist Leonard Peltier), which is again the site of tension between United States and Native authority. It's yet another shameful example, too long ignored by the media, of how companies target communities of color for the sale of harmful products -- in this case, alcohol. And it's the story of the most highly publicized event in more than 10 years of a community's efforts to combat this exploitation.

Last Thursday the Reservation's Oglala Sioux tribe filed a lawsuit against beer manufacturers, distributors and retailers, who they claim have knowingly promoted alcohol abuse on the Reservation, where alcohol is illegal. The tribe is seeking half a million dollars in damages to offset the social and health costs of growing alcoholism -- estimated at $8-9 million dollars a year.

The suit targets four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska, a small community that sits at the border of the reservation. Although Whiteclay is home to only about a dozen residents, its position near Pine Ridge has made it easy for vendors to sell alcohol to tribe members, who then smuggle beer onto the reservation. In 2010 alone, the four vendors collectively sold 4.9 million cans of beer -- approximately 250 beers for each of the 20,000 people living on the reservation. The suit alleges that beer manufacturers oversupplied the stores, pressuring them to maximize beer sales and sell "volumes of beer far in excess of an amount that could be sold in compliance with the laws of the state of Nebraska."

The lawsuit has attracted considerable attention, but it's only the most recent development in the debate over Whiteclay, whose history the media have scarcely reported. The independent documentary The Battle for Whiteclay, released in 2008, is one of the few records of the more than 10 years of activism on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The film documents the struggles of activists like Frank La Mere, a member of the Winnebago tribe, who has spent years fighting for Whiteclay to be closed.

La Mere says the long-term failure of alcohol regulation at Whiteclay is an issue of health equity and social justice that would never be allowed in the predominantly white communities in other parts of Nebraska. "It is the nature of law enforcement … that you deal with illegality fairly wherever you can," La Mere said. "But we don't do that at Whiteclay … there's two classes of citizens here, in this state … would we allow the things [that happen] in Whiteclay in West Omaha or South East Lake? I don't think so! … God forbid that one young white woman, white man die at Whiteclay tonight -- we'd shut the damn things down in the morning."

Public health advocates who seek to promote just alcohol regulation on the Pine Ridge Reservation should continue to monitor how the story evolves, and particularly how the brewers respond. Though the Whiteclay lawsuit may fall out of the news cycle within a few days or weeks, the exploitation of the Oglala will not end until beer manufacturers and sellers are held accountable by the government, the community, and the media for their years of "exporting misery to Pine Ridge."

View our other coverage on health equity at Pine Ridge:

New York Times coverage of alcohol lawsuit lets major brewers off the hook

NYT exposes alcohol industry efforts to stall important health legislation

NYT's Kristof calls for Bud boycott, decries brewer's greed

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