South Dakota Tribe Goes Up Against Big Brewers

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The Oglala Sioux Tribe filed a $500 million lawsuit against brewers and retailers, claiming they're responsible for the reservation's alcohol-related problems. The tribe lives on a dry reservation, but they claim nearby towns unlawfully sell alcohol to residents. Host Michel Martin speaks to a reporter and the tribe's attorney.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you tell us more. We'll hear reaction to some of the conversations we've had on the program this week. That includes our discussion about superPACs with the president of the group Citizens United. We'll have that in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about a new attempt to address a longstanding issue: alcoholism among Native Americans. We're focusing today on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where leaders of the Oglala Sioux tribe say that alcohol is at the root of a host of serious health problems facing its members, including high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome, suicide and diabetes.

But now tribal leaders are fighting back in court. Their target: major beer manufacturers, including Coors, Miller and Anheuser Busch, distributors, and local stores that sell beer.

We wanted to hear more about this lawsuit and the debate over alcohol sales in and around the reservation, so we're joined now by Tom White. He is the attorney representing the Oglala Sioux tribe. He's with the firm White and Jorgensen in Omaha, Nebraska.

Also with us is Kevin Abourezk. He is a reporter with the Lincoln Journal Star, who's been covering this issue.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TOM WHITE: Thank you for having me, Michel.

KEVIN ABOUREZK: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I wanted to note that we reached out to Anheuser Busch, Coors Distributing and Pabst Brewing Company. They were all named in the lawsuit, but we have not yet received a response from them. So with that being said, Tom White, I'd like to start with you. I'd like to ask, you know, how the idea for this lawsuit got started. What was the impetus for it?

WHITE: I was a senator in the Nebraska legislature. The town of Whiteclay is a town of 11 people sitting about 200 feet off of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The only population near Whiteclay at all is the village of Pine Ridge, which is about 4,500 people.

Everything on the reservation is dry. You cannot buy, sell, possess, drink alcohol. Nevertheless, in a town of 11 - and you have to understand, this is out in the Great Prairie - the nearest town to Whiteclay is 20 miles away and there's really no population any closer. Well, out in the middle of the prairie in a town of 11...

MARTIN: OK. Eleven people.

WHITE: I mean 11 people...

MARTIN: OK.

WHITE: ...they sold 4.9 million cans of beer last year and a vast majority of it is being smuggled or bootlegged into the reservation where it's being resold. As a result, the social consequences to the Lakota people have been nothing less than a slice of hell. It is an incredible story of continuing devastation of a culture that did not develop in accordance with alcohol.

So the Oglala elders and the tribal council, for years - well over a decade - has been trying to get control of the sales of alcohol in Whiteclay because even though it's a dry reservation, they're drowning - literally drowning in beer. They went to the Nebraska Unicameral. They asked the Liquor Commission for hearings. They've had roadblocks set up on the one road from Whiteclay into Pine Ridge. They have had sit-ins, they've had protest marches, and over a decade the beer sales have only gotten worse.

To get control of alcohol sales in Nebraska that are being imported - they're illegally exported onto the reservation - they finally filed this lawsuit, and the lawsuit asks the federal court to enforce congressional intentions with regarding alcohol sales to Indians.

MARTIN: Kevin, can you just pick up the thread here? You are a journalist, as we said. You've been covering this issue. You're a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, but you used to live on the Pine Ridge Reservation, as I understand it, so I just wanted to get your take on how the whole question of alcohol is viewed here and how you think this lawsuit is being viewed by the people who live there.

ABOUREZK: Most of the Native Americans I've spoken to support the lawsuit. They see it as a way to try to gain back some of the devastating damages they've suffered, I guess, as a result of alcohol sales.

But there's certainly a mixed opinion among people on the reservation. I've interviewed a number of people, including an old college friend of mine who lives on the reservation, and an executive for one of the tribal schools; both of those people said that they feel like this solution for this problem needs to come from the people themselves through sobriety, through creating jobs for themselves.

MARTIN: Tom White, could you tell us the legal theory behind this lawsuit?

WHITE: Sure. Substitute minors for American Indians. If you had a liquor store in your neighborhood selling 4.9 million cans of beer and the people selling it knew - not guessed, but knew - that the guy they were selling it to was going out and reselling it to a protected class of people, minors, we'd have shut it down a long time ago. But that's exactly what's happening here. They are, on a civil level, aiding and abetting a crime. There's also no doubt that the American Indians have an obligation to themselves to be sober.

But on the other hand, we don't hold any other controlled substance - heroin, methamphetamine, and just say, well, look, we're going to let them set up there and sell all they want because, you know, after all, it's the obligation of the people in that neighborhood not to use heroin, not to get strung out on meth.

MARTIN: Is the argument here that - well, let me just quote from the lawsuit, from the filing - the illegal trade in alcohol could not occur without the knowing cooperation and assistance of every defendant in the chain of supply.

I did want to ask you about the whole question of a protected class, though. Is part of the issue - and this speaks to the question that Kevin was raising - is that there's an element of paternalism that some, I think, might draw into this, which is to say that this is a legal substance, that alcohol is a legal substance and that jurisdictions around the country - you know, alcohol is legal in most places around the country, but it isn't in some places, like in large parts of Utah, and for religious reasons, and that jurisdiction lines have to be drawn somewhere.

Can you really argue that, just because someone is on one side of a jurisdictional line, that they are complicit in the abuse of this product?

WHITE: Well, no.

MARTIN: Go ahead. So could you talk more about that?

WHITE: Yeah. Normally, no. You can't. I mean, it's a matter of intent and what you can prove is in their mind. But alcohol is not legal on the reservation. That's the point. And it's not the federal government that decided that. It's not me that decided that. It's not the state of South Dakota. It is the Oglala tribal council duly elected, representing its people, who made a decision about a substance that historically is far more dangerous to them than heroin has been to most Western Europeans.

So they've made a decision and a law, so now the question is, can you sit outside of their borders where you know there's no place alcohol can be legally consumed, sell massive quantities of alcohol, knowing it's going to be imported, knowing it can't be consumed legally, and be free from responsibility?

We wouldn't tolerate that if it was marijuana. We wouldn't tolerate it if it was heroin. We wouldn't tolerate it if it was cocaine. But because many Americans drink, we think it's OK.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a $500 million lawsuit filed by the Oglala Sioux tribe based in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation against alcohol manufacturers and retailers. The tribe says these companies are to blame for issues related to alcohol abuse on the reservation because they failed to control the sale or the resale of alcohol in tribal areas where alcohol is banned.

Joining us to talk about this is Tom White, the attorney who's representing the Oglala Sioux tribe. He's with the Omaha, Nebraska firm of White and Jorgensen. Also with us, Kevin Abourezk. He's a reporter with the Lincoln Journal Star who's been following this story for some time now.

Kevin, is this also part of the history of the Oglala Sioux? I think a lot of people know this by now, that they were forcibly relocated, like most other tribes were. I guess the question is, is that - how much of what you call the culture of despair is due to that displacement and how much of it is due to this particular substance?

ABOUREZK: Being forced to stay in one place rather than being allowed to be nomadic and travel to different places and go to the - you know, their sacred Black Hills - instead they were forced to stay in this one place - they had to learn how to take up a whole new means of caring for themselves through - in agriculture, ranching, that sort of thing. And the native people tended to get, you know, some really hardscrabble sort of earth, I guess, for their reservations that largely didn't support agriculture and ranching.

And as a result, they really struggled to make those things work for them. You know, without any means of supporting themselves, you had many people, especially the men in the tribe, really lose their sense of identity, as they weren't able to care for their children and their families and really kind of got lost in this cycle of hopelessness. And you know, just really continued to today. There are really very, very few jobs on the reservation.

MARTIN: Tom White, is there a precedent that you can draw? I know you talked earlier about the idea - if this was something happening next to a school, for example, that this would have shut down long ago, in an area next to (unintelligible) a high school. But is there some litigation or something, something that other people in other parts of the country might recognize that might help them kind of understand the path that you're taking here with this case?

WHITE: Sure, sure. There's the United States Supreme Court case that upheld a criminal conviction under RICO, Racketeer Influence Corrupt Organization, for a conspiracy to export alcohol into Canada just to evade taxes. So the idea of exporting or assisting in the export of alcohol just to evade taxes alone has been recognized in that context to criminal conspiracy.

For technical legal reasons, I won't get into RICO doesn't work for us here, but the idea of a - this is the civil equivalent, this lawsuit, a civil equivalent of a conspiracy claim. To illegally export alcohol is right in line with what the United States Supreme Court - I think it was Justice Thomas wrote the opinion.

MARTIN: Let's say you succeed in shutting down these particular distribution points. What would prevent people from just driving farther?

WHITE: First, there is no question, I think, in most sociologists' statements that access - an easy access to alcohol makes it easier to become an alcoholic and harder to break free of it. Second, the level of poverty on the Pine Ridge - and I think Kevin can probably verify this - is such that not that many people have automobiles, and to us a trip of 20 miles is nothing, but that can be an insurmountable hurdle to many people.

Third, it gives us more distance to interdict alcohol coming onto the reservation rather than right next door. It also would help because the grocery stores are also the package stores that sell this and there are no grocery stores in Pine Ridge. The lure of the beer and the profits from the beer kill the business inside of Pine Ridge.

MARTIN: Kevin, final thought from you, if I can. Where do you think this issue goes from here? Apart from the lawsuit, what are the other conversations that are being had around alcohol on the reservation?

ABOUREZK: Certainly on the reservation itself the conversation is very much about how to instill a sense of identity within the children, how to give them a strong sense of culture and pride so that they don't have this sense of despair that so many of their parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents have, has driven them to drink themselves almost to death, and in many cases to death.

And it's happening. You know, when I visited there a couple of years ago to do a follow-up story to a special section we did about Whiteclay, we saw this growing movement of young people who were returning to the old ways and we saw that pride starting to return in many ways. But certainly, you know, all of the devastation wrought by alcoholism was certainly still evident, but there was this underlying hope and pride that we were beginning to see, especially within the young people. And I think that's where the conversation goes as far as the Lakota people are concerned.

MARTIN: Kevin Abourezk is a reporter with the Lincoln Journal Star. He was kind enough to join us from the paper's offices in Lincoln, Nebraska. Tom White is an attorney representing the Oglala Sioux tribe in their case against alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and he's with the firm White and Jorgensen, in Omaha. We actually caught up with him in New Orleans, where he's traveling, at member station WWNO.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WHITE: Thank you for having me, Michel.

ABOUREZK: Thank you, Michel.

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