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GUY RAZ, HOST:

To another story we're following, this one in South Dakota, the Pine Ridge Reservation. The tribal government has banned the sale or possession of liquor. But there's a tiny town just over the border in Nebraska that does sell alcohol in massive quantities and mostly to tribal residents.

South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray paid a visit to the border where the battle over beer sales has spilled into federal court.

CHARLES MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: On a warm spring afternoon, 92-year-old Celia Martin is in the Oglala Sioux Tribal headquarters. Tribal elders are revered in this culture. She greets people who pause to shake her hand. But she's quick to raise her fist in anger over liquor sales in the nearby town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

CELIA MARTIN: Oh, I'm just sick of it. That's all. We've got to do something. We've got to put up a fight to stop it.

RAY: The roughly 25,000 residents who call the Pine Ridge Reservation home live in one of the poorest counties in the nation. The border town of Whiteclay has about 10 residents, and it sells the equivalent of five million 12-ounce cans of beer each year.

MARTIN: I hate to see these young kids that got killed over there by drinking. I've seen it.

RAY: John Black Bear Jr. is one of those who crosses the border to escape the reservation's liquor laws. He sets down a 40-ounce can of beer on a gravel parking lot in Whiteclay. Black Bear says he's homeless, and his eyes get watery when he speaks about his grandchildren or thakoza in the Lakota language.

JOHN BLACK BEAR JR.: I'm old enough to say that I have thakozas, and that's hard. It's hard to explain in this world because we're hurting one another, you know what I mean?

RAY: The tribe's lawsuit targets four major beer companies, along with regional wholesalers and local retailers. One goal of the litigation is to limit the amount of beer sold in Whiteclay. But critics of the lawsuit include Jon Bruning, the Nebraska attorney general. Bruning told an Omaha radio station that the state needs to stay out of this case.

JON BRUNING: You shut down those folks in Whiteclay and they're going to go somewhere. They're just going to be 20 miles on a state highway.

RAY: But Bruning quickly adds that he's no fan of those who sell beer in huge quantities on the reservation boarder.

BRUNING: I despise the beer sellers in Whiteclay. They're the scum of the earth.

TOM WHITE: The Oglala Tribe tried everything. I mean, they begged for over a decade to stop the sales of alcohol, the illegal sales of alcohol here. Not all of them, the illegal ones, and nothing happened.

RAY: Tom White represents the tribe in the $500 million lawsuit. He alleges Whiteclay liquor stores break the state's nuisance laws and other ordinances. There are more than a dozen defendants listed in this case - they all refused to be interviewed. But one attorney for Whiteclay's State Line Liquor Store says his client has done nothing wrong and is readying a full and vigorous defense.

At Whiteclay's Arrowhead Grocery, Vic Clarke sells fried chicken, not beer.

VIC CLARKE: If they didn't shop with us, we wouldn't be here. If they didn't buy the beer, they wouldn't be there. And so the thing is it's not going to stop what people choose do in their lives. And that's just how I just feel, and it's just ridiculous.

RAY: Others disagree, Terryll Blue-White Eyes runs the tribe's substance abuse program.

TERRYLL BLUE-WHITE EYES: They're making a lot of money off our people's misery, and they're not putting anything into helping with the problem at all. They're taking all their profits and they're, you know, laughing all the way to the bank.

RAY: Traditional Lakota culture does not incorporate alcohol. Elder Celia Martin is in the tribal headquarters shaking hands from her wheelchair. She says one Lakota word for liquor is mnisica, which translates to bad water. She's determined to see liquor sales curbed in Whiteclay.

MARTIN: I'm going to keep on, keep on, keep on fighting it until I get my job done. That's what I'm going to do.

RAY: Tribal officials say they'll follow the elders' lead. There's been more than a decade of protest marches, encampments and blockades to stop alcohol sales on the tribe's boarder. The next phase of the fight is in federal court.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota.

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