Two milestones put the Oglala Sioux back on the global stage

This 2002 file photo by the Denver Post shows alcohol being sold in Whiteclay, Neb., adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

October was a huge month for the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. The Lakotan band made the national spotlight, perhaps in ways not seen since the historic and bloody siege at Wounded Knee in 1973.

On Oct. 1, 2012, the tribe lost a $500 million lawsuit it filed against a group of multinational beer manufacturers and four stores in neighboring Nebraska that the tribe claimed were liable for bootlegging and the widespread destruction of alcoholism that has plagued the Pine Ridge Reservation for decades. The 3.5 million-acre reservation, about the size of Connecticut, is officially dry. However, 5 million 12-ounce beers were sold in 2010 at the Nebraskan stores immediately adjacent to Pine Ridge. That means about 13,000 cans a day were purchased for consumption at a reservation with just 45,000 residents—a simply staggering figure.

The litigation represents a legal and public health strategy that seeks to hold the companies and retailers/distributors culpable for downstream effects of the health hazard for a legal drug, in this case, alcohol. It also demonstrates the tribe’s proven ability to use symbolic and media tactics that capture global interest, in order to highlight glaring, historic, and shocking injustices that are not tolerated elsewhere in the United States. I actually first heard about this story not from U.S. news sources, but while listening to the BBC World Service in February this year.

Oglala Sioux tribal attorney Tom White holds a press conference after filing the tribe’s lawsuit in Lincoln, Neb.

The second major but not disconnected story last month was the death on Oct. 22, 2012, of famous Oglala Sioux activist Russell Means, a major figure in the American Indian Movement (AIM). The so-called “radical” group galvanized Native Americans and many tribes in the early 1970s by first occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969. The New York Times, in a fit of what can best be called sanctimonious arrogance and historic ignorance, was dismissive of Means’ lasting significance to Native activism of the 20th and 21st century.

The obituary/editorial referenced Mean’s alleged proclivity to guns and brawls. However, the editorial noted Means galvanized global attention of the plight of Native Americans during the  siege at Wounded Knee, at the height of the Vietnam War and amidst President Nixon’s growing Watergate scandal. The Gray Lady begrudgingly states in its judgmental obituary: “Pine Ridge and other reservations have not escaped plagues of poverty and alcohol. Governmental neglect remains a scandal.” Today, Shannon County, S.D., where the reservation is located, is the nation’s third poorest, where more than half of all residents live in poverty.

Oglala Sioux tribal member Russell Means died on Oct. 22, 2012.

By comparison, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, which itself was divided violently before and after the 71-day siege at Wounded Knee, immediately proclaimed Means’ birthday (June 26) as Russell Means Day on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The tribe acknowledges his contributions to helping improve his impoverished tribe’s status. A web site paying tribute to Means’ lasting role to Native Americans called him the most important Native American since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

Means seemed to capture the Oglala’s Sioux defiance and resilience. National Geographic’s August 2012 profile of that resilience  highlighted 60-year-old activist Alex White Plume.  He summed up the injustices brought upon his people by the federal government and others. The tribe is one of seven Sioux bands whose once far-ranging ancestral lands of the Northern Plains and Inner Mountain West were literally taken by the expanding U.S. nation in the mid- and late 1800s. “They tried extermination, they tried assimilation, they broke every single treaty they ever made with us. They took away our horses. They outlawed our language. Our ceremonies were forbidden.”

The most egregious crime was the U.S. Calvary’s massacre in 1890 at Wounded Knee of 146 Sioux members, of whom 44 were women and 18 children. The mass murder was a fearful reaction to the Ghost Dance that was sweeping the Sioux people, a deeply spiritual religious revival that promised a rebirth and paradise on earth. Another 200 Native Americans were killed in related incidents shortly after.

Nearly a century later, starting in February 1973, the AIM movement again focused the attention of the globe on the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation in what became known as the siege at Wounded Knee.

About 200 AIM members occupied the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. They protested broken treaties and the corrupt tribal governance of then tribal head Dick Wilson. At the time, the tribal government ran its own private militia called Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONS, who were made infamous in the 1992 film Thunder Heart, which was based loosely on the Pine Ridge incidents. The GOONS, National Guard troops, and FBI agents surrounded the activists.

During the siege, 130,000 rounds were fired, two FBA agents were killed, and 1,200 arrests had been made. Ian Frazier, who writes about the incident in his 2000 travelogue and profile of the Oglala Sioux called On the Rez, interviewed Le War Lance, a participant in the siege. Le claims to have snuck in out of the siege 18 times and to have observed the presence of U.S. military forces (82nd Airborne), armored personnel carriers, and helicopter and reconnaissance flights. (A summary of the FBI’s files is here.)

The problems at Pine Ridge did not end with the siege. AIM activists and their sympathizers note that between March 1, 1973, and March 1, 1976, the murder rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation was more than 17 times the national average. Activists attempting to free Leonard Peltier, who was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of two FBI agents during the siege, have counted 61 unsolved homicides during that time. Some of those killings are now being re-investigated.

While AIM may not have created lasting change on the Pine Ridge Reservation, it did demonstrate what Frazier called a real flair “for the defiant gesture in the face of authority.” Frazier says that, along with AIM’s strong historic self-identity, made it both conservative and radical all at once. That same flair and sense of historic injustice is clearly visible in the unsuccessful lawsuit that was brought in February 2012 by the Oglala Sioux in Nebraska’s U.S. district court.

The suit alleged that one in four children born on the reservation has fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The tribe’s average life expectancy ranges from 45 and 52 years, shorter than anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere outside for Haiti. By comparison, the average life expectancy in the United States is 77.5 years. The suit sought rewards to cover cost of health care, social services, law enforcement, and child rehabilitation that it claims are caused by chronic alcoholism on the reservation. “The devastating and horrible effects of alcohol on the (Oglala Sioux Tribe) and the Lakota people cannot be overstated,” the lawsuit stated.

In terms of negative health outcomes, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) fare much poorer than their fellow countrymen by all standard public health measures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that “rural and urban AI/AN alike experience greater poverty, lower levels of education, and poorer housing conditions than does the general U.S. population.” And, of course, such conditions lead to a range of health issues, including the alcoholism and the despair prevalent on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The CDC, while trying to present unfiltered data, bizarrely and disparagingly states, “Geographic isolation, economic factors, and suspicion toward traditional spiritual beliefs are some of the reasons why health among AI/ANs is poorer than other groups.” Remarkably, the CDC summary of health data, at least in this source, does not account for the systemic and historic racism, political persecution, coordinated and clearly documented efforts to destroy Native American cultures and languages, and economic exploitation as potential contributors to current health disparities. While the top two killers of AI/NA are heart disease and cancer (both greatly influenced by the social determinants of health), the No. 3 killer is “unintentional injuries,” which can include car accidents, and the No. 8 killer is suicides. For those not familiar with the social determinants of health, these two types of deaths are easier to link to the deep socioeconomic disparities experienced throughout Indian country.

Today, Pine Ridge is the only reservation in South Dakota that bans alcohol. The booze is supplied by nearby Whiteclay, Neb., population 12. For its part, the state of Nebraska split hairs and postured it could do nothing to ban alcohol sales that tribal leaders alleged were tantamount to genocide. The Denver Post reported that Nebraska’s  Attorney General, Jon Bruning, said he “despised” Whiteclay’s beer sellers, “but feared shutting down Whiteclay would cause patrons to travel to other Nebraska towns.” Such statements almost defy logic and demonstrate that state’s leaders still willfully ignore staggering data  that show the state has a legal and moral obligation to solve a public health crisis originating inside its state borders.

The major beer makers singled out by the lawsuit were Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MIllerCoors LLC, and Pabst Brewing Company. Given the historic settlement by 46 states attorney generals against tobacco manufacturers in 1998, it is all but certain that these titans of American suds have mapped out a legal strategy to stem all future efforts to hold them liable for downstream impacts of alcohol consumption. Fetal alcohol syndrome and DUI-related fatalities are two of the more well-known and symbolically rich health impacts of alcohol that capture the media’s interest and harness the public’s collective disgust with the harmful impacts of the drug.

Tribal leaders are now discussing whether to legalize the sale of alcohol on the reservation. A previous effort failed in 2004. Though the tribe lost, the lawsuit may spark future public-health framed legal challenges to the sellers and manufacturers of alcoholic beverages. It should be noted that trial attorneys repeatedly failed over 50 years to hold tobacco companies liable for the deaths and illnesses of former cigarette smokers. That does not mean other tribes and trial attorneys will not continue to explore legal challenges to the commercial reality of alcohol “on the rez.”

As for the continuing omnipresence of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation, or any of the other more than 560 reservations in the United States, that is nearly certain. The socioeconomic conditions that have made reservations fertile ground for America’s No. 1 drug of choice remain unchanged. As the most famous contemporary Native American writer, Sherman Alexie, writes, “Well, I mean, I’m an alcoholic, that’s what, you know, my family is filled with alcoholics. My tribe is filled with alcoholics. The whole race is filled with alcoholics. For those Indians who try to pretend it’s a stereotype, they’re in deep, deep denial.“

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