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A Battle With the Brewers
Published: May 5, 2012
Damon Winter/The New York Times
AFTER seeing Anheuser-Busch’s devastating exploitation of American Indians, I’m done with its beer.
The human toll is evident here in Whiteclay: men and women staggering on the street, or passed out, whispers of girls traded for alcohol. The town has a population of about 10 people, but it sells more than four million cans of beer and malt liquor annually — because it is the main channel through which alcohol illegally enters the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation a few steps away.
Pine Ridge, one of America’s largest Indian reservations, bans alcohol. The Oglala Sioux who live there struggle to keep alcohol out, going so far as to arrest people for possession of a can of beer. But the tribe has no jurisdiction over Whiteclay because it is just outside the reservation boundary.
So Anheuser-Busch and other brewers pour hundreds of thousands of gallons of alcohol into the liquor stores of Whiteclay, knowing that it ends up consumed illicitly by Pine Ridge residents and fuels alcoholism, crime and misery there. In short, a giant corporation’s business model here is based on violating tribal rules and destroying the Indians’ way of living.
It’s as if Mexico legally sold methamphetamine and crack cocaine to Americans in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez.
Pine Ridge encompasses one of the poorest counties in the entire United States — Shannon County, S.D. — and life expectancy is about the same as in Afghanistan. As many as two-thirds of adults there may be alcoholics, and one-quarter of children are born suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
In short, this isn’t just about consenting adults. Children are born with neurological damage and never get a chance.
“Every person on this reservation has personally seen the negative effects of alcohol, with loved ones or themselves,” said John Yellow Bird Steele, the tribe president.
The only purpose of Whiteclay is to sell to tribe members — there’s nobody else around — and the tribe can’t do anything about it.
“It’s hopeless; the tribe can’t stop the alcohol,” said Kenny Short Bear, 45, who was slumped on the ground outside one of the alcohol stores. He said he was a former teacher who had lost his job and his family because of alcoholism — and then he asked me for $5.
While some Miller, Coors and Pabst beer is sold in the stores, the great majority is Anheuser-Busch products, including Hurricane malt liquor and Budweiser beer.
The tribe says that more than 90 percent of arrests by the tribal police are alcohol-related, along with 90 percent of arrests of juveniles. Children often begin drinking in their early teens.
Alcohol also fuels stunning rates of domestic violence, suicide and crime on the reservation. I spoke to one family that first lost a father to cirrhosis, then a son, killed in a knife fight with his own cousin over a bottle of beer. A few weeks later, the dead man’s younger sister killed herself at age 16.
Since March, I have repeatedly tried to get a comment from Anheuser-Busch or, more recently, its lawyers. The company has had nothing to say, not a peep in its defense.
The Oglala Sioux tribe filed a lawsuit in February against Anheuser-Busch and other brewers, as well as local retailers and distributors. I don’t know how the lawsuit will go, but I’m pretty sure a nationwide boycott of Budweiser would wake the company up.
Victor Clarke, manager of a grocery store in Whiteclay and its unofficial spokesman, acknowledged that the alcohol sold in Whiteclay exacts a huge toll on the reservation. But he said that if these stores closed, Indians would just drive to more distant towns to get a drink.
There’s something to that. As Eli Bald Eagle, who described himself as an alcoholic for more than 20 years, told me unsteadily, “Nobody’s going to stop us from being alcoholics.”
Yet Bald Eagle, like many others, had simply walked into Whiteclay and didn’t have ready access to a car. Certainly it would be more difficult for young people to start on the road to alcoholism if they had to drive to get beer. Studies have found that when there are fewer liquor stores, there is less drinking and fewer alcohol-related crimes.
One nifty solution, proposed by former Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota, would be for the Obama administration to extend Pine Ridge reservation lines to include Whiteclay. No land titles would change hands, but reservation laws would apply and liquor sales would become illegal.
For now, Pine Ridge’s alcohol problem is matched only by Anheuser-Busch’s greed problem. Brewers market beers with bucolic country scenes, but the image I now associate with Budweiser is of a child with fetal alcohol syndrome.
That’s why I’ll pass on a Bud, and I hope you’ll join me.