The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota recently initiated a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska against some of the world’s leading beer manufacturers, including Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors Brewing Company, and Miller Coors LLC, demanding $500 million in damages. The tribe alleges that the beer makers knowingly contributed to alcohol-related problems on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The $500 million in damages are for the cost of health care, social services and child rehabilitation which were incurred because of the problem with chronic alcoholism on the reservation, an area encompassing some of the Country’s poorest counties. The tribe also named as defendants four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska. The town only has a few dozen residents, yet it sold approximately five million cans of beer in 2010 alone.
Alcohol is banned on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and tribal leaders assert that the Whiteclay beer stores are responsible for the alcohol abuse and bootlegging which occurs on the Reservation. Most of the beer stores’ customers are ostensibly from the Reservation.
The tribe’s attorney wants to hold the beer sellers and manufacturers responsible for the beer being smuggled onto the Reservation. The lawsuit alleges that the beer makers and stores sold the beer to the residents of the Reservation, knowing full well that they would smuggle the alcohol into the reservation to drink or resell. According to the plaintiff, the beer makers supplied the stores with “volumes of beer far in excess of an amount that could be sold in compliance with the laws of the state of Nebraska”.
Most of Whiteclay’s beer store customers face a challenge about where to legally consume the alcohol. Alcohol is banned on the Reservation, and state law prohibits drinking outside the stores. Furthermore, the nearest town that allows alcohol is over twenty miles away.
The ban on alcohol went into effect on the Reservation in 1832. The Reservation legalized alcohol in 1970, but the ban was restored only two months later. A subsequent attempt to allow alcohol in 2004 failed to win approval.
The Reservation includes the third poorest county in the Country. The median household income is only $27,300 and approximately fifty percent of the population falls below federal poverty standards.
The tribe initiated the lawsuit in order to protect the Reservation’s youth’s health and welfare. The tribe had previously tried other methods to curtail the alcohol abuse including exerting public pressure on lawmakers, all to no avail.
Twenty-five percent of the children born on the Reservation suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and the average life expectancy is between 45 and 52 years, which is the shortest life expectancy in North America, except for Haiti. The average American life expectancy is, in contrast, 77.5 years.
Nebraska lawmakers have tried to control the problem, and they are now considering legislation which would allow the state to limit the types of alcohol sold in areas like Whiteclay. The legislation would allow certain areas to be designated as an “alcohol impact zone.” Once that designation is in place, the state liquor commission would be able to limit the hours alcohol stores are open; ban the sale of certain products; or impose other restrictions.