Nebraska May Stanch One Town’s Flow of Beer to Its Vulnerable NeighborsAs I’ve mentioned before, the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian reservation is just about the most tragic place in America. The Native Americans have imposed Prohibition on themselves, but Whiteclay, Nebraska is a town that mostly exists to sell beer to Indian alcoholics.
By JULIE BOSMAN MARCH 25, 2017
WHITECLAY, Neb. — This town is a rural skid row, with only a dozen residents, a street strewn with debris, four ramshackle liquor stores and little else. It seems to exist only to sell beer to people like Tyrell Ringing Shield, a grandmother with silver streaks in her hair.
On a recent morning, she had hitched a ride from her home in South Dakota, just steps across the state line. There, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, alcohol is forbidden. In Whiteclay, though, it reigns supreme. …
Now many residents of Nebraska and South Dakota are pushing for the liquor stores of Whiteclay to be shut, disgusted by the easy access to alcohol the stores provide to a people who have fought addiction for generations.
Now I don’t know whether extending Prohibition to Whiteclay would be a good idea — some local law enforcement officials worry that it would mean that Sioux would drunk drive further for alcohol, endangering other motorists. But I want to point out that it is a good thing that we recognize that American Indians have a particular problem with alcohol.
The grim scene in Whiteclay has scarcely changed for decades. Particularly in the warmer months, Native Americans can be seen openly drinking beer in town, often passed out on the ground, disheveled and ill. Many who come to Whiteclay from the reservation spend the night sleeping on mattresses in vacant lots or fields. …This NYT article is noteworthy in that it doesn’t bother to argue that Indian alcoholism is a socially constructed myth. It doesn’t explain the plausible evolutionary hypothesis for why northern Indians are so vulnerable to alcohol — they didn’t have much besides a few berries they could possibly ferment until the white man came — but it doesn’t go out of its way to denounce it either.
Pine Ridge, one of the nation’s largest Indian reservations, is a catalog of social ills: Unemployment exceeds 80 percent, poverty affects more than 90 percent of those living on the reservation and alcoholism is rampant. By some estimates, one quarter of children born on the reservation have fetal alcohol syndrome. …
State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, who has represented Lincoln since 2015, said that when she began trying to whip up support in the Legislature to take action in Whiteclay, she heard a common response: Don’t bother.
… She saw it differently. “We have people lying on the streets, and it would not be allowed in any other part of the state,” she said. “We are selling alcohol to a people who we have known for centuries are particularly vulnerable to alcoholism. We have been living off and getting tax receipts from their hopeless, vulnerable situation.” …
A more distant possibility is a buyout. Bruce and Marsha BonFleur, who run a ministry in Whiteclay, said they had been trying to raise money — at least $6 million — so that the store owners would sell and close down for good. The BonFleurs have held meetings with the owners, who Mr. BonFleur said were exhausted from the attention and open to the idea of selling.
Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom has been until very recently that it was racist to hypothesize that American Indians might be particularly vulnerable to alcohol. For example, from the Wikipedia page Alcohol and Native Americans:
Firewater mythsUnfortunately, there hasn’t been much in the way of genetic studies of alcoholism so far. It’s particularly hard to study the genes of American Indians due to various legal restrictions. It’s easier to study Canadian and Mexican Indians.
After colonial contact, white drunkenness was interpreted by whites as the misbehavior of an individual. Native drunkenness was interpreted in terms of the inferiority of a race.
What emerged was a set of beliefs known as firewater myths that misrepresented the history, nature, sources and potential solutions to Native alcohol problems. These myths proclaimed that Indian people:
had a natural craving for alcohol, were sensitive to alcohol, became belligerent when they were intoxicated, were susceptible to alcohol addiction, and could not resolve such problems on their own.The scientific literature has refuted the claims to many of these myths by documenting the wide variability of alcohol problems across and within Native tribes and the very different response that certain individuals have to alcohol opposed to others.
Another important way that scientific literature has refuted these myths is by identifying that there are no current discovered genetic or other biological anomalies that render Native peoples particularly vulnerable to alcoholism.