An American Indian tribe is considering taking its case to state court after its lawsuit against four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska was thrown out last week by a federal judge.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe governs the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, just over the state line from Whiteclay.
Last year the four beer stores named in the suit sold the equivalent of 4.3 million 12-ounce beer cans even though according to the latest census, Whiteclay has only 11 residents.
Alcohol is banned on the reservation and the tribe has accused the nearby stores as well as manufacturers: Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MillerCoors LLC and Pabst Brewing Company of illegally selling millions of cans of beer to members of the tribe.
Alcohol is a very serious problem for the Oglala Sioux Tribe. One in four children born on the reservation suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and the average life expectancy is estimated between 45 and 52 years – the shortest in the Northern Hemisphere except for Haiti. The average American life expectancy is 77.5 years.
Last week a federal judge dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning the tribe can try again, provided it take its claims to the state court.
‘There is, in fact, little question that alcohol sold in Whiteclay contributes significantly to tragic conditions on the reservation,’ U.S. District Judge John M. Gerrard wrote in his ruling.
‘And it may well be that the defendants could, or should, do more to try to improve those conditions for members of the tribe.’
The Connecticut-sized reservation is home to 40,000 residents and has struggled with alcoholism for generations, despite an alcohol ban in place since 1832. It also spans some of the most impoverished areas in the country.
The reservation includes South Dakota’s Shannon County, which U.S. census statistics place as the third-poorest in the nation. It has a median household income of $27,300 and nearly half of the population falls below federal poverty standards.
The lawsuit filed by the tribe in February alleges that the stores and beer makers allowed alcohol sales to Pine Ridge residents knowing they would smuggle it onto the reservation to drink or resell.
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’ and the tribe, the lawsuit alleged.
The vast majority of Whiteclay’s beer store customers have no legal place to consume alcohol since it’s banned on Pine Ridge, which is just north, and state law prohibits drinking outside the stores. The nearest town that allows alcohol is more than 20 miles south.
‘[The beer] can’t be drunk in public, but it is. And it can’t be brought into the Pine Ridge, but it is openly right in front of the retailers, and everybody knows it,’ Nebraska lawyer Tom White, working on behalf of the Oglala Sioux, told NPR.
Pine Ridge legalized alcohol in 1970 but restored the ban two months later, and an attempt to allow it in 2004 also died after a public outcry.
Younger tribal leaders are believed to be keen to try lifting the ban once again, many elders continue to resist that and believe the next stop should be the state court.