Alcohol and violence rend Indian country; Beer-sodden culture, not racial animosity, blamed for troubles


WHITECLAY, Neb. -- They lie on either side of the state line, sharing a desolate landscape and a heavy reliance on beer. But that is where the similarities end.

Whiteclay, Neb., is where white people sell beer, lots of it. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D., is where Native Americans drink most of it.

Usually, this division of roles, between those who sell and those who consume, between those who profit from beer and those who suffer from excess of it, is accepted as the normal state of affairs.

But this summer, the delicate balance gave way to violence.

First, two Native American men were beaten to death, and their bodies dumped just north of Whiteclay, a town of 22 residents and four beer stores. Unsolved after nearly three months, the killings unleashed a torrent of protests whose targets have veered wildly from beer sales in Whiteclay to the alleged racism of shopkeepers and police to a century-old treaty that is said to show Whiteclay belongs to the Sioux.

More recently, in another town near the 3,100-square-mile Pine Ridge reservation, a white man was found beaten beyond recognition and barely alive. Three Native Americans, who had been drinking heavily with the victim, were arrested.

The crimes have unnerved residents on the reservation and in neighboring towns, forcing them to confront two equally vexing questions: Is it race? Or is it alcohol?The boundaries are blurred. "There is a dual standard of justice," declared Tom Poor Bear, an activist who has been leading marches from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay to protest the lack of arrests in the killings of the two Native American men. "If it were two white men killed, this place would be swarming with FBI agents."

Poor Bear said the killings of Wilson "Wally" Black Elk Jr., 40, and Ronald Hard Heart, 39, in early June have to be viewed in the context of the problems caused by Whiteclay's beer stores. While liquor sales are banned on Pine Ridge, it has a high alcoholism rate -- from 50 percent to more than 80 percent, by varying estimates -- in part because of the easy availability of beer two miles to the south in Whiteclay, he said.

Not a hate crime

On one of Pine Ridge's eastern fringes, the brutal beating of Brad Young, 22, in Allen, S.D., has similarly raised concerns. Young had been kicked in the face and dragged across the ground, leading initially to comparisons with last year's hate crime in Jasper, Texas, in which a black man was chained to a truck and dragged down a country road. A local sheriff at first declared the beating of Young a hate crime, but quickly backed off from the charge.

Residents on the reservation and in the adjacent town of Martin, S.D., where Young lives, also denied a racial aspect to the beating. "It's not a hate crime. It's due to alcohol," said Elaine Martinez, a Sioux from Allen who was shopping on Martin's Main Street.

Martinez and other residents say the national media, drawn to the area to investigate the alleged hate crime, bring their own prejudices and erroneously assume two races cannot live side by side.

"We view things differently here, I think," said Nancy Neuharth, a white clerk at the Jack and Jill grocery in Martin and Young's aunt. "We survive as a group here. We may be Indian, we may be white, but in general, we get along here. You know your neighbors. You know everyone in town. A lot of Indians live and work in town."

But it's hard to ignore the separate, and unequal, worlds that whites and Native Americans inhabit despite their proximity. The stores and businesses, for example, are largely owned and run by whites, even if some employ Native Americans.

History of violence

And then there is the long history of violence between whites and Native Americans, a history of bloodshed and betrayal. The Oglala Sioux, after all, are the tribe of Crazy Horse, who vanquished Gen. George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. It was perhaps the last Sioux victory; the white man's government would spend the next century sporadically battling them and penning them into a reservation.

To drive on the Pine Ridge Reservation is to travel through this past: Highway signs point to violence-haunted towns that are as much a part of history as they are geography.

There is Wounded Knee, unmarked but for a hand-printed sign, where in 1890 the U.S. cavalry massacred about 150 Native Americans, many of them women and children. It is also the site of a 1973 takeover by the American Indian Movement, or AIM, a militant group, in a three-month standoff with federal authorities and the tribal government.

And there is Oglala, where tensions between the FBI and AIM activists erupted in a gunfight in 1975 in which two federal agents were killed. A Native American, Leonard Peltier, remains imprisoned, although some consider him a political prisoner.

Whether Whiteclay joins this line of landmarks remains to be seen.

Since June 26, protesters have marched from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay every Saturday to pressure investigators to solve the two killings and to call for the closure of the town's four beer stores.

The protests have been led by AIM leaders to highlight what they consider the moral responsibility that Whiteclay stores bear for the crimes and social ills that plague Pine Ridge. Alcoholism and its effects -- fetal alcohol syndrome and early mortality -- are chronic here. The reservation is considered the country's most impoverished area. It has a 75 percent unemployment rate when the national average is near 4 percent.

By contrast, just over the border, Whiteclay does booming business, in beer sales at least. Whiteclay sells so much beer -- an estimated 3 million to 4 million cans a year -- that its liquor tax revenues are the fourth-largest in the state.

Except for disrupting traffic every Saturday, though, the marches on Whiteclay have had little effect.

On a recent afternoon, a bedraggled few protesters held the fort at "Camp Justice," a bivouac of tepees and tents north of Whiteclay, where they have vowed to stay until the killings are solved. As hordes of flies annoyed and the breezeless summer air stalled over the encampment, a couple of protesters played Yahtzee and several children frolicked with dogs.

"Someone's walking around with a lot of guilt," said Alberta Black Bear, a resident of Wounded Knee and longtime AIM supporter. "Two young men died, and I think the state of Nebraska should know who killed them."

Claim on Whiteclay

The protesters have reached back into history in their drive to shut down the beer stores: They cite a 19th-century treaty that they say shows the Whiteclay area is part of Pine Ridge. Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, however, has said that any treaty dispute is a federal matter and, even if he wanted to, he could not turn over a piece of the state to the tribe. That issue remains unresolved as does the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's request that U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno investigate the killings.

But as the rhetoric flies over Whiteclay, it's business as usual on the ground.

A steady stream of customers, by car or by foot, travels the dusty streets. The customers, mostly Native American, and the white storekeepers greet one another by name and share a small-town familiarity.

At the Arrowhead Inn, mostly jovial customers, some coming from work, keep manager Don Schwarting busy on this particular evening. Most buy beer or malt liquor, singles or cases. A pregnant woman comes in with a craving -- for a pickle. Another asks after Schwarting's grandchildren, then wags a teasing finger at him and says it's time to stop making his own babies now that he's a grandpa. When one man simply requests, "Gimme three," Schwarting knows which three to pull from the chilled shelves. At least one already inebriated customer is refused service.

Media misguided

"I've been here 20 years. I know all my customers," Schwarting said. "It's not like I just sell beer, and I don't care what happens out there."

Schwarting said the media portrayal of two separate worlds, white and Indian, at odds with one another, is simply wrong. He dated a Native American woman from Pine Ridge for seven years and remains good friends with her; many reservation residents work on the area's farms, he said.

He and other owners argue that closing Whiteclay beer stores would accomplish nothing; residents would simply drive farther, to the next town, for beer.

But that rankles with the protesters.

"If you have a crack house and law enforcement is able to close that down, it is expected another one will just open up down the block. But you don't refuse to close the first crack house because of that," said Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago tribe in Nebraska and a state and national Democratic Party official.

Observers have noted that the only store in Whiteclay to be vandalized during the protests has been a grocery store, not one of the liquor outlets, leading them to question if there is much sentiment to cut off the reservation's beer supply.

"They didn't damage the liquor stores at all," said the Rev. Phil Compton, who runs an alcohol treatment program for Native American men about four miles south of the Whiteclay businesses. "Whiteclay is a tragedy I detest. We're seeing death sold out the door. But the only way that's going to change is by the market. There's that old saying, you can't legislate morality. Well, you can't legislate sobriety.

"There's a lot of underlying issues that really the marchers can't address," he said. "It's complex. There are no quick fixes."

His friend and colleague, the Rev. Ben Tyon, a Sioux whose family has lived on the reservation for five generations, has seen the liquor issue come up repeatedly over the years and similarly sees no simple solutions.

Tyon, pastor of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Pine Ridge, remembers when liquor sales were allowed for a short while on the reservation. He chuckles over the memory of the booming business they enjoyed, much as their modern counterparts do in Whiteclay.

"Near closing time, the lines would form, 30 people sometimes. I had an uncle who once got in line, bought a bottle, and as he was leaving, he ran into some friends in line who said, 'Hey, why don't you share some of that?' So he did, and soon the bottle was empty, and he had to get back in line," Tyon said.

Like others, Tyon thinks it is worth considering bringing liquor stores back to the reservation, the theory being that as Pine Ridge already suffers from alcohol, it might as well profit from it. "The revenue could benefit our people," he said.

For now, though, the nearest beer is in Whiteclay. And in this remote part of the country, where you can drive for hours without seeing a police car or pay phone, laws and government seem less important than individuals and their own judgments.

"Anybody who runs a bar," said Stu Kozel of the Jumping Eagle Inn beer store and gas station in Whiteclay, "has the responsibility to decide who you serve."

"I think it ought to be left up to responsible drunks," said Coy Bad Heart Bull, who lives in Oglala and stopped in to pick up a case of beer. "I just wish everyone would be responsible for their actions. I myself can drink all this by myself and still be responsible."

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