In a March 3, 2012 New York Times article, “At Tribe’s Door, a Hub of Beer and Heartache,” reporter Timothy Williams provides yet another account of the terrible consequences associated with alcohol consumption among native Americans. This article, which of course joins many others on the same topic, touches on a number of familiar points, in particular the assumed collective susceptibility of Native Americans to alcohol and their vulnerability to the agents of capitalism.
Whiteclay, Nebraska is a ramshackle hamlet on the border not only of South Dakota but of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—which has banned alcohol since the 1970s. There, a small number of white beer store owners sell annually almost five million cans of beer and malt liquor—almost all to members of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
These are the latest version of the unscrupulous white traders who have populated the narratives of Native American drinking since the seventeenth century. In this case, they offer to cash income tax checks for a 3 percent commission and selling 30 packs of Bud for a price higher than that charged in New York City and more than twice the going price in most of the country. In this account the ravages of alcohol consumption involve virtually every family. “As an indication of the depth of the problem,” the Times notes that even a tribal vice president, a leader in the fight to restrict alcohol sales in Whiteclay, was recently arrested on alcohol-related charges. In 2011 tribal police made 20,000 alcohol-related arrests in a reservation with an apparently undifferentiated population of 45,000.
The article reminds us that this is not just a problem for the Oglala Sioux, but for Native Americans generally. Without an explanation for the leap to a national/racial scope, we’re reminded that about one third of U.S. reservations ban alcohol and that “excessive alcohol consumption is the leading cause of preventable death among American Indians.” And in fact the threat of extinction lurks in this article as it has in accounts of native drinking for four centuries. As one tribal police captain notes, “not to disrespect our elders and ancestors, but we’ve gone through several generations.”
In his famous 1802 testimony to Thomas Jefferson, Chief Little Turtle told the President, “your children have not that command over themselves which you have, therefore, before anything can be done to advantage, this evil must be remedied.”And so the Oglala Sioux, implicitly recognizing that they “have not that command over themselves,” have gone to court to lay blame for their affliction not only on the beer stores in Whiteclay but the Anheuser-Busch company that produces the high-alcohol Hurricane High Gravity Lager that is the current drink of choice in Pine Ridge. The purpose of this post is not to dismiss or intellectualize away the enormous problems linked to alcohol in many of the nation’s Native American communities, but to invite discussion about the remarkably persistent and pervasive mythology of the drunken native and of the more general susceptibility of aboriginal (or “indigenous”) people to alcohol.