APNewsBreak: Beer sales plunge near SD reservation

March 8, 2012 - 9:05 PM

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Alcohol sales have plummeted in a tiny Nebraska town faulted for selling beer to members of an American Indian tribe plagued by alcoholism.

While the town's critics hailed the drop in sales and credited increased law enforcement and more alcohol-related treatment programs at the neighboring Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a store owner in Whiteclay said business has fallen off because the tribal government, which provides most of the jobs in the area, has been struggling financially.

New data obtained by The Associated Press from Nebraska Liquor Control Commission the show the number of cases of beer and malt liquor sold in the dusty, 11-person town fell 13 percent in 2011. Sales had been climbing for years, from about 117,500 cases of beer in 2007 to 206,600 in 2010.

"There's just no money," said Victor Clark, who owns a small grocery story in Whiteclay that doesn't sell alcohol. "The tribe has no money. We're seeing programs now that don't have money. All sorts of things, and it's all trickling down to the individuals."

Tribal Council member Donn Fire Thunder said the tribal government has made cuts recently to its housing program and police department because of budget shortfalls, which he blamed on cuts in federal funding. Tribal officials have estimated that unemployment hovers around 80 percent, with tribal and federal government agencies providing most of the jobs.

"Money is really tight this year," he said. "We're no different than the government body of South Dakota or Omaha. Everybody gets money from the government to run their town for roads, energy to help the poor, food stamps. We get only a small share of it, and we have to make it last."

Even with the drop in business, Whiteclay's four beer stores sold the combined equivalent of 4.3 million, 12-ounce cans.

The town and its beer stores sit just a few hundred feet south and across the state border from the reservation in South Dakota.

Leaders of the Oglala Sioux Tribe have tried for decades to reduce alcohol abuse on the reservation. But the problem has persisted, even though the reservation has almost continually banned alcohol since the late 1800s.

One in four children born on the reservation now suffer 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, according to a lawsuit the tribe filed last month against beer distributors and businesses in Whiteclay. The average American life expectancy is 77.5 years.

The tribe's lawsuit seeks $500 million from the four beer stores, their distributors and the international brewing companies that serve them. A state senator who lives near the town also introduced a bill this year to allow the state government to restrict stores' sales and hours in places like Whiteclay.

The town "is costing us an arm and a leg for health care, law enforcement, court costs and family tragedies," Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele said. "It's costing us everything."

Steele said he was surprised by the drop in sales, but he has pushed to expand alcohol treatment centers aimed at adolescents on the reservation since he took office in December 2010.

Others also created the tribe's efforts and heightened law enforcement.

"It demonstrates the efforts by tribal members and leaders to address the problem," said Mark Vasina, president of the group Nebraskans for Peace, which has worked to reduce alcohol sales in the town. "There have been a number of elders and groups on the reservation that have been taking it very seriously."

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson of South Dakota announced Thursday that a federal grand jury had indicted five people for possessing and selling alcohol on the reservation.

Whiteclay generated nearly $358,755 in federal and state excise taxes in 2011, down from $413,932 in 2010.