SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – In a desperate effort to fight the ravages of alcoholism on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, leaders of the Oglala Sioux tribe are threatening to set up roadblocks Wednesday and stop members from bringing in beer bought at four outlying stores.
Alcohol has long been banned on the 16,500-member reservation, where drinking has been a scourge for generations. But four stores in Whiteclay, Neb., a dusty village a few hundred feet outside the reservation, sell an estimated 4 million of cans of beer every year, mostly to Indians.
Tribal members said that from now on, they will confiscate beer bought in Whiteclay.
"We are the last line of defense when it comes to protecting our people," said Duane Martin of the reservation's Strong Heart Civil Rights Movement.
Alcoholism is frighteningly high on the reservation, though how high is unclear. The effects can be seen in nearly every family, in accidents, violence, sexual abuse and suicide, said Terryl Blue-White Eyes, director of the alcohol and drug program for the reservation.
The youth suicide rate on the reservation is the highest in the nation, and most of the suicides involve alcohol, she said. Shannon County, where most Pine Ridge residents live, is home to less than 2 percent of South Dakota's population but had 19 percent of the fatalities caused by drunken driving in 2005 — 14 of the 74 deaths statewide, according to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety.
Beer cans litter reservation roads and the streets of Whiteclay, a village of roughly a dozen people. People loiter outside the stores. Some try to trade tools, electronics and other items for beer.
The stores have been a source of tension for years, and tribal members have tried to stop alcohol sales in Whiteclay through the courts, the county and the state licensing board.
Mark Vasina, president of Nebraskans for Peace, a mostly non-Indian activist group that tried to end alcohol sales in the border town, said the blockade is the only option left.
"They said, `Nebraska is not going to do anything. The only recourse is to do something on the reservation.' So the blockade was on in a flash," Vasina said. He added: "It's not for a day, not for a week, not for a month. The intention is to have an ongoing blockade there."
Lance Lintt, who works at the Jumping Eagle Inn, one of the four stores in Whiteclay, said of the blockade: "I just don't know how it's going to work or how they have any legal grounds to confiscate any beer. I just don't think they'll get anyone to stop for them."
The plan is to set up checkpoints just inside the reservation's boundaries. Volunteers in Whiteclay will use radios to tell workers at the checkpoints which vehicles should be stopped and searched for beer. Other vehicles will not have to pull over.
Tribal police will not enforce the blockade but will be present to maintain order, said Alex White Plume, vice president of the tribal council.
Russell Means, an Indian actor who was part of the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, plans to help with the blockade.
Kathey Wilson, a tribal member who has worked in community health on Pine Ridge, said alcohol abuse will still be a problem until there are more jobs, enough housing and better treatment programs.
"They have good intentions, but they don't understand the whole picture," she said.