Prohibition in Pine Ridge — Lakota women lead fight against ‘liquid genocide’

A sign outside Camp Zero Tolerance on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (WNV / Suree Towfighnia)

A sign bearing the sufferings of alcohol abuse on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation greets incoming traffic. (Peoples Media Project)

There’s a steady flow of traffic outside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, heading back and forth over the state-line, in and out of Nebraska. At the entrance, just over the border, sits an encampment set up off to the side of the road, with children running about playing. A large tipi stands tall next to a small cook shack and a shaded area for visitors.

“Their children prosper while our children suffer,” reads one large sign in front of the cook shack. “A sober Lakota is a dangerous Lakota,” reads another.

Inside the camp is a long table covered in sewing material — plates holding thousands of various colored beads and containers filled with threads, sinew, pieces of leather and different-sized hand tools. Since April 30, this beading circle has doubled as a makeshift stronghold, dubbed Camp Zero Tolerance. The group of Lakota woman who reside here have become the main opposition to the neighboring town of Whiteclay and its continuous sale of alcohol.

“Most of us women go out and sell our bead work to a make a living,” explained Misty, one of the top opponents of Whiteclay. “But since we haven’t been able to leave, we make the bead work here and send it out to be sold.”

The small, un-incorporated town sits on the outskirts of the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Despite a population of only 14 people, it has four different liquor stores that sell about 12,500 cans of beer per day or 4.9 million cans per year.

“Whiteclay, we call it a genocidal hole,” said Olowan Martinez, a strong, vocal advocate of closing down the town. “We heard the term ‘liquid genocide’ and that’s exactly what Whiteclay is: liquid genocide. We got the name ‘zero tolerance’ from the Oglala Sioux Tribal Ordinance 43-12, which states that it is illegal to have alcohol here on the homeland. There’s zero tolerance against alcohol in our territory. For us, alcohol is the enemy.”

The troubled history with Whiteclay runs far back. In 1882, president Chester A. Arthur created a 50-square mile buffer zone, known as the Whiteclay Extension, to protect the reservation from the threat of whiskey peddlers. By 1890, Congress incorporated this area into the boundaries of the reservation “until such time as its protective function is no longer needed.” But in 1904 Theodore Roosevelt removed all but one mile of the Whiteclay Extension, opening up the land to settlers and alcohol. Since then, the largest reservation east of the Rockies has been subjected to the lethal effects of emotional and physical violence brought on by the sale of liquor just 300 feet from its border.

“As a Lakota winyan [woman] who was born and raised right here in Oglala territory, I know deep within myself that alcohol is the root of every evil we have here,” said Martinez. “We have so many relatives who say, ‘Quit blaming Whiteclay, quit blaming those bar owners,’ but the monsters coming out of Whiteclay need to be addressed.”

Olowan standing in front of Camp Zero Tolerance. (A sign outside Camp Zero Tolerance on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (WNV / Suree Towfighnia)

Olowan Martinez has seen alcohol ruin many lives on the reservation. (Peoples Media Project)

Tears swell up in her eyes as she relates the story of a friend — a young woman struggling with alcohol addiction, who was raped in Whiteclay. It was so severe that she was taken to an intensive care unit at the regional hospital in Rapid City. Upon her release five days later, she immediately hitchhiked back to drink in Whiteclay. Disturbingly frequent stories such as this are what motivated the women to take this drastic stand to shut Whiteclay down.

“In our history, alcohol has never been used for us. It’s only been used against us,” Martinez explained. “There are even stories about some of the treaties being conducted under the influence… [It's] guaranteed that everyone in Oglala territory has lost someone due to alcohol.”

Within the past decade numerous rallies and protests have been staged against this small town. Residents of Pine Ridge and their supporters have continually addressed the illegal business practices such as selling alcohol to minors and intoxicated persons, or of accepting sex for payment. However, the controversy has never been settled. Now, with public knowledge spreading about the stories of abuse attributed to the town, many more Nebraskans have come out to offer their support for the women.

As part of a new generation in the movement to shut down Whiteclay, these women, along with other supporters and allies, have organized a series of direct actions aimed at preventing alcohol sales in Whiteclay. What began as a Women’s Day of Peace last August, grew into group marches on the town, staged road blockades preventing traffic in and out of Whiteclay, DUI checkpoints, and direct actions preventing the alcohol truck deliveries. The resistance that has formed from Camp Zero Tolerance continues to grow — gaining media attention throughout the state.

“It feels good to take action against something that helped kill my mother, something that helped damage and chase away my spirit as a young person,” said Martinez. “We sent clear messages to the distributor: ‘Quit sending your poison here.’ But they ignored us the first time, so we had to do it again. These were planned direct actions.”

Tribal President Bryan Brewer was even arrested on the front line during one of the roadblocks on June 17. At a recent Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council meeting, the president spoke about his involvement, saying, “I was meeting with our tribal council … and right now they think what I’m doing in Whiteclay is bad. They asked me to explain to the people why I’m doing this. So I told the council, ‘It’s very simple. It’s against the law.’ I took an oath to uphold our constitution of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and alcohol is illegal on our reservation. And we all know what it’s doing to our people.”

Last month, a scheduled meeting between President Brewer and Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman lasted only five minutes. Brewer walked out after being disrespectfully reprimanded by the governor, who was angered by the publicity of what he expected to be a secret meeting. He was also upset at Brewer for mentioning $164,000 in campaign funds that the governor received between 2005-2012 from the same liquor interests that supply Whiteclay.

“I was told by the governor that ‘Whiteclay is not my problem, it’s yours,'” Brewer told reporters after the meeting.

The governor’s clear disrespect of the tribal president’s office appears to leave very little room for healthy diplomatic resolution at the Nebraska state level.

On July 10, an alcohol distributor from Scottsbluff, Neb., pulled out of its deliveries from Whiteclay, stating that they would only deliver as far as Rushville, a town 20 miles away. It was a short-lived victory for Camp Zero Tolerance, as bar owners began hauling their own shipments back to Whiteclay, crossing the line between retailer and distributor in order to maintain their profits and keep sales flowing.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, the Oglala Sioux Tribe is holding a referendum vote on August 13 to determine whether or not to legalize alcohol on the reservation, spawning very split and heated debates.

(WNV / Suree Towfighnia)

Legalization supporters claim that tax dollars from more liquor stores would help pay for treatment centers. But opponents envision Whiteclays in every district of the reservation. (Peoples Media Project)

Signs outside the camp, visible from the road, read “Vote No To Legalize Alcohol” and “Open Eyes Not Cans.” As cars head into Whiteclay, some voice their opinion about the signs and the camp, screaming inaudible obscenities and threats almost hourly, like clockwork. The women just laugh, knowing most times which car belongs to which family on the reservation.

“Elders tell us to wear our arrow shirts well and to walk with pride because our own relatives shoot arrows at us everyday,” Martinez said. “We’re here to set a new mentality that alcohol is the enemy and we can’t just be teaching our young ones how to live with it. Someone has to show them that life without it is possible. How can we have defenders of the land and water, if they’re all diluted with alcohol?”

The message from Camp Zero Tolerance for a sober nation is loud and clear, echoing all across the reservation. Focusing on the youth, the women look to empower the next generation through their series of actions. The last Women’s Day of Peace is scheduled for August 31. The women are planning a family-friendly affair, inviting all people and organizations to come out and join them with music, poetry, drumming and dancing — hoping once and for all to rid Pine Ridge of the poison of Whiteclay.

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