By Joe Shearer, Photo Editor
The plight and struggle of alcoholism at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has been well-documented over many years.
Although possession and consumption of alcohol is forbidden on the reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the southwestern border of South Dakota, it isn’t hard to acquire. Just a quick walk across the border of Nebraska lies the census designated place of Whiteclay.
The small town has a population of just over 10 people and four off-sale liquor stores. Those stores sell almost 13,000 cans of beer a day combined, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s reports over the last three years. It’s not hard to guess where most of that beer goes: Pine Ridge.
Enter Whiteclay Awareness, a student-led organization with over 100 members state-wide, consisting of students from Creighton, UNO, UNL, as well as other activists seeking to end liquor sales in Whiteclay. Led by Creighton senior David Fuxa, a handful of the group’s representatives held a press conference Jan. 22 at Creighton’s Harper Center to announce a call to action.
The student group announced a personal boycott of Anheuser-Busch products, a demand for the closing of Whiteclay’s liquor stores and the opening of a rehabilitation center near Pine Ridge. While the students couldn’t speak on behalf of their respective universities, the group asked for students to join their boycott out of concern for basic human rights practices.
“It is everyone’s duty to stand up for injustices in our world today,” Fuxa said. “As Nebraska and United States citizens it is our duty to stand up for the injustices in our community. Pine Ridge is part of our community. They are our neighbors and they are being treated unfairly.”
The group is specifically going after Anheuser-Busch because the company is responsible for most of the beer sales in Whiteclay. The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission report shows that the brewer’s products account for an average of 78 percent of total beer sales in the town.
While it isn’t illegal for the liquor stores in question to be selling beer and liquor to the indigenous people, the students view the sales as being exploitive when most of the beer is obviously going to or around the dry reservation. Dan Walsh, a graduate student of social work at UNO, hopes that the boycott ends in more than just the end of liquor sales in Whiteclay.
“This boycott, while aimed at eliminating exploitive alcohol sales, also hopes to create space for dialogue between the Lakota and Anheuser-Busch-ultimately leading towards more responsible care for the community,” Walsh said. “We also hope this boycott will raise awareness in the Omaha community, the Nebraska community, and the national community-that indigenous peoples should not be excluded from conversations about the common good.”
Anheuser-Busch and other beer companies and distributors have been under fire from a slew of op-eds, news articles and activist sites over the years. Anheuser-Busch InBev’s North American Operations President Luiz Edmond made a statement in a letter to The New York Times in May.
“We care about the tragic problems of tribal members on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and are greatly concerned about alcohol abuse there and anywhere,” Edmond wrote. “When our products become associated with a problem, it is damaging to all of us as parents and members of communities, and to us as a company; it’s the last thing we want for our consumers or our products.”
Edmond also wrote that “we cannot control the actions on the tribe’s reservation, yet that in no way diminishes our desire to end these problems.”
Mark Vasina, president of Nebraskans for Peace and producer of the documentary “The Battle for Whiteclay,” called the statements in Edmond’s letter a “timid PR attempt,” citing the company’s inaction since writing that letter.
“[Anheuser-Busch] could be doing so much right now,” Vasina said. “But they have done absolutely nothing. Nothing except write that letter to The New York Times. This student boycott could have a significant impact on Anheuser-Busch. They spend a lot of money advertising to college students, and if you look at the [Whiteclay Awareness] website, you’ll see that the boycott petition has been getting signed by people all over the country.”
Fuxa expressed frustration with The New York Times letter, agreeing with Vasina. Since the founding of Whiteclay Awareness, the group has sent two letters to Anheuser-Busch. They have not received any response.
“It is obvious that Anheuser-Busch could do more than they are now,” Fuxa said. “Those who are capable and able to make the changes aren’t doing anything about it.”
Frank LaMere, a Winnebago Tribe member and father of Whiteclay Awareness member Lexie LaMere, has been helping in the fight against the illegal flow of alcohol into Pine Ridge after being approached by Oglala Sioux tribal leaders in 1998. LaMere applauds the efforts of the students and hopes that this generation of youth can do what those in the past have failed to accomplish.
“Whiteclay continues, in my estimation, to be a time bomb waiting to go off,” LaMere said. “Things have to change and they have to change now. Hopefully this will help elevate the discussion with Nebraska’s leaders.”
While LaMere is proud to see a new class of activists becoming “agents of change,” he says much still has to be done for action to be taken.
“Nothing is going to change unless someone is made to feel uncomfortable.”
For more information about Whiteclay Awareness and their efforts, visit whiteclayboycott.blogspot.com.