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Alcoholism affects millions of people around the world. Each year, around 88,000 people die due to excessive alcohol use. In most parts of the U.S. alcohol can be legally sold, purchased, and consumed by those who are at least 21 years of age. Some people in certain demographics have more substance abuse problems than others. Although anyone can become addicted to alcohol, it’s a particularly deep rooted problem in the Native American community. Alcoholism is a major problem on the reservations.

Many Native American reservations in the U.S. suffer from a variety of problems, including poverty and high unemployment. Upward mobility, financial opportunities, and even health care are difficult to obtain on some reservations. This article provides details about the small town of Whiteclay located in Nebraska. Whiteclay consists of about 10 people who sell alcohol to the neighboring Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Wyoming, which is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.  The nearby reservation banned alcohol in the 1970s in an attempt to cut down on the growing rate of alcoholism. Yet the nearby town of Whiteclay has no such ban. The town exists purely to sell alcohol to the tribe and surrounding areas.

The author of the above mentioned article paints a sad, dreary picture of life on the reservation. Men and women are passed out in front of abandoned buildings. Empty liquor bottles are strewn all over the road. A general feeling of lawlessness pervades the air. However, the Oglala Sioux tribe is fighting back. They have filed a lawsuit seeking $500 million dollars in damages, which the tribe says is related to the cost of health care, law enforcement, and social services from alcohol abuse and alcoholism. They blame the town of Whiteclay for enabling their residents and they want to limit the amount of alcohol that can be sold.

The tribe’s lawsuit against the liquor stores and the liquor companies that supply Whiteclay with its alcohol can be considered one step in its fight against alcoholism. The tribe says that the distributors and sellers purposely placed their retail stores next to the reservation since the Pine Ridge reservation has a ban on alcohol for decades. Tribal Council President John Yellow Bird says up to 90% of criminal cases in its court system and a high number of illnesses in the community are caused by illegal liquor, which found its way to the reservation. The tribal president stated that he does not believe Oglala Sioux nation can progress and solve their problems without addressing the readily available alcohol sold in Whiteclay.

Jurisdiction issues also contribute to the problems surrounding the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Whiteclay. The reservation is located in Wyoming while Whiteclay is located in Nebraska. The Oglala Sioux police have the man power to enforce the rules, but they don’t have power in the town of Whiteclay. The Sheridan County Sheriff’s department, which services Whiteclay, has the jurisdiction but does not have enough resources to properly police the town. This situation has caused a catch 22, where both police departments are hindered by either resources or jurisdictional issues.

Alcoholism has been a blight in the Native American community for decades. Some reservations lack the necessary resources to deal with alcoholism. They also can’t defend their communities from predatory activity by others who are looking to make money off of addicted people. Excessive alcohol consumption is the leading cause of preventable death among Native Americans at the rate of twice the national average. While the reservation battles its problems, it becomes evident just how much damage alcoholism can cause to a community.

Contributed by Guest Blogger Michael Jean