18 May 2012


From the NYTimes ~ In the New York Times earlier this month, Nicholas D. Kristof called for a boycott of Anheuser-Busch because of how the company's products are affecting residents of an Indian reservation that has been decimated by alcoholism.  The reservation is dry, but the nearby town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, (with a population of about 10 people) 'sells more than four million cans of beer and malt liquor annually' and 'is the main channel through which alcohol illegally enters the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation' (see map above ~ bold print mine).

"How can tribes, states, the federal government and local communities deal with alcoholism on and around reservations?  If the beer companies and liquor stores are following the law, do they have a further responsibility to their communities?"

These questions introduce a debate, How to Address Alcoholism on Indian Reservations.  The panelists include ~

  • Frank Lamere, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, who maintains that regulators and manufacturers have Blood on Their Hands ~ "The Lakota Nation slowly bleeds to death while Nebraska and Anheuser-Busch proclaim that there are no easy answers, muttering about legal businesses and capitalism".
  • Aneel Karnani, University of Michigan, who counters that the situation is Not a Private Sector Problem ~ "liquor stores and beer companies can't prevent alcoholism or smuggling".
  • Waheed Hussein, University of Pennsylvania, who draws a distinction between Good Profit and Bad Profit ~ "when the products sold by companies hurt a community, they have a special responsibility to mitigate the damage".
  • Richard B. Luarke, Governor of the Pueblo of Laguna, NM, who proposes that Communities Must Be Proactive through "regulating alcohol sales, and offering scholarships and training-to-work initiatives".
The issue of alcoholism on the rez is far from new.  It has been portrayed and analyzed for decades in scholarly papers, movies such as the 2002 film Skins, and Ian Frazier's 2000 book On The Rez.  Those who know little about conditions on Indian reservations, or those who have little sympathy for the unique history of genocide and systematic prejudice inflicted upon Native Americans, may wonder why this is the problem of anyone but the Indians themselves.  After all (says the stereotype), they're all lazy drunks anyway, aren't they?

No.  The fact is that it is no accident that unemployment, alcoholism, and domestic violence are higher on many reservations than in any other segment of society.  When your people have their ancestral land stolen, and are then forced to live in squalor on land no one else wants ~ when your culture, your very language is taken from you, and your children are taken from their families and made to attend Dickensian boarding schools with the aim of turning them into white people ~ when you see yourself portrayed in movies and the media either as a blood-thirsty red man or an anachronistic noble savage ~ and when all these conditions persist across generations, the slide into hopelessness is too difficult for many to resist.  And once you've misplaced your pride and lost all hope, it's all to easy to seek the emotional numbness provided by alcohol.  

The image of the drunken Indian is an ugly stereotype which most Native Americans do not fit.  But many are alcoholics, encouraged by the reservation system, by the racism of their white neighbors, and by the parasitic business practices of beer and wine companies.  It is a problem for all of us, because we all created it, whether by our participation or by our silence.  So long as even one man, woman, or child is oppressed, none of us is free.

Native Americans don't need me to speak for them.  The list of accomplished Indian writers includes many of my favorite authors.  Similarly, in the arts, in academia, in the practice of law, in science, Native Americans excel on a par with other social groups.  They are held back not by a lack of skill or intelligence, but by a lack of opportunity.  Indians are by far the most discriminated-against minority in America, a fact made all the more insidious by so many living isolated in impoverished ghettos, making their plight invisible to the rest of society.  It is only through persistence, courage, and ingenuity (in books, in classes, and in forums like the NYTimes debate) that Native Americans are able to call the attention of an insensitive public to what needs fixing, by whom, and how it should be accomplished.

In the meantime, Whiteclay, Nebraska, population 10, continues to make a killing ~ literally and financially ~ at the rate of more than 4 million cans of beer and malt liquor per year, sold to Lakota Indians with no thought for ethics or social responsibility, only for profit.  Kristof's editorial on the physical and psychological warfare being waged against Pine Ridge is worth reading and passing along.  And yes, I'm joining the boycott.

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