South Dakota's largest Sioux tribe filed a federal lawsuit Thursday to stem the flow of millions of cans of beer across its border from a 10-person town in Nebraska.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe seeks $500 million from more than a dozen defendants, ranging from dusty beer shacks in Whiteclay to the nation's biggest breweries. The 10-page lawsuit alleges the breweries and distributors provided alcohol to the four stores on the Nebraska border, which in turn sold it to residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
It alleges the defendants violated the tribe's alcohol ban as well as Nebraska law by providing alcohol to the reservation's residents, knowing those residents would resell much of that beer to other residents on the reservation.
"That is like handing a baseball bat to someone in an alley, knowing they're going to hit somebody, and hit somebody they did," said Tom White, an Omaha attorney and former state senator representing the tribe.
The lawsuit alleges most of the beer consumed on the reservation comes from the four Whiteclay stores. Four months ago, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council voted unanimously to support the lawsuit.
Pine Ridge, S.D., a town of about 3,300 people, sits just 250 feet from Whiteclay. It's that proximity, and the sale of nearly 5 million cans of beer a year, mostly to the reservation's 40,000 residents, that has fueled indignation among tribal members and Native advocates for years.
The debate over alcohol sales in Whiteclay took center stage in 1999, when two tribal members, Ron Hard Heart and Wally Black Elk Jr., were killed near Whiteclay. Their unsolved deaths ignited a wave of marches, protests, blockades and legislative hearings as Nebraska lawmakers debated ways to stem the flow of alcohol to the reservation.
Clay Brehmer, co-owner of State Line Liquor, one of the four beer stores in Whiteclay, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
"I haven't heard about it at all," he said, when reached by phone Thursday. "I have to do some research."
A store manager at Arrowhead Inn in Whiteclay referred a Journal Star reporter to owner Jason Schwarting. The manager was expecting a busy day.
"Checks are coming in today," he said.
There was no comment from High Plains Budweiser of Scottsbluff.
Citing Nebraska Liquor Control Commission figures, the lawsuit alleges that the nearly 5 million cans of beer sold in 2010 were up from 4.3 million cans in 2004. The tribe seeks the $500 million "for all damages it has suffered in the past and is reasonably likely to suffer in the future caused by the actions of the defendants and as established at trial."
Capt. Ron Duke of the tribe's police department said bootlegging is a rampant problem on the reservation, one the tribe's understaffed police department has struggled to get under control. With just 38 police officers -- 50 fewer than in 2005 -- the tribe's police force wrestles with enforcing the total ban on alcohol while trying to stop bootleggers on a reservation the size of Connecticut.
Tribal officers caught six bootleggers during special enforcement actions during the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Duke said bootleggers get nearly all of their alcohol from border towns like Whiteclay, Oehlrichs, Kadoka, Martin and Gordon.
The lawsuit cites numerous statistics on the impact of the sale of alcohol at Whiteclay on reservation residents, including: one in four children being born with either fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; an average reservation life expectancy of between 45 and 52 years; and a teen suicide rate that is 150 percent higher than the American average.
The lawsuit also alleges the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay leads to tribal members exchanging sex, pornographic photos and food assistance vouchers for beer.
"Because it's not our children, it's Native Americans, we have tolerated that human carnage for decades," White said.
Judy Merdanian knows something about the human carnage wrought by alcohol abuse on the reservation.
On Feb. 11, 2001, her son, Bart, 32, died when a drunken driver slammed into his Buick, killing him and two cousins. The other driver -- an off-duty tribal paramedic headed home after a night of heavy drinking -- had been cited 17 times by tribal officers for alcohol-related offenses, including 12 for driving under the influence.
But Gene New Holy never had seen a courtroom -- until he rammed into Bart's car. The crash, she said, occurred just off the reservation, meaning New Holy finally got the justice he had escaped on the reservation -- 15 years for each person killed.
If she had her way, Judy Merdanian would set up roadblocks at each reservation entrance to stop the flow of alcohol into Pine Ridge. She said she supports the tribe's lawsuit.
"Nothing hurts like losing a kid," she said. "It hurts every day."