Two hundred feet from the border of the Pine Ridge reservation lies the unincorporated town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, technically on Lakota treaty land. With a population of just twelve people, Whiteclay is tiny by any standards. Yet, its four bars manage to make four million dollars a year, primarily from residents of the neighboring Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is strictly prohibited. The Oglala Sioux Tribe Criminal Offenses Code makes it a crime to manufacture, transport, sell, or possess alcohol anywhere within the borders of the reservation, where public or private intoxication is also penalized.
Pine Ridge has been a dry reservation for generations. When the 70,000 square miles became a reservation in 1881, it also was named Prisoner of War Camp #334. The government agent responsible for it had cautioned of “introduction of intoxicating liquor from the whiskey ranches established just over the Nebraska line.” In a feeble preventative attempt, the U.S. government inserted a 50-mile buffer zone between Pine Ridge and the Nebraska border, with the supposed intent to “prevent renegade whites from selling guns, knives and alcohol to Indians living on the reservation.” In 1904, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt canceled the buffer zone (and gave the demarcated land to the state of Nebraska) and alcohol dealers moved in several months later.
Alcohol wasn’t a problem for American Indians until colonial settlers brought it to the Americas. This form of colonization has only grown worse. Now, indigenous people experience 5 times the national rate of fatal liver disease and cirrhosis. Alcohol-related ailments are 60% greater in Indian Health Service hospitals than what is seen in average U.S. hospitals. In Pine Ridge, the rate of alcoholism is one of the highest in the U.S. Because folks on the reservation face so much oppression and poverty, many become depressed and turn to alcohol. As a direct result of alcohol, the reservation experiences a high mortality rate; 1 in 4 infants is born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; the suicide rate is twice the national rate, and that of teen suicide is 4 times the national rate. On reservations across the country, Native women are nearly 3 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women in the U.S., with 80% of their perpetrators being white men.