Liquid Genocide Destroyed the Pine Ridge Reservation -- Then They Fought Back
Dashing through wild sunflowers and tall grass, Joe Pulliam slid through the barbed-wire fence that marks the state border. With two large wooden tipi poles slung over his shoulder, sweating in the morning sun, he knew it was trespassing. But this was about something bigger.
Behind him, to the south, was the Pine Ridge Indian reservation – a vast, 3,500-sq mile rectangle of land at the south-western base of South Dakota, home to 20,000 Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe members and where the sale of alcohol is banned.
In front of him, on the ground he was now striding across, was Whiteclay, Nebraska. The town has no local government and only 14 residents. For over a century, its primary purpose has been to sell alcohol to the reservation’s residents. Four million cans of beer left the stores here each year – 11,000 a day. Activists have long argued it has decimated the tribe.
This summer marked the first time that the four liquor stores in Whiteclay had stopped selling. In April, after a history of lawlessness and a recent spate of unsolved murders, the Nebraska state liquor commission voted to temporarily revoke all four licenses.
On this day, as the last days of a long, humid summer had started to evaporate, the state’s supreme court would hear arguments on whether to make the closures permanent. As Pulliam and a group of six other Lakota men went about planting the poles in the ground, wrapping rope around the apex, they wanted to make a lasting statement.
“This tipi rising here represents the end of that oppression, the end of that colonialism,” he said, regaining his breath. “Whiteclay was the destruction.”
“I’m hoping that Nebraska can look at themselves and their Christian ways and ask themselves: will they continue to profit off our people’s addiction?”
On Friday, the Nebraska supreme court ruled unanimously to keep Whiteclay’s liquor stores closed.
Addiction is endemic here. Up to two-thirds of adults live with alcoholism. One in four children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Life expectancy is just 66.8 years. Fueled by poverty and addiction – the unemployment rate hovers around 80% – the suicide rate is over four times the national average.
During dozens of interviews during a week spent on the reservation, every single person who spoke to the Guardian said they had either battled addiction themselves or had a family member who had.
Whiteclay had become the focal point of the tribe’s attempts to target abuse head on. Its closure, even if it turned out to be temporary, marked a victory for campaigners who have pushed for years to see the liquor stores gone.
But already many here, just as on other Indian reservations in America, are coming to terms with a struggle that will get even harder in an era of federal budget cuts and austerity. The Trump administration has already made clear its intention to roll back federal funds, a move likely to have a devastating effect on people here, who rely on grant money to keep many basic public programs in operation.
Pine Ridge is the only reservation in South Dakota where the sale and possession of alcohol is illegal. A tribal vote in 2013 to legalize sales was never implemented and “dry” status has been enforced almost entirely since foundation in 1889.
Whiteclay, established around the same time, was created as a non-permanent 50-mile buffer zone to prevent the sale of alcohol close by. But in 1904, after an executive order signed by Theodore Roosevelt reduced the dry zone to a single mile, traders poured into the area, building so-called whiskey ranches that plied the nearby Lakota community with liquor.
Olowan Martinez, a 43-year-old Lakota woman, was 11 the first time she visited the town, accompanying her alcoholic mother, who came almost every day. She recalled sitting in the back seat of their car, watching her mother drink and witnessing brawls from out the window.
“Whiteclay is a hole,” she said, standing in a prayer camp just inside the reservation that was constructed by Pulliam and others shortly after the liquor licenses were revoked. “It’s been based on liquid genocide for generations.”
Martinez started drinking at 14, but sobered up 12 years ago when her mother died, in her early 50s, due to chronic liver damage. “The town killed her. But it wasn’t just alcohol. It was the historical trauma that happened to our nations, too.”
History simmers to the top of many conversations here – from the systemic destruction and criminalisation of Lakota culture through federal laws in the late 19th century, to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, in the reservation’s south, where up to 300 Lakota men, women and children were mowed down by US cavalrymen, their frozen bodies dumped in a mass grave days later.
The cluster of at least four unsolved murders in the past two decades at Whiteclay, where no permanent police presence led to a de facto state of lawlessness, is also etched in people’s memories.
Pulliam lost two uncles, Wallace Black Elk and Ron Hard Heart, whose body was found mutilated in a ditch just outside the town in 1999.
“It was such a dangerous place,” he said looking at the site their bodies were recovered. “It was so violent and dirty. It was really hell on earth.”
But today, the town is almost silent. Tumbleweed rolls across the dusty streets, the front doors to State Line Liquor, D&S Pioneer Service and the Arrowhead Inn bolted shut, each behind reinforced iron gates.
“I feel a sense of pride when I look at it now,” said Martinez. “Because I don’t see my relatives littered on the street like trash.”
The lawyers representing the four store owners did not return requests for an interview. But Loren L Paul, a Nebraskan county commissioner who supported the owners and had voted to try to keep their businesses open, argued the issue was simply supply and demand.
“It’s market forces,” said Paul at his home in the small city of Gordon.
“I don’t think there’s racism involved. [Whiteclay] is there because there’s a need and somebody is going to supply that need.”
The calls came in at a frantic pace as Lt Jason Lone Hill struggled to understand just what sort of emergency he was speeding towards. The late shift is the loneliest and most dangerous patrol for the tribal police on the reservation.
The department is already stretched beyond its limit. After a loss of grant money under the George W Bush administration, there are now just 32 officers in the entire department – 10 years ago, it was more than 100.
That evening, just three officers were patrolling the entire western sector, an area of around one and a half thousand square miles – larger than the state of Rhode Island. The night before, Lone Hill, a Lakota man who has lived on the reservation his entire life, had been called out to a gang brawl in one of the higher-crime areas in the reservation’s centre.
The homicide rate almost doubled here last year, from nine murders in 2015 to 17 in 2016. Police partially attribute the rise to a surge in methamphetamine abuse.
But just as Whiteclay’s closure has brought hope and opportunity to people here, so has it intensified other problems.
Bootlegging has surged. In every housing cluster, in every district, Lone Hill said, there were now people selling alcohol illegally.
“They’re killing our people, over greed and money,” he said.
Vodka has become the drink of choice, over the beers that were once on sale at Whiteclay. Local bootleggers now travel further afield, to the towns of Rushville and Chadron in Nebraska, about 30 miles from the south of the reservation, to buy gallons of cheap spirits, dilute them with water and sell a 500ml bottle for around $10 – about a 1,000% markup.
This summer the police department reassigned its specialist drug taskforce of four officers to target bootleggers by running undercover stings. But the demand supersedes resources here, and the cops are fighting a losing battle.
As Lone Hill pulled up to the small three-bed home in the Old Crazy Horse neighbourhood in the reservation’s south, following more than a dozen 911 calls, the scene was one of distressing familiarity. A man in his 30s lay prone on the floor outside. His brother was passed out in the doorway while a group of eight young children scampered around in the darkness.
It was difficult to tell if the two men were alive or dead.
“Hey! Wake up!” Lone Hill shouted. “Wake up! It’s the police.”
Eventually both men stirred and Lone Hill was forced to place one in handcuffs and send him off to jail for detox. “Taking him to jail ain’t helping, because we’re going to be back tomorrow night. And the next night. It’s a revolving door.
“Nowadays,” Lone Hill said, “nine out of ten people will be like that, in that condition, because it used to be beer, and now it’s vodka, and vodka gets in your system and messes you up a lot faster.”
Donald Trump’s fraught history with Native Americans continues to resonate here.
In 2000, as the expanding Native American casino industry in upstate New York threatened his own gambling interests in New Jersey, the businessman took aim at the St Regis Mohawk tribe. Trump secretly spent $1m on local newspaper adverts that portrayed the tribe as organised criminals and cocaine pushers. Under a photograph of syringes and lines of powder ran the question: “Are these the new neighbors we want?”
“It showed us what he really thinks of us,” said Eileen Janis, a community leader who runs the Oglala Lakota’s only suicide intervention program with her colleague Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory.
Now in office, Trump threatens to decimate the small gains ushered in by the closure of Whiteclay.
“We know a young mother who used to get together $5 and go up to Whiteclay and buy a big can of beer all the time. One of those big cans gets you drunk. But now she can’t do that. So now she spends her money on her kids, or buys food with it. That is progress,” said Janis.
But Trump’s proposed 25% budget cuts to the food stamp programme (on which at least 49% of people here relied in 2009) would make many more children go hungry here, she said. The administration is also proposing a range of cuts to federal departments the tribe relies on for grant money attached to a range of public services including education, public health and policing.
“It’s going to be bad,” Janis said. “And that’s for all of us.”
Janis lost the federal health grant that paid her salary earlier in the year and is now essentially a full-time volunteer.
She and DeCory work seven days a week, mentoring children and providing mental health outreach in the absence of specialist facilities in the reservation’s only hospital. They often accompany police to domestic disturbances and mental health emergencies. Janis, 56, recently bought a Taser as the intensity of their late-night callouts has grown.
That afternoon, the pair headed deep into the reservation’s centre to a vigil for 22-year-old Tyler Dubray, a college student who had taken his own life four days earlier.
It was the 11th suicide on the reservation since April.
Dubray’s death took people here by surprise. The Lakota man, with bright green eyes and deep dimples, mentored younger children and taught them traditional weaving. His friends and family all referred to him as outwardly content.
“He was full of life,” DeCory told the roughly 200 people clutching candles and lanterns on the grass outside the Dubray family’s small home, where complete darkness engulfed the surrounding empty expanse. “And you all should know that you loved him unconditionally. Know that you were good to him, and you have no regrets for the way you treated him.”
The tipi still stood on the entrance to Whiteclay days after Pulliam had built it up. The men had placed a sign next to it that fluttered in the wind and read: “Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian”.
Olowan Martinez, optimistic the supreme court would keep the liquor stores closed, was among a minority of people who refused to worry about a new era of austerity.
“He could cut whatever he wants. We already know who our oppressor is. That [government] is the oppressor.
“This is our land, our territory, and we’ll be fine,” she said.
“I wish Mother Earth would shake her back and we’d have to start all over. Only the strong will survive.”
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.