By Michael Yudell
In Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof called for a boycott of Anheuser-Busch (maker of beers like Budweiser, Rolling Rock, and, for the fancier among you, Stella Artois) for its role in selling alcohol in the tiny Nebraska town of Whiteclay. According to Kristof, the stores in Whiteclay (population: about 10) sell more than four million cans of beer and malt liquor annually, most of it by Anheuser-Busch.
Almost all of that alcohol, it turns out, is consumed by individuals living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the border from Whiteclay, in South Dakota. The sale and consumption of alcohol is illegal on the Reservation, but Whiteclay is a few hundred yards away, just outside tribal jurisdiction.
Whatever you might think of alcohol prohibition, tribal rules on the Pine Ridge Reservation explicitly forbid its sale with good reason—as many as two-thirds of reservation residents may be alcoholics and one-quarter of children born there have fetal-alcohol syndrome. More than 90 percent of its residents live in poverty. Life expectancy for those living on reservation land is among the lowest in the western hemisphere.
This isn’t just any ordinary prohibition focused on the morality of alcohol consumption. This is a crisis — a matter of life, death, and disability for too many members of the Oglala Sioux Nation who live at Pine Ridge.
Kristof believes that “Anheuser-Busch and other brewers pour hundreds of thousands of gallons of alcohol into the liquor stores of Whiteclay, knowing that it ends up consumed illicitly by Pine Ridge residents and fuels alcoholism, crime and misery there.”
Anheuser-Busch, in a statement sent to me Monday, said it believes “The New York Times column misreported facts in this case,” and said that, “as a producer, we cannot sell beer directly to retailers or consumers and we obey all laws where we operate.” But this is clearly not what Kristof argued. His critique of Anheuser-Busch is that its “business model here is based on violating tribal rules and destroying the Indians’ way of living.” “The only purpose of Whiteclay is to sell to tribe members — there’s nobody else around,” Kristof wrote in his column, “and the tribe can’t do anything about it.”
So what’s the answer?
The Times reported in April on an attempt by the Nebraska legislature to create “alcohol impact zones” that would limit sales of alcohol products in areas impacted by alcohol related crimes (the crime rates on Pine Ridge are also very high). That effort is stalled in committee. According to the Times, seven of eight Nebraska Senate committee members have received more than $21,000 in contributions from Anheuser-Busch over the past five years.
A $500 million lawsuit filed in February by the Oglala Sioux against beer makers, including Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing, accuses the brewers of “encouraging the illegal possession, transport and consumption of alcohol on the reservation.” “We are a dry reservation. We are going to have to do something that is going to benefit our people in terms of rehabilitation,” Myron Pourier, Fifth Member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told the Indian Country Today Media Network in February, when the lawsuit was filed. No money won in the suit would go to individuals, a lawyer for the tribe said at the time. It would be used to help create programs for newborns with fetal alcohol syndrome, children with alcoholism, and alcohol treatment centers and programs.
The response from one of the liquor stores in Whiteclay is a curious one: that the lawsuit encourages discrimination. Jerald Rauterkus, an attorney for Stateline Liquor, told the Washington Post last month that the lawsuit, if successful, would “command retail defendants to refuse the sale of their otherwise publicly available goods to members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation based solely on their race and ethnicity.”
According to the Anheuser-Busch website, which requires you to enter your date of birth before gaining access to the content, the company and its “wholesalers have committed more than $930 million in national advertising campaigns and community-based programs” over the past three decades. And that’s great. But the situation at Pine Ridge calls for more than alcohol companies supporting the standard programs to reduce problem and underage drinking as well as drunk driving.
And it certainly doesn’t call for assigning subtle blame to the victims here — those suffering from alcoholism on the Pine Ridge Reservation. According to that statement sent to me by Anheuser-Busch, the company wishes “problems like this could be easily solved by brash statements or assigning blame, even if it is misplaced.” “We care about the people of Pine Ridge and hope that together we can make a difference in addressing these problems, the statement added, “but these are, in fact, deeply complex, societal, cultural and sometimes physiological issues.”
Read that last sentence again, carefully. Yes, it is true that the issues at Pine Ridge are a historical legacy that are socially and culturally driven, and there certainly isn’t space here for a lecture on the ways in which the indigenous peoples of North America have been royally screwed by just about everybody for centuries.
But “physiological issues” did not cause this problem. There is a common misperception that Native Americans are more susceptible to alcohol dependence because of some sort of predisposition. Research into the nature of alcohol dependence in Native American groups has shown that while some groups have high rates of alcoholism, others have low rates. Furthermore, as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points out in a recent publication, “despite the fact that more Native American people die of alcohol-related causes than do any other ethnic group in the United States, research shows that there is no difference in the rates of alcohol metabolism and enzyme patterns between Native Americans and Whites.”
It would be easy for Anheuser-Busch and other beer distributors to walk away from Whiteclay. The money earned there is barely a drop their giant kegs (Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev, the parent company of Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, had revenue of $39.05 billion in 2011). But they are afraid that if they walk away from Whiteclay, what lies ahead? Other vulnerable communities that suffer disproportionately from alcohol dependence might be the next to call for a boycott.
The situation at Pine Ridge, however, is so extreme that it calls for unusual measures. And even if the beer companies walk away, as Kristof himself admits, some residents may just drive farther to get their fix. But it would be a start. And Anheuser-Busch and the other companies involved should do the right thing and not only walk away, but dedicate some of the $39 billion towards making the lives of those at Pine Ridge just a little bit better. If they don’t, I wouldn’t underestimate the power of one New York Times reporter’s ability to move the public on this issue.
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