Sunday 19 February 2012

Alcohol on Pine Ridge Reservation: a $500m Debate

by Andi Bawden

On the 10th of February, the Oglala Sioux tribe sued a number of international beer companies, as well as smaller alcohol retailers in close proximity to their Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for 500 million dollars.
The tribe has alleged that these companies have been deliberately targeting their reservation, which has been officially ‘dry’ for much of its existence. Except for a few short periods since the reservation was first created in 1889, alcohol has not been permitted for sale or consumption within its boundaries. The tribal right to decide whether a reservation is ‘dry’ is protected by federal and state law. Despite these restrictions, alcohol is illegally smuggled on to the reservation from surrounding retailers, who tribal leaders claim deliberately target the residents of Pine Ridge Reservation. The small village of Whiteclay, with a population of less than 20, has received special attention in the media since it has four alcohol retailers that sold just short of 5 million cans of beer in 2010 alone. The implication is that these retailers are serving more than just the residents of Whiteclay.

On the whole, news articles seem sympathetic to the Oglala Sioux and emphasise the problem alcohol has become for residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Most frequently quoted are the statistics for foetal alcohol syndrome (1 in 4), the low life expectancy (between 45 and 52 in comparison to a national average of 77, the lowest in Northern America except Haiti) and that the reservation encompasses the third poorest county in the USA. This makes it clear that concerns over alcohol consumption on the reservation are justified and the dangers of alcoholism are painfully real. According the the tribal council, the decision to sue was a last resort after a a series of policies and protests have failed to have an effect.

The lawsuit raises some really interesting questions about consumerism. At what point, for example, does it become unethical for a company to target a specific group of the population? If a company such as Anheuser Busch InBev Worldwide (one of the defendants), or smaller retailers like the four located in Whiteclay, can be judged as carrying out questionable marketing practices, what would be the acceptable punishment? In this case, the Oglala Sioux are suing for 500 million dollars which will be invested in education and healthcare in an attempt to combat the effects of excessive alcohol consumption and minimise it in the future. On the other hand, what is the role of personal responsibility in this debate? If you make the decision to purchase alcohol (whether through legal or illegal means), does that make you solely responsible for the outcome? Taking this to a wider context, what would a successful result for the Oglala Sioux mean for the retailers and distributors of products like cigarettes or fast food?

The majority of comments at the end of news articles focus on personal responsibility and detailing the content of these debates is worthy of a whole article in itself. Discussions range from being sympathetic, pragmatic, dismissive, and outright troubling (An example of the latter for you: “personally I'm tired of the ‘hand-outs­’ that the tribes get. Must be nice to get free funding for a house and then treat it like crap”). This issue (and I’m sure we will hear more if the case makes it to court) is therefore not only revealing of current concerns held by the Oglala Sioux, but also the ways they are seen by wider American society.

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