Nearly every murder, fistfight and rape at the Pine Ridge Reservation starts with a drink. Would lifting the ban on reservation liquor sales make a difference?
Sgt. Kevin Rascher turns his cruiser onto the gravel in South Dakota Indian Country, guns the engine, and races toward an emergency call 20 miles away. The Chevy Tahoe bounces down the back road at 95 mph, sirens howling, past gutted cars and broken beer bottles.
Another drinker. Another fight. Rascher's shift on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation began two hours ago, and the tribal highway officer has already arrested four Indians on alcohol charges.
Alcoholism strikes four out of five families in the nation's second-poorest county, despite a ban as old as the reservation itself. Police say nearly every murder, fistfight and rape on the Connecticut-sized tribal tract begins with a drink.
Rascher rolls into a tattered neighborhood in Kyle, a reservation town. Through the dust-caked windshield, he spots a suspect.
A man with a shaved head staggers through the cluster of houses, his gray shirt torn and specked with blood. A young girl and boy watch, frozen, as he stumbles into their yard.
'A HUGE PROBLEM'
Few places in America are as scarred as Pine Ridge, a sunburnt expanse of sand hills and buttes that crumble into the Badlands.
The Oglala band of the Lakota nation, known to outsiders as the Sioux, live today in some of the nation's worst poverty conditions. The Pine Ridge prairie landscape is scattered with junk cars, rotting trailers and graffiti-laced, 1970s-era federal housing. Beat-up vans rumble down bumpy roads, past sickly dogs and toddlers in the street.
Unemployment hovers around 80 percent, according to tribal census figures, and one-third of those with jobs live below the federal poverty line. Teenagers commit suicide at a rate nearly twice the national average. Life expectancy is lowest in the northern hemisphere, except for Haiti. One in three women have been raped.
Police blame alcohol for many of the problems, but the debate has raged on Pine Ridge for years. Advocates who want to legalize alcohol say the tribal ban buries police in simple possession cases and creates a forbidden allure that encourages binge drinking. Others say lifting the ban would worsen the tribe's long, ugly struggle with alcohol.
Tribal council candidate Denver American Horse says he will push for a ballot measure if elected in November.
“I've always had a lot of faith and confidence in the tribal members,” says American Horse, who stopped drinking 22 years ago. “I feel they can handle alcohol if it's legalized.”
Alcohol possession arrests inundate the short-staffed, high-turnover tribal police department. The current certified force of 42 would need to at least double before the department could serve all of the reservation's needs, says Oglala Sioux Public Safety Director Everett Little Whiteman. The alcohol ban is “not working, and has never worked,” Little Whiteman says.
Ninety percent of the 25,000 adult trials and arraignments scheduled next year in tribal court are alcohol-related, and juvenile crime is expected to generate an additional 10,000 cases, says Marwin Smith, the reservation's attorney general. . Parents, spouses and children endure most of the violence.
Smith says legalizing alcohol would likely not reduce his caseload, but would free police and the courts to focus on more serious offenses. As a tribal council appointee, however, he has remained publicly neutral on the legalization debate. Of the five tribal prosecutors, Smith is the only licensed lawyer.
Rascher jumps out of his cruiser and sprints toward the man in the yard. The man turns, stares, and steps back. He twists away when Rascher grabs his left arm, but not quick enough.
Rascher cuffs his catch and loads him into the right-rear passenger seat. His name is Alan Has No Horse – A-Town to his friends – and, allegedly, he punched his brother. Blood seeps from his swollen lower lip. Rascher suspects he is high on methamphetamine, probably drunk.
Somebody stares from a window a few houses down. Bootlegger, Rascher says. Illegal peddlers thrive in the limp economy. Locals who can't find a seller will drive as far as 60 miles one way for alcohol.
“Legalizing would help, but it would not help at the same time,” Rascher says. “I think it would help as far as the DUIs and car accidents. The ones who (want) alcohol will drive to a border town to buy it, but then they don't want to wait until they get back to their house to drink. They start drinking in the car.”
Rascher says lifting the ban would likely increase the number of domestic fights, rapes, assaults and suicides on Pine Ridge.
A few months ago, Rascher stopped a car in the reservation town of Wanblee. In the back, he found a box with 48 travel-sized bottles of Tvarscki 100-proof vodka.
The driver admitted that he bought the box for $120, or $2.50 per bottle, Rascher says.
If other bootleggers in town have alcohol, the driver told him, he peddles the bottles for $5 apiece and a $120 net profit. When competitors run out, he sells them for $10 and takes home $360.
A WAY OF LIFE
Belleron Blue Bird Jr. moans on the gurney and tugs against his wrist restraints. Blood trickles from the crescent-shaped gash above his right eye, down his cheek, and drips on the ambulance floor.
A medic, Neil Phair, wraps his head in gauze. Blue Bird, a skinny 25-year-old with a buzz cut, mustache and “Native Pride” inked on his arm, grimaces when asked what happened.
A fight, he mumbles. Hit with a wooden bat. Been drinking. But I'm tough!
Phair rolls his eyes. It's 3 a.m. The night so far is slow – one stabbing, two hours earlier – and this call, like most others, began with a beer.
“It becomes a way of life,” Phair says. “They expect it. They're ready for it. An ambulance showing up at the house is normal.”
The worst drinkers are so addicted, Phair says, that emergency responders adhere to a general rule of thumb. Those who blow above a .450 on a breathalyzer – more than five times the South Dakota driving limit – go to the hospital. Anyone with a lower reading and no other problems goes to jail. Some regulars are known to suffer withdrawal seizures if their level drops below .200.
The ambulance tears down the wind-swept highway at 105 mph, toward Pine Ridge Hospital. Blue Bird bounces on the gurney, clenches his jaw, and closes his eyes.
Albert Brave Jr. swigs from a black-and-red malt liquor can, a 24-ounce brew with twice the alcohol of a typical beer.
The 46-year-old leaves his reservation home almost daily to wander the dirty border town two miles south of Pine Ridge village. Two women join him on a grocery cart turned on its side. Last night, he says, he slept in the tribal jail.
Whiteclay, Nebraska is a bump-in-the-road prairie town with fewer than two dozen residents, 200 feet south of the reservation border. The main drag leads motorists past a faith ministry, a pawn shop, three grocery stores and four off-sale beer stores that sold 4.6 million cans of beer last year, mostly to Indians. Authorities say Whiteclay feeds the alcoholism and violence on Pine Ridge more than any other town.
Indians slump on doorsteps with worn-leather faces and bloodshot eyes. A graying Native American woman in a T-shirt and dirty jeans lies curled on the sidewalk. Tumbleweeds and a Wal-Mart bag skitter across the road.
Few here are homeless. The regulars of Whiteclay come simply to drink, loiter, laugh, fight, hustle change, and forget their lives. Every Monday through Saturday, they arrive at 8 a.m. for “roll call.” A local faith ministry serves breakfast. Then, drinks. The crowd grows. Two men sneak their booze into a gutted house with a filthy mattress and human excrement on the floor.
Jolene Black Elk points to the scar on her neck, an inch from her windpipe, where she says her boyfriend stabbed her in an alcohol-fueled rage. She talks about her teenage years on “the rez,” drinking and drugging, and the night she was raped. As night descends on Whiteclay, she warns a writer and photographer to stay close: “You guys are gonna get ganged.”
Mike New Holy, a former tribal police officer, slouches on the porch of an empty house with boarded windows. Behind him, in spray-painted blue, are the words, “Live Long. Native Pride.”
The 45-year-old says he arrived in Whiteclay the day before, slept in the grass behind an empty house, and woke up to drink again. By mid-afternoon, he says, he had finished three joints and two beers.
“Look at it,” New Holy says, and nods toward the beer stores. “Everybody's coming down and buying the booze over there, then they go back and bootleg it. They make money off it.”
Marilyn Lee Sitspoor spent last night in the Pine Ridge tribal offender facility. Her drunken boyfriend kicked her out of bed, she says. A fight ensued, the police arrived, and they both went to jail.
Sitspoor eases herself down, against a grocery store wall. The former dental assistant has come here occasionally since she lost her job and her boy. Her 16-year-old son, Stu, was struck and killed by an unknown motorist in July 2004.
“I'm lonely,” she says. “I miss my baby.”
She stops. Her chin trembles. Flies swirl around her as she reaches for a crumpled tissue. Here, alone in the dirt, the Lakota grandmother lowers her head and cries.
'THIS PLACE AIN'T NORMAL'
State Line Liquor is a metal shack with beer. Outside, a January snow swirls through Whiteclay, past the store's brown walls and the horse-tie rack out front. Inside, behind the counter, Gary Brehmer waits.
The door swivels open. A stocky, round-faced Indian, someone Brehmer knows, struts inside and slaps the counter.
“Gimme a Black Ice.”
Brehmer balls his fist, pulls it back, pauses. And grins.
“Oh, a Black Ice?” he says. “I thought you said a black eye.”
Two minutes later, the door opens again. The next customer dumps 100-some pennies on the counter and demands a 24-ounce malt liquor.
“It's $1.50,” Bremer says. “Now, if you want me to get it, that'll cost you $4.”
In walks a man with tangled black hair, a worn denim jacket and rotten teeth. “I want someone to tell me who the toughest fucking dude in Whiteclay is.”
Brehmer squints, leans forward. “You're looking at him.”
The banter continues for a straight half-hour, different jokes but the same basic request: A six-pack. Two cans of Joose. A Hurricane High Gravity, some smokes, and a lottery ticket.
State Line sold an estimated 42,200 beer cases in 2009 and still ranks among the smallest operations in Whiteclay, according to the Nebraska Liquor Commission. Brehmer started in town as an auto shop owner. The avid hunter bought a neighbor store's liquor license in the early 2000s, and let his two sons run the shop on weekdays.
The 57-year-old moved to the Pine Ridge area when he was 5. His father, who worked in construction, enrolled him in a reservation school. Classmates beat him because he was a wasicu, Lakota for white person, which in some circles means “one who steals the fat.”
Despite the problems, Brehmer says, Pine Ridge has plenty of quiet, law-abiding people. The troublemakers steal the attention, he says, and Whiteclay businesses get blamed.
“If I don't (sell liquor), the next guy will,” he says. “I'm going to have to answer to God, too. At least we can control it. If somebody comes in, and they've had enough, or if they drop out there and start rolling around on the street, we go out there and we call the law. We do the best we can.”
The door creaks. A fresh customer breaks his thought. Brehmer recognizes the man, sees his middle finger, and returns the gesture.
“You don't do this in a normal place,” he says. “But this place ain't normal.”
A TROUBLED HISTORY
The ban dates to 1832, when Congress prohibited alcohol sales to all American Indians. President Dwight D. Eisenhower repealed the law in 1953, but Pine Ridge, like most reservations, continued to forbid alcohol.
Whiteclay belonged to the Lakota under an 1868 treaty with the U.S. government, as did the western Dakotas, most of Nebraska and parts of Montana and Wyoming.
Pine Ridge was created in 1889, when Congress shrank the Great Sioux Reservation into five separate land tracts. Lawmakers incorporated a 10-mile-long, 5-mile-deep buffer zone, the Whiteclay extension, into the reservation to protect Pine Ridge from illegal whiskey peddlers.
In 1904, over the protests of Lakota elders, President Theodore Roosevelt placed all but one square mile back in the public domain.
White settlers pounced. Bootleggers sold to Indians in Whiteclay until the 1950s, when the state of Nebraska licensed two bars. In the early 1970s, the owners converted to off-site sales only, in response to worsening violence. The state licensed two more.
Nebraska has reaped the cash windfall for years. In 2009, according to state liquor commission, Whiteclay generated $133,700 in alcohol-tax revenue for state coffers.
Nebraska State Sen. LeRoy Louden introduced a bill in January that would have let the Pine Ridge tribal government apply for up to 70 percent of the money generated by the liquor tax each year for health care, public safety and economic development. In 2009, had the bill been law, Pine Ridge could have qualified for $94,500 in financial aid.
But the version rewritten in committee and signed into law instead allows only a one-time payment of $25,000 from the state general fund. The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs is required to seek private and public money to help the tribe, until the law sunsets in 2018.
There is one time every year when car crashes rise, assaults surge and the tribal jail floods with drunken offenders.
The Oglala Sioux Nation's Annual Powwow is the Pine Ridge equivalent of a state fair, a four-day celebration of Indian pride.
Outside, in a dance circle lined with pine branches, young men and women sway and spin to a thunderous drum. A teen dancer ducks and pivots, arms wide, in a feather headdress with a choker and a long-bone breastplate. A wailing, prideful Lakota chant fills the August air.
Half a mile east, in the old Pine Ridge Jail, a guard ushers a one-eyed inmate to his cell. Public intox. A 10-man line snakes from the processing desk to the booking garage. New inmates enter every five minutes, consistently, for an hour straight.
Muffled shouts echo from the holding cells, each with at least a dozen passed-out inmates. A bare-chested, gray-haired man peeks through a window, his belly sagging over his belt. A woman hammers on her door. The block reeks of alcohol, urine, body odor.
Bobby Brown Eyes, a jail trustee, drags a mop past the intake desk. The 19-year-old was arrested three days ago for driving under the influence and disorderly conduct. Two of his buddies are in the holding tank, and a third just arrived.
“Out there, you can't get nothing,” he says. “You have to get up early, you have to clean, you have to make your bed. Here, you can stay up all night.”
Brown Eyes has worn the black-and-white striped jail suit before. In years past, the 19-year-old served time for public drunkenness, failing to pay a driving-under-the-influence fine, and at least one fight. The trustee job pays $10 a day toward his $35 bond.
The next night, a full day after his release, Brown Eyes roams the grounds with a cigarette between his lips. John Lennon stares from the T-shirt on his gangly, boyish frame.
Tonight, he says, he is looking for his five-month-old and her mother. His ex is with another man now, and Brown Eyes wants a fight.
“Going to get high tonight,” he says. “Probably go drinking.”
The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council last considered a ballot issue to legalize alcohol in January 2004, to fatten their tax base and fund treatment programs. The idea died a month later after a public outcry.
Among the supporters was Garry Janis, a former county sheriff, who tried to lift the ban during his time on the council.
“You legalize it, you open up a tribal bar, and you can take the money and put it back into social programs,” Janis says. “It's here regardless. We spend thousands of dollars in resources combating it, and it doesn't have to be that way.”
Council member Joseph Rosales says he supports the ban because alcoholism plagues too many of his constituents.
Tribe members who once settled for beer now drink vodka, he says. Others who can't afford it will drink hair spray, mouthwash, household cleaners, anything with alcohol.
“Our nation's in a state of denial about the fact that we have a problem,” says Rosales, an alcoholic now 11 years sober. “Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe if we do legalize it, we can use the money for a treatment center or something else. But I seriously doubt it will help.”
Pine Ridge passed a law to legalize alcohol in 1970. Two months later, a conservative tribal council dominated by Oglala elders restored the ban.
Roughly one-third of America's 334 Indian nations still ban alcohol. The results of legalization vary by tribe and policy, says Oregon Health and Science University researcher Anne E. Kovas.
Alcohol-related deaths on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation doubled in the 1970s, after the tribe lifted its ban. But other studies show a drop in mortality rates on reservations that legalized, Kovas says.
America's largest tribal nation, the 180,000-member Navajo Reservation, forbids alcohol except with food orders at casino restaurants. The policy was enacted in 2002 to attract tourists. Few people support full legalization, says George Hardeen, a spokesman for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr.
Pine Ridge's closest neighbor, the 21,000-member Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, legalized alcohol sales and possession in 1973.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribal Police Department still receives 25,000 emergency calls per year, about as many as Pine Ridge. But Rosebud Police Capt. Edwin Young says many alcohol cases end peacefully, with an order to leave or an open-container ticket.
A FAMILY, A FIGHT
Dave Glenn lifts his shirt to show the pale, dime-sized spot on his stomach where he was shot.
The 58-year-old Oglala served in Vietnam as a platoon minesweeper, He nearly died when a bullet tore through his intestines. Now, the mechanic with a silver ponytail and bifocals fixes transmissions and tries to survive.
A television hums in the cramped, unkempt, smoke-filled bedroom. Mold spots and black-marker drawings cover the wall. Glenn's granddaughter, a toddler, squirms into his lap.
“Hiya, monkey!” he says. “This is my monkey, my baby.”
In Lakota, there is a concept – tiyospaye – that requires families to take care of their own. Cousins, sisters, half-brothers, grandparents and friends squeeze into homes that can barely hold a family of four.
Mandy Janis plucks the girl out of Grandpa Dave's lap, kisses her cheek. Her family moved back to Pine Ridge in August 2009, after a decade in Rapid City. Her husband, Danny Jumping Eagle, works construction for $15,000 a year and mops floors part-time at Big Bat's convenience store in Pine Ridge. Four of her six children still live at home.
Glenn's son, Sheldon, walks into the bedroom with a beer. His eyes are glazed, and he scowls at the sight of his father and a visitor.
“It's about time you guys got out of my fucking room.”
“You ain't got no fucking room here,” Glenn says, and points outside. “You're a worthless fucking drunk. Your room's out there.”
“Get out of my room,” Sheldon says, his words slurred. “Get. Out.”
In the next room, Bruce Bad Milk sits on an unmade bed and sings a deep-throated Lakota hymn. Janis and three other women sip beer at the kitchen table. On the floor, in a pile of dirty clothes, lies a sleeping Lakota baby.
Sheldon storms into the living room and grabs another beer. Glenn follows him, and the shouting grows louder, a chorus of slurred expletives.
“Fuck you,” Sheldon says.
“Hey, shut up,” Glenn says. “Get your ass out of here.”
Glenn lunges forward and pushes his son. Sheldon flops forward, over the wooden stove, and smacks the floor.
Somebody laughs. The children stare. Sheldon looks up at his father, his face contorted, his eyes welling with tears. Slowly he stands, clutches his hat, and stalks off to the bedroom.
Outside, beyond the dirt yard and barking dogs, in the world where alcohol is banned, a quiet settles over Pine Ridge. A lone police cruiser speeds through town, turns a corner, and disappears into the dark.
Grant Schulte is a reporter for The Des Moines Register and a correspondent for USA Today. He was a 2010 winner of the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice /McCormick Foundation Fellowship on tribal justice reporting.