By Michael Yudell
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?
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.
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.