Alcohol and violence rend Indian country

Beer-sodden culture, not racial animosity, blamed for troubles

September 05, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WHITECLAY, Neb. -- They lie on either side of the state line, sharing a desolate landscape and a heavy reliance on beer. But that is where the similarities end.

Whiteclay, Neb., is where white people sell beer, lots of it. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D., is where Native Americans drink most of it.

Usually, this division of roles, between those who sell and those who consume, between those who profit from beer and those who suffer from excess of it, is accepted as the normal state of affairs.

But this summer, the delicate balance gave way to violence.

First, two Native American men were beaten to death, and their bodies dumped just north of Whiteclay, a town of 22 residents and four beer stores. Unsolved after nearly three months, the killings unleashed a torrent of protests whose targets have veered wildly from beer sales in Whiteclay to the alleged racism of shopkeepers and police to a century-old treaty that is said to show Whiteclay belongs to the Sioux.

More recently, in another town near the 3,100-square-mile Pine Ridge reservation, a white man was found beaten beyond recognition and barely alive. Three Native Americans, who had been drinking heavily with the victim, were arrested.

The crimes have unnerved residents on the reservation and in neighboring towns, forcing them to confront two equally vexing questions: Is it race? Or is it alcohol?The boundaries are blurred. "There is a dual standard of justice," declared Tom Poor Bear, an activist who has been leading marches from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay to protest the lack of arrests in the killings of the two Native American men. "If it were two white men killed, this place would be swarming with FBI agents."

Poor Bear said the killings of Wilson "Wally" Black Elk Jr., 40, and Ronald Hard Heart, 39, in early June have to be viewed in the context of the problems caused by Whiteclay's beer stores. While liquor sales are banned on Pine Ridge, it has a high alcoholism rate -- from 50 percent to more than 80 percent, by varying estimates -- in part because of the easy availability of beer two miles to the south in Whiteclay, he said.

Not a hate crime

On one of Pine Ridge's eastern fringes, the brutal beating of Brad Young, 22, in Allen, S.D., has similarly raised concerns. Young had been kicked in the face and dragged across the ground, leading initially to comparisons with last year's hate crime in Jasper, Texas, in which a black man was chained to a truck and dragged down a country road. A local sheriff at first declared the beating of Young a hate crime, but quickly backed off from the charge.

Residents on the reservation and in the adjacent town of Martin, S.D., where Young lives, also denied a racial aspect to the beating. "It's not a hate crime. It's due to alcohol," said Elaine Martinez, a Sioux from Allen who was shopping on Martin's Main Street.

Martinez and other residents say the national media, drawn to the area to investigate the alleged hate crime, bring their own prejudices and erroneously assume two races cannot live side by side.

"We view things differently here, I think," said Nancy Neuharth, a white clerk at the Jack and Jill grocery in Martin and Young's aunt. "We survive as a group here. We may be Indian, we may be white, but in general, we get along here. You know your neighbors. You know everyone in town. A lot of Indians live and work in town."

But it's hard to ignore the separate, and unequal, worlds that whites and Native Americans inhabit despite their proximity. The stores and businesses, for example, are largely owned and run by whites, even if some employ Native Americans.

History of violence

And then there is the long history of violence between whites and Native Americans, a history of bloodshed and betrayal. The Oglala Sioux, after all, are the tribe of Crazy Horse, who vanquished Gen. George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. It was perhaps the last Sioux victory; the white man's government would spend the next century sporadically battling them and penning them into a reservation.

To drive on the Pine Ridge Reservation is to travel through this past: Highway signs point to violence-haunted towns that are as much a part of history as they are geography.

There is Wounded Knee, unmarked but for a hand-printed sign, where in 1890 the U.S. cavalry massacred about 150 Native Americans, many of them women and children. It is also the site of a 1973 takeover by the American Indian Movement, or AIM, a militant group, in a three-month standoff with federal authorities and the tribal government.

And there is Oglala, where tensions between the FBI and AIM activists erupted in a gunfight in 1975 in which two federal agents were killed. A Native American, Leonard Peltier, remains imprisoned, although some consider him a political prisoner.

Whether Whiteclay joins this line of landmarks remains to be seen.

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