`YOU can call it alcohol.'' Paul Rooks, chief of police for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has just been asked what is the tribe's most serious problem. ``Ninety-nine percent of all our cases are related to alcohol,'' he says.
What kind of cases?
``Fights, car wrecks, domestic violence, murders, child abuse, suicide....''
Step outside his office in the old Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) brick building now used as tribal police headquarters, and take a right turn at the intersection just 20 yards away. Drive two dusty miles along state highway 407 to the reservation's southern border. There, on the Nebraska side, sits a small town named Whiteclay.
At the Jumping Eagle Inn, or a store called Pioneer Service, Indians can buy beer and gas. They drink together in groups outside the stores or in their cars in the parking lots. In violation of tribal law mandating Pine Ridge to be a dry reservation, they often bring liquor home.
But the road to Whiteclay has been declared dangerous. Fatalities due to drunkeness have increased over the years. Ten roadside fatality signs were positioned on one hill alone. Recently the state of South Dakota received money from the United States Department of Transportation's ``high hazard'' fund to rebuild the two-mile stretch. The $1.5 million project now has huge earthmovers flattening out the hills. The road is being turned into a straight line. Within months it will be a brand-new, two-lane asphalt road with wide shoulders, a virtual express route to Whiteclay.
``It's unfortunate that the road leads to Whiteclay,'' says Don Krause, area engineer for the South Dakota Department of Transportation. ``But we look at the project strictly from a road-safety standpoint.''
In Whiteclay, there is little comment about the road. ``People tell lies about us,'' says Linda Reeves, co-owner of Pioneer Service with her husband, David. ``That's why we don't give interviews anymore,'' she says in anger. ``They say we're millionaires, and we're not.''
Their store, with heavy steel gratings over the windows, has been broken into many times, she says. Referring to a drunken Indian sprawled on the ground outside the store, she says, ``He didn't buy his liquor in here, and yet it looks like he did.''
Tim Holtz, the owner of the Jack and Jill grocery store (no liquor for sale) across the street, says, ``If Indians didn't buy liquor in Whiteclay, they would find it some other place. Just as many sober, hard-working Indians come to Whiteclay to buy groceries. Indians have been coming here for liquor and groceries since 1905.''
While liquor is easy to buy for Pine Ridge Indians, there is evidence that the tribal leadership, increasingly concerned about the depth of abuse on the reservation, is publicly trying to discourage drinking and encourage sobriety.
But put the emphasis on the word ``trying'' because alcohol consumption at Pine Ridge continues to be a severe problem. It has been so for at least 30 years, although it is impossible to pinpoint exactly when it became destructive and part of the culture.
Besides access to Whiteclay, each town and community usually has a bootlegger all too willing to provide liquor to those who can pay. Says Paul Iron Cloud, president of the tribe, ``We're declaring war on alcohol because it is our No. 1 disease.''
If not a war, the following are at least signs of change:
During the last tribal election, candidates used the slogan ``Elect Sober Leadership,'' marking the first time sobriety was even a modest campaign issue.
The Pine Ridge High School now has two full-time alcohol and drug counselors. George ``Bunk'' White, one of the counselors, says, ``After the prom this year, kids came up to me and said, `I stayed sober.' I've never heard that before.''
Emergency Shelter Homes for Pine Ridge and Kyle, S.D., are scheduled to be built by the BIA. In addition to other services, the homes will provide shelter for children at risk from alcoholic parents.
Shirley Plume, now a health planner for the tribe, and the first woman ever to become a BIA superintendent, says, ``There is growing community support for all alcoholic prevention programs. We need more and more well-trained people and money to support the programs.''
Delores Bear Killer, a tutor in Kyle, helped organize a dinner, ``Celebrate Sobriety '88,'' last year. More than 60 community members attended, and many were given awards to encourage them to continue to stay sober.
KILI, the radio station on the reservation, refuses to air advertisements for alcoholic beverages.
All elementary schools on the reservation now have programs to inform children about alcohol abuse, and Oglala Lakota College offers instruction for teacher training in alcohol and drug abuse programs.
Jeaneen Grey Eagle, the director of Project Recovery - primarily an alcohol referral and education service for the tribe - says alcohol is a problem of denial (drinkers refusing to acknowledge they have a problem). Therefore, surveys to determine the extent of alcoholism on the reservation are not accurate. But, she says, there are very few families that do not have members who at one time or another have struggled with alcohol or abused themselves or their children.
``Some people say it's a genetic problem with Indians or that we can't handle the sugar content,'' she says. ``But Indians live in a state of social deprivation that perpetuates itself. We have to look at the root of the problem. I think Indians drink because they have little hope.''
The alcohol-related problem that does the most damage to the future of the reservation is pregnant Indian women who drink.
Ms. Grey Eagle estimates that 40 percent of the women of child-bearing age on the reservation are putting their children at risk because of alcohol.
``Fetal alcohol syndrome children cannot function normally,'' she says. ``They are mentally and physically disabled. Of 2,235 kids enrolled at seven elementary schools on the reservation in 1988, 560 of those kids were in special-education classes.''
The reason so many children need special attention, Grey Eagle contends, is because their mothers drank while pregnant. ``It is so hard to counsel these women,'' she says, ``because their needs are so great.''
Because there is no long-term alcoholic treatment center on the reservation, adult Indians seeking help are sent to one of 12 federally funded Indian Health Service Centers in the state. They receive from 30 to 45 days of treatment free of charge and are released back to the reservation.
The other alcohol prevention program on the reservation is Project Phoenix. It operates a 10-bed facility for teenagers in Kyle, about 50 miles from the town of Pine Ridge. After a 45-day program based on the Alcoholic Anonymous model, there is supportive after care for patients, including school and family counseling. The total budget for Phoenix is $250,000.
``Six years ago,'' says Bennett Sierra, ``the school board at Pine Ridge High would not look at the alcohol problem.'' Mr. Sierra, a former alcoholic, hasn't had a drink for 11 years. He is a member of the school board and a former tribal council member. ``Now all five members support alcoholic programs.''
``I sobered up while I was on the council,'' he says. To indicate how sobriety wasn't the norm several years ago, he says, ``People pulled away from me then. When I suggested that another guy on the council had a behavior problem, too, I was challenged and asked if I wanted to step outside and fight.''
Sierra explains how learning at school is difficult for teenagers from a family caught up in drinking. ``We've learned that we've got about two real learning days [per week] here,'' he says of the high school. ``Kids get upset with their families because they are drunk on the weekends; so the kid comes back to school - if he comes back - tired and tense because he didn't get sleep. Tuesday things are better. Wednesday is a good day, and when Thursday comes he's starting to worry about the weekend again, and Friday is shot because he knows the drinking and trouble is going to happen on the weekend.''
On several occasions the reservation has voted on a liquor referendum: Should alcohol be sold on the reservation? The answer has always been no, even though many Indians support a ``wet'' reservation to tax alcohol sales and raise money for treatment.
``Either the reservation should be dry or it shouldn't,'' says Grey Eagle, who works with a modest $130,000 budget in the face of a ruinous problem. ``The tribe has to take a realistic look at what is happening now. If alcohol is legalized, maybe the mystery and enticement will go away and there would be more money for treatment. I'm torn about this, because I can see the damage to people, but I know so much more has to be done.''
Tomorrow: tribal traditions. Friday: the hope of education.