Pine Ridge Reservation fights alcoholism, high jobless rate

Clinton will visit Indian site tomorrow where eight in 10 are

As long as the Pine Ridge Reservation has existed, alcohol has been banned from its borders, condemned as a scourge that would strip the tribe and its members of self-respect.

But the flat, hot road that links Pine Ridge with the outpost of Whiteclay, Neb., is littered with beer cans, tossed from cars or discarded by tribal members who, with nothing better to do, drive or walk the two-mile stretch to buy booze.

Now, in the month since two men from the Oglala Sioux tribe were found murdered along this road, the four liquor stores in tiny Whiteclay (population 22) have become the flash point for tribal discontent. The outward dispute at two recent protests is over the 4 million cans of beer the stores sell each year. But what bubbles out in conversation and during recent protests is anger - fury over the pace of the murder investigation, indignity over the dearth of opportunity that makes this area the nation's poorest, and disappointment that America doesn't seem to care.

Amid all this tension, President Clinton is set to arrive tomorrow, with a contingent of business executives in tow. He's coming to emphasize the standing of Pine Ridge Reservation - a topography of gently rolling hills and sparsely populated grasslands - as an "empowerment zone." His visit is intended to bring investment and jobs to a place where 8 in 10 adults are unemployed, per capita income is $4,000 a year, and health problems and alcoholism are far greater than the national averages.

The tribal government here wants to put on a good face for the captains of industry and lure investment, but activists say they plan further protests.

For now, though, Whiteclay remains a ghost town, evacuated last week at the order of Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (R), after a June 26 protest turned violent and a grocery store was looted and burned.

A second protest march on Saturday was peaceful, culminating in the arrests of American Indian Movement activist Russell Means and eight other tribal members who defied state and tribal police and entered the sealed-off town. (They were later cited and released, after some 750 protesters agreed to disperse.)

For many tribal leaders, Whiteclay is more than an enclave of capitalism profiting from Oglala weakness and despair. They see the land under the town as rightfully part of their reservation, claiming it was given to the tribe in 1887.

"We don't need Whiteclay to keep our people intoxicated, abused, depressed, oppressed, and suppressed," says tribal Chairman Harold Salway. Alcoholism is making the reservation a "dysfunctional society" and creating a massive health burden on the people, says Mr. Salway, who lost two older brothers to alcohol-related illnesses.

Alcohol is involved in 90 percent of the traffic accidents, crimes, and domestic-abuse cases on the reservation, tribal officials say, and the easy access to beer in Whiteclay has exacerbated the problem.

While AIM activists and Salway are at odds over the use of tribal police to stop protesters at Whiteclay, all agree that the town must be returned to the Oglala Sioux.

One of the last Whiteclay residents to evacuate Friday was Chris Henry, who worked as a grocery story clerk until he was laid off after the town was ordered closed. "If they shut down Whiteclay, it just means more drunk Indians driving longer distances," he said, as he and his grandmother loaded a car before departing.

One embattled store owner, encountered in Rushville, Neb., south of Whiteclay, refused an interview, saying he preferred to be "neutral" and citing misquotes in the local press as his reason for silence.

Activists say they will continue to demonstrate for the return of the land where Whiteclay sits and for a more vigorous investigation into the deaths. "If those were two white men found dead, this place would be crawling with cops," says Tom Poor Bear, a march organizer and a half-brother of one of the murder victims.

Law-enforcement officials have denied accusations that they are not fully investigating the deaths, and the FBI has offered a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. But the lack of information about the case has fueled local speculation that Nebraska law-enforcement officers are involved in the murders.

Governor Johanns and Chairman Salway on Friday agreed to set up a team of native Americans and Nebraskans to address concerns about Whiteclay. But because there is so much money to be made, hope is not high that it will take action.

Even if activists succeed in their next step - a boycott of Whiteclay and nearby Chadron, Neb., where many residents shop - even they acknowledge that Whiteclay is a symptom of a larger problem.

"Wherever there is poverty and misery, people try to escape from it," says AIM co-founder Dennis Banks, "and the easiest way to escape is through [alcohol]."

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