Two hundred feet from the border of the Pine Ridge reservation lies the unincorporated town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, technically on Lakota treaty land. With a population of just twelve people, Whiteclay is tiny by any standards. Yet, its four bars manage to make four million dollars a year, primarily from residents of the neighboring Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is strictly prohibited. The Oglala Sioux Tribe Criminal Offenses Code makes it a crime to manufacture, transport, sell, or possess alcohol anywhere within the borders of the reservation, where public or private intoxication is also penalized.
Pine Ridge has been a dry reservation for generations. When the 70,000 square miles became a reservation in 1881, it also was named Prisoner of War Camp #334. The government agent responsible for it had cautioned of "introduction of intoxicating liquor from the whiskey ranches established just over the Nebraska line." In a feeble preventative attempt, the U.S. government inserted a 50-mile buffer zone between Pine Ridge and the Nebraska border, with the supposed intent to “prevent renegade whites from selling guns, knives and alcohol to Indians living on the reservation.” In 1904, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt canceled the buffer zone (and gave the demarcated land to the state of Nebraska) and alcohol dealers moved in several months later.
Alcohol wasn’t a problem for American Indians until colonial settlers brought it to the Americas. This form of colonization has only grown worse. Now, indigenous people experience 5 times the national rate of fatal liver disease and cirrhosis. Alcohol-related ailments are 60% greater in Indian Health Service hospitals than what is seen in average U.S. hospitals. In Pine Ridge, the rate of alcoholism is one of the highest in the U.S. Because folks on the reservation face so much oppression and poverty, many become depressed and turn to alcohol. As a direct result of alcohol, the reservation experiences a high mortality rate; 1 in 4 infants is born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; the suicide rate is twice the national rate, and that of teen suicide is 4 times the national rate. On reservations across the country, Native women are nearly 3 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women in the U.S., with 80% of their perpetrators being white men.
Olowan Martinez is a mother and land defender. She is the child of AIM activists and works with Owe Aku Bring Back the Way and founded Zero Tolerance Camp at the border of Pine Ridge and Whiteclay, Nebraska, where she leads resistance against alcoholism and the alcohol industry. [Photo 1]
Vic Camp is a resident of the Pine Ridge Reservation and works with Owe Aku Bring Back the Way. He is the child of AIM activists and hosts a weekly show on KILI 90.1FM, a Lakota radio station, where he talks about colonization and Native issues. [Photo 2]
Sacheen Pointe traveled to Pine Ridge from the Ahousaht First Nation, in so-called British Columbia. Alcohol also destroys lives where she lives with her children, so she came to support fellow Native women facing similar issues. [Photo 3]
Debra White Plume is a grandmother and founder of Owe Aku Bring Back the Way. She is currently leading resistance against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Debra is a resident of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where she has been organizing to protect the land for a very long time. [Photo 4]
T.R. McKenzie is an activist who was a Deep Green Resistance blockader when we met him in Pine Ridge, but he now works with Deep Roots, a collective in its early stages that organizes actions focused on people of color. [Photo 5]
In the belief systems of more than sixty indigenous nations, the Black Hills are considered the center of the world. So it was painful to see the area plagued by tourists for Mount Rushmore - the faces of four white men carved into spiritually sacred land. According to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the Oglala Lakota Nation has territorial claims to the Black Hills, but the land was stolen from them several years later in pursuit of gold—which the Supreme Court conceded in 1980, ruling that the land was seized illegally. Rather than return the Black Hills as requested, the U.S. government sought to compensate the Lakota people with money; the Lakota rejected the offer and the government and private landowners continue to hold on to the land.
A hundred miles east of Mt. Rushmore is the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Now a U.S. National Historic Landmark, Wounded Knee was home to a Lakota community, 300 of whose members were indiscriminately murdered by the U.S. 7th Cavalry in the massacre of 1890. It was the same 7th Cavalry that was defeated by the Lakota and other tribes, led by Chief Crazy Horse, fourteen years earlier at the Battle of Greasy Grass, commonly known as Custer’s Last Stand.