The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is one of the oldest and largest in the country. Established in 1868 by the Laramie Treaty, the area has been home to the Oglala Lakota, also known as Sioux, since long before contact with the first Europeans. Home to such famous warriors as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the Lakota people have a proud and storied past, full of intrigue and adventure.
Unfortunately, although many Sioux have left the reservation over the last 150 years and successfully assimilated into U.S. society at large, the ones who have stayed have generally fared poorly. This once great and self-sufficient people has been largely reduced to government dependency and suffers from dramatic rates of social pathology. Some of the problems that have systematically inflicted their wrath on the Lakota people have been rampant alcoholism, unemployment rates topping 80 percent and low rates of high school completion. Of all these problems, one of the most visible is the widespread intemperance that can be seen in people openly drinking on every street corner and publicly intoxicated throughout the reservation. Since Pine Ridge has been dry, by law, since its inception, most of the beer, malt liquor and hard alcohol that the residents imbibe is sold in Whiteclay, Nebraska, 5 miles from the reservation.
Whiteclay has an official population of just 14 people and its sole industry consists of the four liquor stores catering to the Natives of Pine Ridge. Activists and politicians have long sought to shut the one-industry hamlet down for good. But a surprising alliance of both Natives and Nebraska law enforcement has emerged to counter this effort.
Vance Blacksmith is a 47 year old teacher on the reservation. He’s full-blooded Lakota. He says that shuttering the stores will do no good, and it will have unintended consequences. Blacksmith cites a host of scientific research that concludes, while Native Americans do have high rates of alcoholism, they are no more genetically disposed to it than some other groups, like the Irish. Blacksmith believes that the root causes of despair, like abject poverty, broken homes and not valuing higher education, will solve the alcoholism problems once they’re addressed.