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Pine Ridge Reservation's Alcoholism Battle

In the shadow of a corporate lawsuit, one small treatment center fights a Nebraska reservation's alcohol problem, one person at a time.

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Pine Ridge residents outside one of White
Clay's four liquor stores. Photo via

By May Wilkerson

07/20/12

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Whiteclay is a small town bordering the Pine Ridge Reservation in Nebraska, where some estimate 85% of the population is affected by alcoholism. The reservation is dry, so its residents flock to Whiteclay to purchase alcohol from the town's four liquor stores—which sell about four million cans of beer each year. Earlier this year, the Oglala Sioux tribe sued the relevant beer manufacturers for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for their contribution to the reservation's misery. Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, says the state of Nebraska has turned its back on Pine Ridge because of the millions in tax revenue it makes from selling booze to the reservation's many addicts. "A lot of the issues that Whiteclay has created, and harm that is done to our people, Nebraska looks the other way and sweeps it under the rug," he says. “With this lawsuit that our tribe filed…maybe that will make this all go away." If the lawsuit is won, Pine Ridge—where about half the residents reportedly live below the poverty line—could receive millions of dollars. But many people will still be addicted, and it's argued that more than money is needed to solve the reservation's alcohol crisis.

Gayle Kocer and Suzy Dennis run an addiction treatment center in nearby Martin, South Dakota, that serves the Pine Ridge community, one individual at a time. "You’re choosing not to be the victim,” says Kocer, of addicts who come to the center to get clean. "It’s not Whiteclay’s problem and fault; it’s not the state of Nebraska’s fault. We as people have to make this choice to get in there and do something.” The small staff work long hours, some working pro bono due to a lack of funding, and regularly make home visits. “I always believe that love and faith can conquer it all,” says Dennis, a recovering alcoholic with 25 years sober. “That’s where it’s got to begin.” The center won't turn anyone away—even though most can't afford to pay. But no matter the outcome of the multi-million dollar lawsuit, Dennis says: “I always believe there’s hope. Or I would not do this for sure.”

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