At the Pine Ridge Reservation just outside the town of Whiteclay, Neb., an upside-down American flag flies on a wooden pole next to a teepee. About 60 people gathered here Monday to protest as beer truck drivers unloaded cases into a Whiteclay liquor store a few hundred yards away.
Whiteclay has one paved street and four liquor stores. Alcohol is banned on Pine Ridge, but alcoholism is rampant here and the unemployment rate hovers around 80 percent. The town sells the equivalent of about 5 million cans of beer annually — mostly to impoverished tribal residents. Homeless Native Americans who drink and sleep in Whiteclay can outnumber town residents.
The protesters want to block further alcohol deliveries, and are using blockades and marches like this to try to curb beer sales.
A Protest Escalates
Oglala Sioux Tribal President Bryan Brewer is among the protesters. "As leaders we should be ahead of the people," he says. "We need to support our activists who are stepping up and confronting this issue."
Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins confronts the blockade, and Brewer steps up. He says the beer trucks "are not going in today. ... Any other day, but not today."
"Yes, they are," the sheriff replies.
"I'm sorry, but they're not," Brewer says. "Don't argue with me."
Brewer is ultimately arrested. As the crowd resists, an officer puts a stun gun to a protester's neck, and the conflict quickly escalates into shouting and shoving.
Brewer remains calm and tries to pacify those around him. He is charged not for blocking traffic, but for an outstanding warrant on a bad check. Jamian Simmons, the county prosecutor, says the charges were dropped once Brewer made good on the check.
While Monday's conflict passed without major violence, Simmons says that wasn't the case during a similar blockade last month.
"[The protesters] used axes and sledgehammers to smash up the [delivery] trucks," she says. "There were threats made to the drivers that if they came back to Whiteclay, they would be killed. Individuals were flashing knives."
Protesters argue that attacking delivery trucks is not an act of violence. They also accuse a liquor store owner of arming local thugs with baseball bats to intimidate them. Store owners and beer distributors refused to comment for this story.
Putting Prohibition To A Vote
As the protest on the Whiteclay-Pine Ridge border continues, the tribal council approved a permanent checkpoint at the border to try to stem the flow of liquor onto the reservation.
But the council is also putting prohibition itself up for a referendum. Council member Robin Tapio backs efforts to legalize alcohol here. "Alcohol is a choice that we make," she says. "So I did not support the [protest] up there because I just don't feel it's right."
Protest leaders like Olowan Martinez harshly criticize council members who want to allow alcohol on the reservation. "They're cannibals because they want to profit," she says. "They want to gain something off of the misery of their own. To me that's a form of cannibalism."
Strong words that underscore the strong feeling here. Following council president Brewer's arrest, Martinez and others maintained the blockade and the beer trucks eventually turned away.
Protesters may have won the battle this week — but the beer trucks are likely to roll into Whiteclay again, and this conflict shows few signs of ending soon.