The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota is suing five big companies that make beer, asking that they cough up half a billion dollars in compensation for the economic, social and health consequences of their products. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a legal shakedown.
Alcohol is illegal on the tribe’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, but that doesn’t mean the Native Americans who live there don’t drink. There’s a tremendous alcohol problem there. So where do the people get their illegal booze? It mostly comes from a few tiny places such as Whiteclay, Neb., a town of 14 people, whose four beer stores sell an average of 11,000 cans of beer each day.
So legal stores are selling a legal product to people who are legally competent to buy it. So why is the tribe suing the beer companies instead of placing the blame on the people who choose to spend their lives this way? The lawsuit says that the stores sell the beer knowing that the purchasers must be intending to smuggle it onto the reservation, but I still can’t figure out how that makes it the stores’ fault — or the beer-makers’ fault.
I used to know someone who taught at a little country school very close to the reservation and had Native American students who had lived on the reservation for parts of their lives. I was amazed at the degree to which alcohol controls the lives of a huge percentage of the people there. But the problem is in the people themselves. They’re the ones making the decisions to drink and become drunks. There’s no one else to blame.
Anyone who knows me well knows exactly what I think of alcohol and other recreational drugs. I think they’re dangerous and unwise. You might be one of the lucky ones whose life is never adversely affected, but I see very little upside for a whole lot of potential downside. And I see too many very personal examples of abuse in people I know well.
But despite my personal conclusion about alcohol and other drugs, it’s not my job to decide for the world at large. And it’s not the beer-makers’ job to decide for the people they’re selling to, much less to monitor what they do with the beer they buy.
There are many things wrong on the Native American reservations. The entire system is badly messed up and the people are truly in need of change. But change isn’t going to come from the tribe pursuing Prohibition down another blind alley.
The people who live there need changed lives. I honestly don’t know how to help them, but I wish I could. Unfortunately, paternalistic legal intervention isn’t going to change their behavior. The only thing it has a chance of doing is getting some beer companies to consider handing over some cash to settle a lawsuit. As little as our courts seem to believe in personal responsibility today, the shakedown might even work.