The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota sued some of the world’s biggest beer makers over severe alcohol-related issues in their community. The tribe said it wanted $500 million for the costs of health care, social services and child rehabilitation caused by chronic alcoholism.
On the Pine Ridge Reservation alcohol is forbidden and the nearest town with beer shops is 32km away. In 2010, the four shops in the town sold nearly 5 million cans of beer, while only about a dozen residents are living there. According to the lawsuit, beer makers and the shop owners knew the alcohol would be smuggled into the reserve for consumption or resale. Tom White, the lawyer representing the tribe, said: “You cannot sell 4.9 million cans of beer and wash your hands like Pontius Pilate, and say we’ve got nothing to do with it being smuggled.”
The lawsuit is a last resort after other attempts failed to curb alcohol abuse, including protests and policy. The President of the Indian tribe, John Yellow Bird Steele, says they want to do everything to protect the health of their children. In the reserve, one in four children suffers fetal disorders caused by alcohol abuse. Nearly half the population lives below the federal poverty standards and life expectancy of Indians in the community is between 45 and 52 years, far below the national average of 77.5 years.
Alcoholism is a common public health problem for American-Indian tribes. The heavy drinking style and the high-risk environments in which many Indians drink – rural, border town settings – combine to produce very high levels of intoxication, arrest, trauma, morbidity, and mortality. Because these particular patterns of drinking have been in effect for many years, the “drunken Indian” stereotype has been perpetuated. The stereotype is so pervasive in American society that many Indians seem to believe aspects of it themselves. For example, in a survey of Navajo Indians, 63 percent indicated that they believed there was a physical weakness among Indians that others do not have.
Part of the stereotype holds that Indians have a different physiological capacity to process alcohol. The assumption is that this deficit causes advanced states of intoxication in Indians, and that it explains problematic alcohol-related behavior. However, this biological deficit is not supported by any scientific research. In fact, according to most of these studies the reasons for the Indian drinking behavior should be sought in sociocultural variables, like early ceremonial use of alcohol, unemployment and boarding school experience. Many Indian people believe that the loss of their culture is the primary cause of many of their existing social problems, especially those associated with alcohol.
May PA, & Smith MB (1988). Some Navajo Indian opinions about alcohol abuse and prohibition: a survey and recommendations for policy. Journal of studies on alcohol, 49 (4), 324-34 PMID: 3172780
Beauvais, F. (1988). American Indians and Alcohol Alcohol Health & Research World, 22 (4), 253-259