Alcohol retailers in Whiteclay Nebraska, a town with a population of 11 people, sold roughly of 4 million cans of beer in 2011. How is this possible? Whiteclay is located about 2 miles from the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. Because of widespread problems with alcohol abuse among tribe members, Pine Ridge is an alcohol free reservation. However, alcohol abuse problems persist in spite of the alcohol ban. Tribal leaders blame the Whiteclay retailers for selling alcohol to tribe members who in turn illegally consume it on Pine Ridge or in the streets of Whiteclay. The tribe has filed a lawsuit against the retailers in Whiteclay, as well as the breweries and distributors, requesting that the court prohibit them from selling alcohol to Native Americans.
Alcohol abuse is undoubtedly a serious problem for the Oglala Sioux Tribe. As noted in the linked AP article, nearly a quarter of all children born on the reservation suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Moreover, the average life expectancy for tribe members is estimated to be less than 52 years, which is about 25 years shorter than for average Americans. As such, the lawsuit seeks damages for health care costs and other alcohol-related problems on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The tribe also wants a judge to prohibit alcohol sales to Native Americans in Whiteclay.
It is certainly interesting that the Tribe has taken the position that alcohol retailers in Whiteclay should discriminate against Native Americans who seek to legally purchase their products. One can assume that most of the alcohol sold is being illegally smuggled by the purchasers back onto the reservation for consumption. But do the retailers, distributors, or manufacturers have a legal duty to ensure the products are consumed off of the tribe’s reservation? And how far would such a duty extend? If tribe members started driving to the next closest town, would that town’s retailers also be required to refuse sales to Native Americans?
The defendants in the case have moved for summary judgment. However, if the case is allowed to proceed it has the potential for far reaching problems in the future for beer companies. As one of the attorneys pointed out in the AP article, if the lawsuit is successful it could force the beer manufacturers to analyze the sales data of all of its distributors and retailers to ensure that none are selling a disproportionate amount if its product. Small college towns come to mind as other places where the quantity of alcohol sold could likely far exceed the amount expected based on the number of residents who are of drinking age.
This certainly seems to be a hot button issue in Nebraska. There’s even been a documentary about the retailers and the problems in Whiteclay. You can watch it here.