(Reuters) - A Native American Indian tribe sued leading beer makers seeking $500 million in damages and accusing them of knowingly contributing to “crippling” alcoholism rates on one of the nation’s largest reservations in South Dakota.
The suit, filed by the Oglala Sioux tribe, alleges the brewers are “engaged in a common enterprise focused on assisting and participating in the illegal importation of alcohol” onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the sale, possession and consumption of alcohol is illegal.
The brewers sued include Anheuser-Busch InBev Worldwide Inc, SAB Miller, Molson Coors Brewing Company and Pabst Brewing Company, as well as four retailers in Whiteclay, Neb., and the distributors who sell to them.
The lawsuit, filed on Thursday in federal court in Lincoln, Neb., claims the defendants have knowingly turned Whiteclay, a small town Nebraska side of the border with South Dakota, into a major source of alcohol smuggling to the reservation. Whiteclay sells volumes of beer “far in excess of an amount that could be sold in compliance with the laws of the state of Nebraska.”
The lawsuit says Whiteclay has a population of fewer than 12 people and “no publicly accessible place to lawfully consume alcohol.” Yet each day, the four retailers in town sell more than 13,000 cans of beer.
Much of that beer ends up on the reservation, according to the lawsuit, where it has “devastating effects” on the tribe.
The suit says alcoholism is a scourge on Pine Ridge, a 2 million-acre reservation in southwestern South Dakota that is home to an estimated 40,000 people, most of them enrolled members of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
Eighty-five percent of the tribe’s members are “affected by alcoholism,” according to the suit, and one in four children born on Pine Ridge is diagnosed with either fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
The tribe is seeking $500 million in compensation to pay for “all damages it has suffered in the past and in reasonably likely to suffer in the future” as a result of the alcohol sales in Whiteclay.
SAB Miller declined to comment on the lawsuit. Anheuser-Busch InBev Worldwide Inc and Molson Coors Brewing Company did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is one of the poorest spots in the country, according to the U.S. Census. More than 50 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, compared with 15.1 percent nationally. Shannon County, which lies entirely within the reservation, is the third poorest county in the country, the Census says.
The unemployment rate consistently tops 80 percent, according to most estimates. Violent crime and other social ills, including a high suicide rate, are all major problems on the reservation, according to the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.
A 2011 Centers for Disease Control report on the health of racial groups said that Native Americans report more binge drinking episodes per month and higher alcohol consumption per episode than other races.
A number of theories have been suggested to explain why binge drinking — defined as five drinks in a sitting for men and four for women — is such a problem among Native Americans, according to a National Institutes of Health survey of literature.
Among those are high unemployment and poverty rates on reservations, NIH said. Of the five counties in the United States with poverty rates greater than 39 percent, four are located within American Indian reservations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
One other theory is that American Indian traditional culture may help explain the attraction of drinking. American Indians may “drink rapidly to induce an altered state of consciousness, a practice congruent with some Native American practices,” the NIH survey said.
Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Greg McCune