In 2006, my family visited South Dakota, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, travelling through stunning national parks, visiting Mount Rushmore and seeing how the other half live in expensive Jackson Hole. Great trip, but mixed in with these American landmarks was the side of America they don’t talk about. We drove around South Dakota, passing through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It really is a depressing place. It was clear many Native Americans on this reservation lived in abject poverty, and memorials to the great warriors Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were broken and derelict, when 50 miles down the road a huge Crazy Horse monument was being built. I read afterwards that Native Americans are more likely to commit suicide than any other minority in the United States, a chilling statistic.
This area has been in the news recently, as the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the reservation are suing a number of beer companies such as SAB Miller, Molson Coors Brewing Company and Pabst Brewing Company for $500m (£316m). They’re demanding the companies provide social services, rehabilitation and treatment for their alcoholism, which they argue, the companies have exploited. In Pine Ridge, roughly 25% of children are afflicted by alcohol abuse from birth. The town of Whiteclay, in Nebraska (which I’ve been to), has been signalled out in particular for having four beer stores to a dozen residents – but in 2010 over five million beer cans were sold. This is devastating enough, but the reservation has a law that bans alcohol in the first place. The lawsuit states the beer companies knew they would have a ‘target audience’, fully acknowledging that the beer would be taken illegally into the reservation. Tom White, a lawyer for the tribe, argued that “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.”
That’s not even the shocking part of this story. In the reservation, the life expectancy is between 45 and 52 years of age, the lowest in North America apart from the country of Haiti. The average for the rest of America is 77½ years. This is huge problem, one that cannot be ignored by the American government any longer. Washington has screwed the Native Americans for over three hundred years, and these social problems are a consequence of this. At this stage, getting angry and pointing the finger is worthless – more money, social care and support should be provided for this community. It will be interesting to see the progress of this lawsuit, BUT SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE NOW. I recommend a trip to Pine Ridge, if this doesn’t convince you of the problem then you’re walking around with your eyes closed. The government needs to work with local people to combat this problem – before it’s too late.