John Little Bear thinks he’s 43. He’s not sure. He looks older. His face is puffed up and ravaged by the alcoholism which has almost killed him twice.
“I was being arrested so I crashed a whole bottle of vodka. When I came too – they were using the paddles on my chest.”
John is an Oglala Sioux. He’s lost eight close family members to alcohol.
“They all had cirrhosis of the liver. My sister’s in the hospital right now. She’s going to die.”
John has been told he’s going to die soon too. He’s had seizures and recurring illnesses. A doctor warned him just weeks ago that if he didn’t quit drinking, he be dead in nine months. He’s not sure he wants to quit and doesn’t think his problem is as bad as some others.
“They drink handwash or hairspray. I don’t do that man, I don’t like the taste.”
He comes from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, but he doesn’t live there. Alcohol is banned. So he sleeps wherever he can just across the state border less than a kilometre away in Whiteclay, Nebraska.
Suspicious of strangers
Whiteclay is a collection of small stores and car yards. Officially just 12 people live here, but last year the four shops licensed to sell beer sold more than four million cans.
In the main street, we pass one man who looks barely alive. He lies flat on his back, shirt pulled to his chest, barely breathing but his skin baking in the hot late spring sunshine.
Another is curled in a ball, snoring loudly, three empty cans by his side.
The people on the streets are suspicious of strangers.
One man calls me over. He tells me his name is Eli and he’s been an alcoholic for 20 years. He gets “soup and stuff” from the local church and he tells me it’s good but insists he really needs a drink. He then asks me for a dollar.
The Oglala tribe from Pine Ridge is now suing the four stores in Whiteclay, along with their suppliers and some of America’s biggest brewers for $500m.
Thomas Poor Bear, the tribe’s vice president, explains: “They’ve really committed nothing but bad. The main one is the social problems that come from alcohol. Homes are broken, jobs are lost, children are hurt over their parents drinking. So it has really hurt a big part of our culture. They’ve contributed nothing but misery.”
Pine Ridge is a huge reservation the size of Connecticut. Home to around 45,000 people, it’s also the third poorest place in the US.
Poverty and hopelessness
It’s estimated four out of five families have someone with alcohol problems and one in four babies are born with complications linked to alcohol.
It also has an unemployment rate of 80 per cent and repeated studies have linked poverty, joblessness and the hopelessness that leads to alcohol consumption. It’s an escape.
Drinking also brings social problems. While we are in Whiteclay, one man tries to run off with a shopping trolley full of food.
Even though a handful of people see him do it, he denies the crime when store owner Victor Clarke catches up with him. One of his friends tells me: “He’d eat what he could and then sell the rest for beer money”.
Victor has lived in the town for 19 years. His Arrowhead Store doesn’t sell any alcohol but he knows the people who run the stores that do. “They’re just trying to make a living,” he says.
And he knows there are calls for Whiteclay to be shut down. He dismisses the idea.
“I don’t know it for a fact, but I think mayors in other towns probably like Whiteclay’s existence because the problems are isolated,” he speculates.
Back in Pine Ridge, there are some though who saw the dangers and resolved never to fall.
Template for future
One man approaches me, his shoes shined, his shirt neatly pressed: “There are many here who saw what alcohol has done to our people. So we stayed away, worked hard, went to college and now have a good job.”
He hopes this will be the new template for the future.
The tribe wants money from the legal case to be spent on better health care for those affected.
It wants to limit the amount of alcohol sold in Whiteclay and ban stores selling to Sioux Indians.
In documents lodged with the court, the beer companies say many of the problems on the reservation are caused by personal choice and the lawsuit would enshrine discrimination.
There are those in Pine Ridge who point out prohibition has never worked and so the answer may be to lift the alcohol ban there. The tribe could then control sales and take the revenue for social programmes to help those like John Little Bear – who can’t help themselves.
Follow Alan on Twitter @alanfisher.