Cartoon mocking temperance Indians, History of The United States by Bill Nye, 1894

White People, White Lies & Whiteclay: Pine Ridge Finally Fights Back

Gyasi Ross

The violent impact of white settlement and Christianity manifests itself in weird and deep ways—some people call these impacts “colonialism.”  Fancy word. In any event, those impacts are so deep that we oftentimes think that those ways are ours—but they’re not our ways.  As Ruben Littlehead says, they are “Old Indian tricks…that a white guy taught us.”  One of those topics is the way Native people react to alcohol. 

Both of my parents (really, all three of my parents—I was also raised by a stepfather) struggled with alcohol and addiction.

Probably as a result of their struggles (and my grandparents’ struggles before them), they had a pretty protestant view of drinking alcohol.  “Don’t do it.”  “It’s bad for Indian people.”  “We’re not meant to drink alcohol—it kills us.”  They treated alcohol like a sin, like something that stains you.

Now, I accepted these as true statements for many years.  In fact, I still have never been a drinker of alcohol as a result of this training at an early age, combined with seeing the effects of alcohol on my family.  My family had my best interests when they told me these things and these statements weren’t entirely untrue…alcohol can, in fact, kill. 

But…lots of things “kill.”  Sugar kills.  Not wearing your seatbelt kills.  Heck, life kills—after all, life is a terminal condition right? 

And true, alcohol doesn’t necessarily correspond to Native people’s biochemistry.  Native people have only been eating wheat products for a VERY short period of time; most tribes farmed corn, squash, etc. Very few (if any) farmed wheat.  Therefore, many Indian people with a high percentage of Indigenous blood are prone to wheat/gluten intolerance (of course there are many enrolled Indians whose blood is primarily white, and Europeans have farmed wheat for many centuries increasing their tolerance to alcohol).  That unfamiliarity with alcohol oftentimes leads Native people (and anybody else who is intolerant to wheat) to be allergic to alcohol.  How can you tell if someone’s allergic to alcohol?  Like most allergies, alcohol allergies causes swelling and redness-therefore, if you (or one of your loved ones) get a red nose or a swollen nose or your cheeks get red when you drink, chances are you (or your loved one) is allergic to alcohol. 

No Beer Sold To Indians, 1938 photograph in Sisseton, South Dakota by John Vachon. Source:

Therefore, my dear mom and dad’s claims that “We’re not meant to drink alcohol” and that it is “bad for Indian people” are technically correct.  But it’s not the whole story.  They’re little white lies.

See, Native people aren’t meant to drink alcohol in the same way we’re not meant to eat Twinkies (RIP), eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (even with bannock bread), or drink Cragmont pop.  Our ancestors were extremely healthy, and the junk we eat now simply clashes with thousands of years of healthy living (the journal Current Anthropology says that Native civilizations lived on a diet very high in fiber, very low in fat and dominated by foods extremely low on the glycemic index).  Our bodies don’t process any of these refined sugars easily.  To read more about that, see the ScienceDaily story "Feces Fossils Show Connection Between Native-Americans, Diabetes: Did Fat-Hoarding Genes Develop from the Nature of Ancient Feasts?"

All of those things are bad for Indian people.  But we don’t treat all of them like a sin as we do alcohol.  To be sure, there is a spiritual component to alcohol abuse—but there is also a similar spiritual component to whenever we abuse ourselves by alcoholism, obesity, drug abuse, sex addiction, deadbeat daddy-ism, or any compulsive behavior!

It’s not just alcohol. 

Mass-produced Souvenir Alcohol Flask: Cherokee Indian Reservation, NC, 1950s or 1960s. Source:

I’ve been watching, with great interest and mixed feelings, the big decision that the Oglala Sioux Tribe is facing: whether or not to legalize liquor sales on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  It’s a tough question—on one hand, we know that Native communities have very, very serious issues with liquor.  Why would we give more poison to a sick person?  On the other hand, we have the dirty, filthy rednecks in Whiteclay, Nebraska who have been exploiting the Natives on Pine Ridge for a very long time, selling them poison and getting very rich in the process.  Why would we want to make these evil exploiters any richer?

They decided to legalize alcohol sales.  They effectively cut the legs out from under the bloodsuckers in Whiteclay.

That was the easy part—they don’t want to make the Whiteclay gang any richer. Those vampires hate Indians and have done their little part to contribute to the extermination of Native people.  The Oglala Sioux Tribe successfully took a lot of money out of these pieces of feces’ pockets by legalizing liquor sales. 

Good job.

But the Oglala Sioux Tribe decision to allow alcohol sales didn’t stop there.  The decision also challenged those violent impacts of white settlement and Christianity that have replaced our values; they challenged colonialism.  The Oglala Sioux Tribe decided to get rid of the assumption that Native people aren’t smart enough or strong enough to make our own decisions about whether or not we will choose to indulge in alcohol or not.  We are smart enough.  We are strong enough.  Some will continue to make bad decisions—that is unfortunate.  But the Oglala Sioux Tribe showed that it champions tribal sovereignty as well as individual sovereignty—the ability of individual members to make their own decisions and be treated like an adult. 

Almost as importantly, the Oglala Sioux Tribe stopped treating alcoholism like a sin and started treating it like a disease.  That is important.  Sins stain.  Sins create guilt.  Sins mean that God’s mad at you. Once God’s mad at you, who knows when he’ll start being your friend again. God being mad at you can’t be good for someone trying to do better.  On the other hand, diseases are treatable. Diseases need acknowledgment and get better the more honest discussions that you have about it and programs that you create to help those suffering from it. Diseases remove victimhood—there are no victims because the individual has the responsibility to seek treatment. 

Diseases are not something to hide—they’re something to acknowledge and work through.

Good job, Oglala Sioux Tribe.  It wasn’t an easy decision—it’s a horribly difficult and painful decision with real consequences.  This decision won’t make things better overnight—not even close. In fact, things might look worse in the short-term, while the Tribe gets accustomed to easy access to liquor.  But that is what leadership is about—making tough decisions for the LONG-TERM benefit of your people. 

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
This is still a VERY wrong move for the Oglala People. Adding fuel to the fire is like throwing the baby out with the bath water as they say. Instead of giving the money away to the washichu's we are now going to give it to the tribe to build chemical dependency facilities for all the alcoholics all over Indian Country. This is a VERY wrong move folks. So many of us across Indian Country know someone or some family that drugs & alcohol have destroyed. I, for one, am sick to death of all the funerals on our lands because of chemical dependency & folks taking their lives or other innocent folks lives. Alcohol should be banned all over our Creator's world we all live upon. Those who sell it are fanning the flames of all the homes across Indian Country that have been or are being destroyed as we speak because of alcohol. As an elde,r I have to say this is a VERY wrong move. One more death because of drugs & alcohol is one too many. One more life or family destroyed because of these things is one too many. I know beyond a doubt the Great Spirit is not pleased with this all. It brings shame to our ancestors, families, clans & tribes as well. Pine Ridge leadership, you seriously need to reverse course & start leading by example. No amount of alcohol is good for anyone or any family member. All it produces is many heartaches, tears & destruction across Indian Country. All of you folks out here who do NOT use alcohol & drugs and refuse to allow those things into your homes, I am very proud of you folks! You bring pride to the Great Spirit, your tribe,clan & family.

Bonnie Pendred Licata
Bonnie Pendred ...
Submitted by Bonnie Pendred ... on
A very well-written article! I learned a lot about the reasons why Native Americans tend to not process sugars and alcohol the same as some other groups. (Though no one is really designed to process sugars and alcohol well.) There are good accounts of history here as well. Two points that I want to correct are: 1. Christianity did not manifest in violent impact. People who called themselves Christians did. "Religious" people did. But not true followers of Jesus Christ. Violent impact, including the pushing of alcohol on anyone, is contrary to the ways of true Christianity. Just as wearing an Indian headdress or going into a sweat lodge does not make one a Native American, neither does calling oneself a Christian make one a true Christian. Jesus said, "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7:15-16)...and..."By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35). 2. Biblically speaking, alcoholism is not sin. Drunkenness is sin. Alcoholism is the painful result of drunkenness. And sin does not mean "that God’s mad at you". Quite the opposite is true. Romans 5:8 "But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." You are correct that alcoholism as a disease places on the individual the responsibility to seek treatment. It is equally true that admission of drunkenness as sin places the individual in a wonderful place to receive, not guilt, but freedom from guilt through the love and mercy of the gracious Creator!

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
There can be no doubt that alcohol has taken its toll on Native people, but I applaud the actions of the Sioux for pulling the rug out from under Whiteclay. It was a difficult decision, I'm sure, but while there are drawbacks to allowing alcohol on Pine Ridge, there is some good to come of it. One, rich Whites won't get richer on NDN poverty and dependency. Two, the Sioux now have a source of revenue that previously didn't exist and Three, this money can be put to good use on one of the country's poorest reservations. I empathize with Two Bears Growling, but it's not like banning alcohol on the Rez prevented anyone from getting it. I think we as Native people need to start a grass roots movement of our own and teach our children NOW of the dangers of alcohol, sugar and chemical dependency.

brentrn's picture
Submitted by brentrn on
I commend you for making a very important point that alcoholism must be seen as a disease not a sin. In my limited time on the Pine Ridge reservation I am glad to see efforts made to choke off White Clay robbers. Legalizing alcohol was a painful but necessary step in confronting the disease. Prohibition of 1920 did not stop drinking and its repeal resulted in more control by states and a reduced national consumption of alcohol. I hope the Oglala Sioux Tribe will use this opportunity wisely to divert the money that formerly went to the robbers of White Clay to treatment for the affected, and for a change in the culture that has made alcohol a social expectation for socializing or payment for work.

chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
this is horrible...i have been to pine ridge and seen, up close and personal, the effects of alcohol on the ruination of adults lives, and, the children of fetal alcohol syndrome who are 'retarded' and isnt a pretty thing, folks....the squalor, the hopelessness...o m g....i still say in my heart of hearts that ol whitey aint never gonna be happy until he destroys, buries, and plants over the last 'skin walkin upright on the face of mother earth....chew on that...btw, gyasi, g.r.e.a.t. article...aiahninchi ohoyo

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Michael Madrid, I appreciate what you had to say my friend & I agree with you on your point that we MUST teach our young ones about leaving processed sugars, alcohol & drugs alone. It isn't a lesson for just our peoples, but for ALL of the Creator's children across Turtle Island. Bonnie Pendred, I would also like to say you are right about it not being true followers of the Christ who are have caused so much harm to we First Nations people through time; it was those folks who were wolves hiding among the flocks. I feel you have a good heart my friend. The Creator made all peoples across this world. A good heart & living in a good way that brings honor & pride of a good way to our many peoples across Indian Country also brings honor to the Great Spirit. He knows who is living in a good way & who is pretending & lying in ones heart. There is no one who can fool Man Above my friends.

Buffalo Bull All the Time's picture
Buffalo Bull Al...
Submitted by Buffalo Bull Al... on
Good topic. I'm so tired of that old dramatic stereotype that alcohol kills skins. I was at a conference once and that speaker was saying "Every time you raise that glass of beer, just remember you're celebrating all your relatives that it's killed." Jesus...If you ask me, that's part of the reason some of us have such a hard time with alcohol. It's the taboo effect. Even when we're out in the dominant society, we are so conditioned since birth to look at alcohol as a sentient evil entity that we can't just kick it and have a few. We have absolutely no frame of reference for what normal consumption of alcohol looks like. How can we? All we're taught is to fear it, be ashamed of doing it, and how to condemn others who choose to imbibe. In any case, look at the research that's been done. Prohibition doesn't work. In fact, comparing two reservations here in Montana with similar demographics (Blackfeet and Crow) shows that the alcoholism rates are virtually identical. Only, Crow is a dry reservation and bans alcohol of any kind, while the Blackfeet have a bar right downtown. Has it led to the lawless chaotic family destroying mayhem that we have been led to believe naturally arises when Indians drink? Sure, for some; but no more than it has for those people prohibited by law to possess alcohol. I may not totally agree with the theory that alcohol is a disease, but I know there's a lot more involved in becoming an alcoholic than simply having access to alcohol. I would like to make clear that I do not judge anyone who disagrees with what I'm saying. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I know there are completely valid reasons for those opinions. I'm just saying that prohibition is not the answer. I don't know what the answer is, but it seems like it would include multiple different factors such as the economy, psychology, sociocultural issues, etc. Alcohol is like a gun. It can be deadly or it can be innocuous. It's whatever we make of it. At the end of the day though, it's just a thing, not a being. It has no thoughts, no desires, no anything. And it's up to us how we use it.

JustAnotherWhiteMan's picture
Submitted by JustAnotherWhiteMan on
The 'red or Asian-flush' as it is often called through-out the world is often genetic. As it turns out, whether or not someone gets a flushed face after drinking, and a slew of other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, increased heart beat and dizziness - is dictated by the same thing that determines most of our other physical traits: our genes. A red face after drinking alcohol may be a warning sign of esophageal cancer risk. A new report shows people who experience a red face or flushing after drinking alcohol have a much higher risk of developing esophageal cancer than those who do not. Researchers say about a third of Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans have this red-face response to drinking alcohol along with nausea and increased heart rate. The reaction is primarily due to an inherited lack of an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2). The author does disservice to his reader's by dismissing what his Elder's report. Alcoholism, is often genetic and people that cannot tolerate alcohol--should NOT drink, period. just like if four out of six of your family dies young from lung cancer --YOU should not, smoke. Simple Science! BTW, AA works, Keep It Simple!

Archie Caldwell.'s picture
Archie Caldwell.
Submitted by Archie Caldwell. on
I don't want religion in the equation. Don't judge me till u have walked 14 moons in my moccasins.

SeLena LaDonna Ataddlety's picture
SeLena LaDonna ...
Submitted by SeLena LaDonna ... on
I am aware and treat it like a reward at times. In the past learned my limits and which firewater turns me into a Crazy Mama. I also know I need to slow it down more, at my age I cant afford to hurt my health. So to obtain a stress handling Woman with tonz of demands, I smoke and I think I make Better but true. thanks sel