Charles Trimble: Take action to address despair
The first person I ever heard identify dependency as a root cause of much of the problems of Indian Country was a man we knew as Robert "Mad Dog" McLaughlin. It was the elder Ernie Stevens of Oneida who had given him the name "Mad Dog" because Bob was always so intense in presenting his theories about economic development on Indian reservations, and strident in defending them.

He was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and served as tribal planner for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He had studied at Princeton University under the distinguished economist, the late Sir Arthur Lewis, whose research into the problems of economic development in the Third World, the less-developed countries (LDCs), had earned him a Nobel Prize in Economics.

McLaughlin came home from Princeton with a solid understanding of the problems that hinder LDCs and Indian reservations. He developed theories on the problem of dependency that result in dysfunctional societies on the reservations and that stymie economic development. His theories need to be revisited, especially as we are concentrating so much of our energy on more abstract problems as intergenerational trauma as the root of our problems.

In Indian Country, there are families where none have had full employment for two or three generations. Those families and their communities have become totally dependent on relief programs, including aid to dependent children, food stamps, and surplus foods (commodities).

In such complete dependency, the government has supplanted the family, and the male population is most impacted. In tribal societies on the Plains, the father had a central role in the family as provider. But in those tribes today, many of the men are unemployed and have been for years. A man who has no role in providing for the family has little purpose as a father. He brings nothing to the household, and gradually loses respect from his spouse and children. Thus alienated, he will likely resort to alcohol or drugs, leading to despair and early death.

White Clay, Nebraska, is an exemplary case of the effects of dependency. Sheridan County, in which White Clay is situated, is said to have the distinction of raising more tax revenue from the sale of alcohol than the rest of the counties in the state combined. This filthy little town of 14 permanent residents has four liquor stores that reportedly sell a combined total of nearly four million cans of beer a year, bringing in over $3 million dollars in revenue.

Virtually all of the alcohol is sold to a captive market from just across the state line, the Pine Ridge reservation where alcohol is prohibited. Devastated people panhandle for change to buy a can of beer or a half-pint of cheap wine. At the service station in Pine Ridge, derelicts approach visitors to sell pitifully made beaded items, presumably to buy more alcohol. But these pathetic people don't reflect the more serious problems that alcoholism exacerbates throughout the reservation. Crime and violence, including spouse and child abuse, are rampant there.

Over the past several years the White Clay problem has become a national cause celebre, brought to light by the Nebraskans for Peace. This mostly non-Native group, led by Frank LaMere, a Ho Chunk activist and Democratic political leader, has waged a campaign to push the state of Nebraska to rescind the liquor licenses of the beer stores in White Clay. This campaign has taken on a more ambitious goal: urging President Obama to issue an executive order restoring a 50 square-mile area that was established inside the Nebraska border as a buffer zone between the reservation and Nebraska. This tract was taken for white settlement pursuant to the 1904 Kinkaid amendment to the Homestead Act. If this effort succeeds, the tribe itself could close those establishments, plus regain significant acreage for development or agriculture.

It is a shame that the Oglala Sioux Tribe or a citizens group on the reservation, instead of an outside entity, did not initiate such a campaign. Nevertheless, it is a noble effort on the part of the Nebraskans for Peace, and I hope they are successful.

But then what? Will those alcoholics then drive or walk the 28 miles beyond White Clay to the town of Rushville, Nebraska, or other border towns for their fix? They would endanger themselves, especially in the bitter months of winter, as well as others driving the roads to those places. And in those border towns they would likely expose themselves to public scorn and police brutality.

And bootleg booze has always been available throughout the Pine Ridge reservation, and the identities of the bootleggers are widely known and have included prominent tribal officials. The supply of bootleg alcohol will surely increase to meet the new demand generated by the closing of White Clay. These things will happen, because the market - indeed, the desperate need -- for alcohol will still be there and will continue to grow as the societal pathology continues to grow without change.

In strategizing for the war on White Clay, there are no plans to assess the causes of alcoholism at Pine Ridge, or of frustration, the feelings of worthlessness, and the despair that drive the market for booze. Tribal programs and economic development that provide jobs and self-sufficiency can solve those problems. Jobs and the pride of self-sufficiency are the opposites of dependency and despair. Indeed, dependency feeds itself, for it is also at the root of the tribe's inability to develop its economies and relieve the massive social problems.

But it seems no one is willing to offer this solution. It is easier to blame the federal government, or the white man, or history. And it is popular to blame more abstract sources such as intergenerational trauma resulting from abuse of our ancestors in Indian boarding schools of three or four generations past.

We need to take it upon ourselves to assess the causes and the consequences of the human tragedy that is not only White Clay, but Wanblee and Manderson and other centers where our people are devastated by alcohol. And we must accept a large measure of the blame, and take action.

If the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Lakota oyate don't take action, nobody can, and nobody will.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at or at

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