LINCOLN, Neb. -- An American Indian tribe sued some of the world's largest beer makers Thursday, claiming they knowingly contributed to devastating alcohol-related problems on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota said it is demanding $500 million in damages for the cost of health care, social services and child rehabilitation caused by chronic alcoholism on the reservation, which encompasses some of the nation's most impoverished counties.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court of Nebraska also targets four beer stores in Whiteclay, a Nebraska town near the reservation's border that, despite having only about a dozen residents, sold nearly 5 million cans of beer in 2010.
Tribal leaders and activists blame the Whiteclay businesses for chronic alcohol abuse and bootlegging on the Pine Ridge reservation, where all alcohol is banned. They say most of the stores' customers come from the reservation, which spans southwest South Dakota and dips into Nebraska.
"You cannot sell 4.9 million 12-ounce cans of beer and wash your hands like Pontius Pilate, and say we've got nothing to do with it being smuggled," said Tom White, the tribe's Omaha-based attorney.
Owners of the four beer stores in Whiteclay were unavailable or declined comment Thursday when contacted by The Associated Press. A spokeswoman for Anheuser-Busch InBev Worldwide said she was not yet aware of the lawsuit, and the other four companies being sued – SAB Miller, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MIllerCoors LLC and Pabst Brewing Company – did not immediately return messages.
The lawsuit alleges that the beer makers and stores sold to Pine Ridge residents knowing they would smuggle the alcohol into the reservation to drink or resell. The beer makers supplied the stores with "volumes of beer far in excess of an amount that could be sold in compliance with the laws of the state of Nebraska" and the tribe, tribal officials allege in the lawsuit.
The vast majority of Whiteclay's beer store customers have no legal place to consume alcohol since it's banned on Pine Ridge, which is just north, state law prohibits drinking outside the stores and the nearest town that allows alcohol is more than 20 miles south, said Mark Vasina, president of the group Nebraskans for Peace.
The Connecticut-sized reservation has struggled with alcoholism and poverty for generations, despite an alcohol ban in place since 1832. Pine Ridge legalized alcohol in 1970 but restored the ban two months later, and an attempt to allow it in 2004 died after a public outcry.
The reservation spans impoverished areas, including Shannon County, S.D., which U.S. census statistics place as the third-poorest in the nation. It has a median household income of $27,300 and nearly half of the population falls below federal poverty standards.
Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele said the tribe council authorized the lawsuit in an effort to protect the reservation's youth.
"Like American parents everywhere, we will do everything lawful we can to protect the health, welfare and future of our children," he said.
The tribe views the lawsuit as a last resort after numerous failed attempts to curb the abuse through protests and public pressure on lawmakers, White added. He said the tribal council voted unanimously about four months ago to hire his law firm.
One in four children born on the reservation suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and the average life expectancy is estimated between 45 and 52 years – the shortest in North America except for Haiti, according to the lawsuit. The average American life expectancy is 77.5 years.
"The illegal sale and trade in alcohol in Whiteclay is open, notorious and well documented by news reports, legislative hearings, movies, public protests and law enforcement activities," the lawsuit states. " All of the above have resulted in the publication of the facts of the illegal trade in alcohol and its devastating effects on the Lakota people, especially its children, both born and unborn."
Nebraska lawmakers have struggled for years to curb the problem, and are considering legislation this year that would allow the state to limit the types of alcohol sold in areas like Whiteclay. The measure would require local authorities to ask the state to designate the area an "alcohol impact zone."
The state liquor commission could then limit the hours alcohol sellers are open, ban the sale of certain products or impose other restrictions.
Nebraska state Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, whose district includes Whiteclay, said he introduced the measure with support from county officials who have seen their health care and jail incarceration costs rise.
Associated Press writer Michael Avok contributed to this report from Lincoln, Neb.