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'Beer Sniffing' Reporters Invade Pine Ridge

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The "beer sniffing" reporters from across the country, particularly those of The New York Times, descended upon the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

First came Diane Sawyer from ABC Television immediately followed by a Tim Williams and Nicholas Kristoff from The New York Times and Arthur Sulzberger, The New York Times' Bureau Chief for Kansas City, and then Tony Newman, listed as Director of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Sulzberger was out in South Dakota to do an article on the Crazy Horse Memorial situated in the Sacred Black Hills of the Great Sioux Nation. He called me and we had dinner at the restaurant in the hotel where he was staying. It was a pleasant evening and he picked my brain for various and sundry information about Pine Ridge, Crazy Horse Memorial and Indians in general.

He promised to send me a copy of his article when he got back to Kansas City, a promise he never kept. He then went on to misquote me. I told him I had misgivings about the carving of Crazy Horse in the beginning, but that Ruth Ziolkowski, the wife of the deceased sculptor, Korzak, had proven to be a dedicated and determined inheritor of the project and she had done much to allay my early misgivings. Sulzberger's one line quote of our dinner meeting, "Tim Giago, Lakota journalist said he had never met a Native American that had anything good to say about the project." A lot of fence mending between Mrs. Ziolkowski and I probably went by the wayside with that misquote."

When Tim Williams of The New York Times called me prior to his sojourn to Pine Ridge he asked if we could meet. I assured that we could. He told me when he would be out here and gave me a phone number, but when I called it he never answered and so we never met. The first thing I cautioned him about in our initial phone conversation was not to make the beer selling stores in Whiteclay, Neb., the focus of his visit. Needless to say, that is exactly what he did.

Like Ms. Sawyer, he made his visit to Whiteclay the centerpiece of his story. When Ms. Sawyer asked the Pine Ridge police chief, Rich Greenwald, about crime on the reservation, he replied that 80 percent of the people his officers arrested for traffic violations or other crimes were alcohol related. How did Ms. Sawyer report this comment? She said that 80 percent of the people living on the Pine Ridge Reservation were alcoholics. Say what? Didn't she hear what he really said or was she seeking some sort of sensationalism at the expense of the Lakota people of Pine Ridge?

Newman built his column on the fact that "Nicholas Kristof painted a heartbreaking picture" of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Yes he did, but he made Pine Ridge and Whiteclay synonymous with alcoholism. One is a community whose sole existence is selling beer and cheap wine to the residents of Pine Ridge and the other is a community with active programs struggling financially to combat alcoholism, a community with an extension of Oglala Lakota College in each district, a Boys and Girls Club actively working against crime, alcoholism and the deprivations of poverty, and also a community with four high schools such as Little Wound, Crazy Horse, Pine Ridge High School, and Red Cloud High School, that are working long and hard to stop the very problems caused by alcohol and poverty that the savvy reporters from New York failed to seek out.

Tony Newman was right when he wrote that prohibition is not the answer to curing alcoholism because it was tried nationally and only led to the birth and growth of organized crime. It also did not stop alcohol consumers from drinking.

Poverty, homelessness, joblessness and hopelessness are probably the main contributors to the consumption of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Perhaps some of the reporters invading Pine Ridge should make a trip to Gallup, N.M. where many of the same problems exist. The people of the Navajo Nation face many of the problems encountered by the Lakota and oftentimes resort to consuming alcohol as a sedative to their problems.

Nick Kristof's heart was in the right place, but he didn't look far enough. Instead of focusing on one school, Red Cloud Indian School, as Ms. Sawyer did, he could have sought out the views from tribal leaders like Tom Shortbull, President of Oglala Lakota College or A. Gay Kingman, Executive Director of the Northern Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association, or "Chic" Big Crow, founder and director of the SuAnne Big Crow Boys and Girls Club or Bryan Brewer, former principal of Pine Ridge High School.

Red Cloud Indian School is a prime example of a school that changed its cultural stifling image to become a progressive school that is now so popular that Lakota youngsters are running to get in instead of running to get away. It is a school that can be an example for all of the schools on the reservation, but the difference is that it is an independent school while the others are run by the Bureau of Indian Education or other branches of the federal government.

While on the topic of reporters from back East, I got a call from a Mr. Washington of the Associated Press regarding the status of senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren. It is too bad that the national media chose this revelation to poke fun at Native Americans. The Native American Journalists Association pointed out this childish display of word usage by the press in mocking Warren. I fully support Warren and if she is proud of her Cherokee heritage, so be it, but she has never used this blood quantum to move her career forward as so many others have, including Ward Churchill as he did at the University of Colorado.

As I write this there is a reporter from The Huffington Post sniffing around Pine Ridge for a story on poverty. I hope and pray that his nose doesn't catch the whiff of beer and lead him across the border to Whiteclay. There are too many good stories on Pine Ridge that cannot be ignored.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991.