This weekend, queer folks and friends at Toronto Pride who reach for a Bud Light under the beer’s namesake music stage may be surprised to know what they’re drinking.
Budweiser is just one brand sold by Anheuser-Busch, the American arm of Brazilian-Belgian multinational beer conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev. Just this May, Anheuser-Busch was targeted by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof for allegedly encouraging alcoholism on an American Indian reserve.
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, has struggled with alcohol for generations. The Oglala Sioux Nation made it a dry reserve, so alcohol has been prohibited since 1832. Possession, resale, use and any sign of intoxication is illegal.
But it’s a hard policy to enforce. Just 250 feet away from the reservation border, you’ll find a village of less than 15 people called Whiteclay. Whiteclay sells about four million cans of beer and malt liquor annually, according to the New York Times. And Anheuser-Busch’s Hurricane High Gravity Lager—with an alcohol content of 8.1 percent—is the local favourite.
“So Anheuser-Busch and other brewers pour hundreds of thousands of gallons of alcohol into the liquor stores of Whiteclay, knowing that it ends up consumed illicitly by Pine Ridge residents and fuels alcoholism, crime and misery there. In short, a giant corporation’s business model here is based on violating tribal rules and destroying the Indians’ way of living,” Kristof writes. “It’s as if Mexico legally sold methamphetamine and crack cocaine to Americans in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez.”
Anheuser-Busch representatives couldn’t get back to me today. But Luiz F. Edmond—president of the company—wrote to the Times that the reality is more complicated than Kristof’s view. “Beer producers are prohibited from selling beer directly to retailers or consumers in Nebraska, and we obey all laws wherever we operate or sell beer,” he said, in a letter. Edmond adds, “We cannot control the actions on the tribe’s reservation, yet that in no way diminishes our desire to end these problems.”
And also: “This problem involves deeply complex, societal, cultural and sometimes physiological issues that are often heightened during difficult economic conditions.
I called Tom White, lead counsel for the Ogala tribe’s case against the town’s liquor stores, as well as Molson-Coors, Miller, Pabst, and of course, Anheuser-Busch.
White says that by creating a situation where the reservation’s rules will be violated, companies and stores that sell alcohol to its inhabitants are breaking the law.
“There could be no Whiteclay without the beer brewed by the defendants,” he says, pointing out that there is no public place in Whiteclay where it is legal to consume alcohol. White says that according to Nebraska statutes, people involved in “maintaining a common nuisance” are breaking the law, even if they’re not participating directly.
White, who’s also a former Nebraska senator, claims (but is still fighting to prove) that the major breweries are also violating the federal law: they’re profiting off of alcohol that enters the reserve, without bringing it to police attention. “What happens when a law-abiding citizen believes they’re caught up in an illegal scheme, they are told to contact law enforcement—in this case it would be the United States attorney, and Nebraska liquor control commission, and the Oglala Sioux tribal police,” White explains. “Tell them what’s going on and then ask for them to intervene so that they can be extricated without violating the law. They’ve never alleged they’ve done that.”
The tribe has “been asking and begging the State of Nebraska to enforce these laws for years and finally they recognized that that wasn’t going to happen,” White says. “I started to tell them, ‘I think the laws are there, and we can enforce this.’” They want $500 million in damages for health care, social services, and child rehabilitation, according to the Washington Post.
White says this violation is about the Oglala Sioux’s right to sovereignty, integrity of its laws, and protection of its borders—not to mention the devastating effects of alcohol in the region.
One in four babies born in Pine Ridge has fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Life expectancy for people on the reserve is about 50 years. In contrast, life expectancy in Haiti is about 62.
So thanks for the Toronto Pride South Stage, Bud. But until this gets cleared up, I think I’ll be sticking to a bottle of my wine rack’s finest.