US & Canada

South Dakota Oglala Sioux tribe's beer lawsuit fails

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionPeople of the tribe discuss their problems

A federal judge has dismissed a case by an American Indian tribe that blamed beer sellers and makers for chronic alcoholism on their reservation.

Judge John Gerrard said there was "little question" that sales in a bordering Nebraska town had contributed significantly to the problem.

But he said federal courts did not have the jurisdiction to hold brewers or stores responsible.

The Oglala Sioux tribe sued beer stores and manufacturers for $500m (£309m).

The lawsuit alleged that the stores and beer makers had knowingly allowed alcohol sales to residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which has banned alcohol since 1832, fully aware it would be smuggled to drink or resell.

The Oglala also argued that the beer distributors supplied the White Clay, Nebraska 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".

The four White Clay beer stores named in the suit sold the equivalent of 4.3 million 12oz (0.34 litre) cans last year.

The Nebraska town, which is next to the reservation, has a population of only about a dozen residents.

Also named in the suit were four manufacturers: Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MillerCoors LLC and Pabst Brewing Company.

"What little money our people get, it goes to White Clay. And the distributors are aware of what poor people we are but they don't care," Tom Poor Bear, the tribe's vice-president, told the BBC in April.

"They'll take our last dime."

'Could do more'

In his ruling, the judge said: "There is, in fact, little question that alcohol sold in Whiteclay contributes significantly to tragic conditions on the reservation.

"And it may well be that the defendants could, or should, do more to try to improve those conditions for members of the tribe.

"But that is not the same as saying that a federal court has jurisdiction to order them to do so."

The judge dismissed the case without prejudice, a decision which allows the tribe to bring the lawsuit to a state court.

The tribe's lawyer, Tom White, said it was not yet clear if they would pursue the case.

But he added: "The judge had every opportunity, if he wanted to, to say this is a spurious case or it doesn't have legal merit. And he carefully did not. That is significant."

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation's county is consistently ranked among the poorest in the country, and one in four children born on the reservation suffers from foetal alcohol syndrome or a foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

The average life expectancy on the reservation is estimated between 45 and 52 years, far below the average American life expectancy of 77.5.

Before the lawsuit, the tribe led protests and marches to shame the store owners, and asked for tougher laws that would make it harder to sell and consume alcohol in the area.

More on this story