Having seen many failures and successes in sobriety, I am convinced that the message in the often-quoted recovery phrase willingness to do whatever it takes is the key to successful sobriety.
The Oglala Lakota lawsuit against beer companies and stores in Whiteclay is a bold step that reveals the communities desperation. Social and health services on the reservation are overwhelmed. As a recovering alcoholic, however, I see their desperation as a good thing. It is helping the community gain the willingness to put aside shame, embarrassment, denial and public censure. Although the lawsuit may be destined for failure, it could be an important move towards changing the public narrative surrounding alcoholism as a disease of “choice.”
In an earlier article in ICTMN, Terri Hansen wrote about the research of two Native women journalists who were examining the way in which diabetes is also framed in the popular press as a disease of choice. They compared this perspective with the way in which tobacco addiction has changed in the public view and how greater understanding of the addiction has resulted in increased public funding for anti smoking programming. They also noted how the public subsequently exerted greater pressure on tobacco companies to take responsibility for their roles in this public health crisis.
Although alcoholism is a disease, greed is not—it is a choice. The people working for corporations such as Miller Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch and the liquor-store owners in Whiteclay are actively making a choice to profit from the sales of a product that fuels addiction and kill others. In an Associated Press story, Randall Goyette, an attorney for the Jumping Eagle Inn, one of the Whiteclay liquor stores named in the lawsuit, “alcohol problems on Pine Ridge can only be due to personal conduct.” Do such statements really absolve alcohol producers and sellers from culpability in this equation of addiction? Is publishing the disclaimer Drink Responsibly really enough?
Tribal attorney Tom White told Indian Country Today Media Network in February, “This case is to show that this volume of alcohol sold to a reservation just destroys it and debases it. This case is real simple. Everyone from Anheuser-Busch on down knows that 4.9 million 12 ounce servings of beer sold in a town of 11 people with no other population around except a dry reservation knows that there is no way that that amount of alcohol could be lawfully consumed.”
I became addicted to alcohol because I have the disease of alcoholism. Alcoholism and addiction are major public health issues for everyone, not just Native peoples. The disease is usually more visible among Native peoples because we have far fewer economic and/or social reserves that do white folks. A whole lot more has to happen for the alcoholic white CEO of a corporation to end up on the street than for an unemployed Native person living on a reservation.