In Whiteclay, Nebraska, a town of just 8 official residents, 3.5 million cans of alcohol are sold annually. Most of this alcohol makes its way to the Pine Ridge Reservation, just north of the Nebraska border. Lost in the legal debate of whether alcohol should be sold in Whiteclay are the thousands of children born with an entirely preventable but uncurable disease: fetal alcohol syndrome.

BREAKING: Sept. 29 – NFA Responds to Nebraska Supreme Court Decision on Whiteclay Liquor Stores

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Pine Ridge Reservation

The known national average for fetal alcohol syndrome is .2 to 1.5 infants per 1,000 live births, [1] yet this entirely preventable and nonhereditary disorder is estimated to effect one out of every four children born on the Pine Ridge Reservation. 

This estimate from Pine Ridge Reservation tribal leaders and individuals with firsthand knowledge of the problem has been widely reported by numerous major publications including The New York Times, NBC News, Los Angeles Times, Omaha World Herald, Rapid City Journal, Daily Mail, and by Congress in the United States Congressional Record Vol. 146 No. 89. [2] 

Utilizing the one-in-four estimate, nearly 424 of the 1,695 individuals born on the Pine Ridge Reservation from 2011-2015 [3] were likely born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Compared to the national average, the number of individuals born on the Pine Ridge Reservation with fetal alcohol syndrome from 2011-2015 should be between .34 and 2.54 individuals.

This astonishingly high rate of fetal alcohol syndrome on the Pine Ridge Reservation has shocked the conscience of Nebraskans. The devastation caused by alcohol from Whiteclay to innocent human beings through fetal alcohol syndrome would be a tragedy of epic proportions even if the rate was substantially over-estimated. However, some have speculated the one in four number underestimates the extent of the problem. [4]

The Impact of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

There is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome. [5] Those affected with the disorder are left with irreversible mental and physical disabilities for life, including: facial deformities, heart defects, small head and brain size, underdeveloped organs, central nervous system problems, poor memory, coordination and judgement skills, and seizures. [6]

Fetal alcohol syndrome is estimated to require $2 million over the lifetime of one individual and costs the United States more than $4 billion annually. [7]

When a pregnant woman consumes alcohol, the alcohol in her bloodstream passes to the baby through the umbilical cord causing interference with the child’s ability to get enough oxygen and nourishment for normal development. [8] By depriving the unborn child of oxygen, “drowning in alcohol” becomes more than merely an expression – but a reality – for the child.

Ending the Sale of Alcohol in Whiteclay

Until the closure of the liquor stores, Whiteclay was the nearest location any resident on the legally dry Pine Ridge Reservation could purchase alcohol. Due to the close proximity of Whiteclay and the mass amount of alcohol being sold there, we can conclude with reasonable certainty the vast majority of alcohol subjecting one-in-four individuals to fetal alcohol syndrome on the Pine Ridge Reservation has undoubtedly come from the four liquor stores in Whiteclay.

Although the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission revoked the liquor licenses of the Whiteclay liquor stores earlier this year, the stores are challenging the decision in the courts. The Nebraska Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for the case on August 29th.

Attorneys on both sides will focus primarily on the legal arguments regarding the Liquor Control Commission’s power to revoke the licenses when and how they did – but we must never forget the innocent lives that have been impacted by the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay.

Alcohol sales in Whiteclay have directly contributed to the decimation of generations of children on the Pine Ridge Reservation while endangering the health, safety and general welfare of Whiteclay and neighboring communities.

[1] Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 June, 2017.  Accessed 1 Aug. 2017.

[2] Kolata, Gina. Alcohol Abuse by Pregnant Indians Is Crippling a Generation of Children. The New York Times, 19 July 1989. Accessed 1 August 2017; Williams, Timothy.  At Tribe’s Door, a Hub of Beer and Heartache. The New York Times, 5 Mar. 2012. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017; Tragedy at Pine Ridge: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Betty Rollin, correspondent. NBC Nightly News. NBC Universal Media. 21 Nov. 1989. NBC Learn. Web. 23 February 2015; Glionna, John. S. Dakota’s Pine Ridge tribe is at ‘breaking point’ over alcohol. Los Angeles Times, 5 March 2015. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017; Hammel, Paul. Addiction’s innocent victims. Omaha World Herald, 11 Oct. 2015. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017; Duggan, Joe. Bill to create Whiteclay task force gains support in Nebraska Legislature. Omaha World Herald, 3 Feb. 2017. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017; Fetal alcohol syndrome affects one in 20 children nationwide. Rapid City Journal, 19 Apr. 2016. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017; Robinson, Wills. Deformed by their mother’s alcoholism. Daily Mail, 14 Oct. 2015. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017; Congressional Record, V. 146, No. 89, S6535. 12 Jul. 2000.

[3] Live births. South Dakota KIDS COUNT. 5 Dec. 2016.,869,36,868,867/any/11743. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017

[4] Hammel, Paul. Addiction’s innocent victims. Omaha World Herald, 11 Oct. 2015. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017.

[5] Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 June, 2017. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Nate Grasz

Nate Grasz

Policy Director
Nate is the Policy Director at Nebraska Family Alliance and host of the Capitol Report program.