Rapid City Journal
Max B. O'Connell Journal staff
Oct 16, 2015
Seeing the effects of alcohol on men, women and children drove John Maisch to do something to fight alcoholism.
"I spent five years as the assistant liquor prosecutor in the state of Oklahoma, and I've seen the impact on the tribal culture," Maisch said. "And I've seen how it's affected Pine Ridge Indian Reservation."
"Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian," a documentary produced and directed by Maisch, screened at the Elks Theatre Thursday night as a part of Roots to Wings' "Conversations for Change" program. The film's title comes from a quote in the film: "A sober Indian is a dangerous Indian ... alcohol is a way to control."
The film tells the story of four men from Pine Ridge who find empowerment through sobriety after battling alcoholism. The screening also featured a post-film discussion on supporting families living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
"Our goal was to raise awareness about the high rates of FASD, teen suicide and domestic violence that result from the sale of alcohol," Maisch said. "And to urge the Nebraska Legislature to take steps to shutdown Whiteclay beer sales."
Whiteclay, a town located just over the South Dakota border in Nebraska, is home to four beer stores which sell primarily to residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The reservation does not sell alcoholic beverages.
The film shows the destruction that can result from the cheap beer and malt liquor sold in Whiteclay. Several of the men in the film deal with years of physical and sexual abuse. One, Robert Young Dog, shows his scars from multiple attempted suicides; Another, Pete Blacksmith, speaks about having to prostitute himself for alcohol.
The film becomes increasingly optimistic as the men leave the town of Whiteclay, sober up and try to put their lives back together. In a crowd of 30 filmgoers, sniffles and tears were audible. In a post-screening talk, many nodded along and warmly laughed at tales of children with FASD who found they could learn visually.
Maisch has shown the film in multiple cities, including New York City, Chicago, and Capetown, South Africa. The issue of alcoholism is a personal one for Maisch; His sister was badly injured in collision with a drunk driver in college, and she was later nearly killed by her alcoholic husband.
"To me, this is not just a tribal problem," Maisch said. "This is a people problem. It's a problem for humanity."
He added that at a recent screening, one viewer, a member of the South Dakota alcohol beverage industry, agreed with him that Whiteclay's alcohol sales needed to be shut down.
"He asked, 'Do you think we're happy about it?'" Maisch said. "'We don't deliver an ounce of beer there, and yet South Dakota taxpayers have to bear the financial responsibility for the hospitals and treatment centers they have to go to, all for sales made in this small, unincorporated town with 12 people and inadequate law enforcement.' It's affecting all of us."
Nora Boesem, the president of Roots to Wings, added that these sales are greatly contributing to the problem of FASD.
"One in 4 of the babies born on Pine Ridge suffer from (FASD)," Boesem said. "And 60 to 85 percent of the people on Pine Ridge struggle with addiction, yet there is only one treatment center with seven beds for them."
Boesem added that the problem was so large that many ignore it, but that everyone has the ability to help.
"The first step is spreading awareness and bringing support to nonprofits helping those on the reservation," Boesem said.
Maisch, meanwhile, said that South Dakotans were in a better place to contribute than the audiences on the coasts who have seen the film.
"I urge state residents to support fetal alcohol syndrome support groups with time, resources and finances," Maisch said.
Maisch said that he would return to Pine Ridge Friday for a meeting with activists to push to end sales in Whiteclay. Earlier this month, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said he was determined to address the alcohol issues in Whiteclay.
Maisch himself said he believed it was a moral obligation to help all who were hurt by the liquor sales in Pine Ridge, be it from abuse, FASD or suicide.
"Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, said that we should never be silent," Maisch said. "'Neutrality helps only the oppressor, not the oppressed.'"