Battling Alcoholism in Whiteclay
July 19th, 2012
Omaha, NE – Whiteclay, Neb. sits on the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The town is located a few miles from a sign that welcomes visitors to “The Good Life.” But some describe it as “hell.”
Whiteclay, population around 11, is a visible outpost of the alcoholism that runs rampant on the reservation. But how did this small Nebraska town become such a scene of devastation? Why does it fester, and whose responsibility is it to clean it up?
I traveled to Whiteclay with a colleague from NET News. We arrived around midday, and the scene was disturbing. There were already people staggering in the streets, slumped over on curbs. Their faces were red and swollen with alcohol and disease. It seemed clear that many of them would stay there all day, drinking until they passed out for the night.
One of the men slumped against a vacant storefront called himself Whyton. We tried to find out where he was from, but all he would say is “beyond.”
“Way beyond. I travel here to have a drink,” Whyton said, sticking his thumb in his mouth and turning his hand toward the sky, like he was glugging from a can.
Sitting next to Whyton was another man, who was hunched against the wall, passed out. While we talked to Whyton, the other man began to urinate on himself. As it seeped through, forming a puddle on the ground, we walked away.
“I was going to hit you up for some change,” Whyton said, as we turned away.
“I would call it Red Clay,” said Tom Poor Bear, Vice President of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, “because it’s the blood of my people that’s still on the ground in Whiteclay.”
Poor Bear’s office is in the town of Pine Ridge, a couple of miles north of Whiteclay on the reservation. He blames the devastation there squarely on Nebraska. He said the state has long ignored the laws of Pine Ridge, which is a dry reservation. And he said that’s partly because selling liquor in Whiteclay is big business, and brings in a lot of money for Nebraska.
The liquor store owners wouldn’t comment for this story, but according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, the stores sell the equivalent of more than four million cans of beer each year. “The state of Nebraska receives I think an amount of $400,000 a year in alcohol tax,” Poor Bear said. “And because of that, a lot of the issues that Whiteclay has created and harm that is done to our people, Nebraska looks the other way and sweeps it under the rug at the same time.”
At LeRoy Louden’s office in Lincoln, the Nebraska lawmaker said he has tried several tacks to deal with the use and sale of alcohol in Whiteclay during his decade representing that area of northwest Nebraska. “I’ve been at I don’t know how many meetings over the years,” Louden said, recalling one with former Gov. Mike Johanns and the Oglala Tribal Council. “And the conversation get around, they’d want a piece of the taxes that’s coming off Whiteclay. And that isn’t gonna happen.”
“You’re not going to have money coming out of Nebraska to go over to that Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota to do anything,” Louden said. “That isn’t the way it works in the real world and it won’t happen there.”
This year, Louden tried to set up an alcohol impact zone, which could have restricted alcohol sales. That didn’t get out committee, but Louden said many of the ideas to help Whiteclay haven’t gone anywhere because they simply won’t work. Beefing up law enforcement to arrest people for drinking is just going to fill beds in Sheridan County, he said, and cost the county money it can’t afford. And he argued going after the liquor stores isn’t the answer because they’re just supplying demand.
But Lance Morgan, who heads HoChunk Industries on the Winnebago Indian Reservation in northeast Nebraska disagreed. “When you talk to people who deal with this issue, the conversation always goes back to property rights of these non-Indians,” Morgan said, referring to the white owners of Whiteclay’s liquor stores.
Morgan has a law degree from Harvard University, and has studied Indian law. “Any time you talk about property rights with Indians, it’s sort of a joke to us, right,” he said. “I have a map on my wall of us owning Wisconsin before we got moved to a small, tiny corner of northeast Nebraska.”
Morgan said he believes the heart of the problem is racism. “It’s as plain as day, and all the rest of it is just talk,” he said. “If it was anywhere else, it would have been hammered down. If it was any other group; if it was white people laying in the streets and Indians selling to them, well hell, they’d have the cops in here. They’d try to shut us down; they’d take us to court… So for us, it’s just obvious and ridiculous and ironic, and in the end, tragic.”
Now, the Oglala Sioux are trying another route. Former State Senator and Omaha lawyer Tom White has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the tribe against the largest beer manufacturers in the world, which supply Whiteclay’s liquor stores, because, he said, “there’s nothing else left.”
The defendants include big names like Anheuser Busch and Miller Brewing Company. White said the foundation of the case is that the beer sold in Whiteclay has no way of lawfully being consumed.
“What happens to all that beer?” White said. “Well, there are 11 people; there’s three houses in Whiteclay. It can’t be drunk in public, but it is. And it can’t be brought into Pine Ridge, but it is openly right in front of the retailers and everybody knows it,” White said. “So what we have is a systematic business plan that’s built up to violate the law.”
Attorneys for the beer makers declined to comment for this story. But they have asked the court to dismiss the suit, arguing it would force the stores to discriminate against Native American customers.
If White’s lawsuit is successful, half a billion dollars could flow to the Pine Ridge Reservation. But some people argue suing is not the right approach. Tomorrow, we’ll talk to people on the front lines of the battle against alcoholism on the reservation, and find out why they say that throwing money at the problem is not the answer.