New push to deal with alcohol in Whiteclay

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November 9th, 2015

A street scene in Whiteclay, with man lying on sidewalk to right. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

A street scene in Whiteclay, with man lying on sidewalk to right. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Another push is underway to address alcohol issues in Whiteclay, a tiny northwest Nebraska village bordering the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Alcohol’s prohibited on the reservation, but alcohol-related problems are widespread. They’re highly visible in Whiteclay, where some Native Americans spend their days drinking outside four stores that sell the equivalent of about 4 million cans of beer a year.


Walking down the street in Whiteclay, Nebraska on a weekday afternoon, chances are you will see a dozen people hanging out – standing around, seated, or sprawled out on the sidewalk — beer cans nearby. And it’s not just regular beer. Among favorites here are big cans of malt liquor, with higher alcohol content.

But that could be changing. The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission is asking the Legislature to authorize so-called “alcohol impact zones.” Executive Director Hobie Rupe says those zones could prohibit selling single cans of beer, and limit its alcohol content, in areas from Omaha to Whiteclay.

Bryan Bluebird Jr., Leah Brown Bear and George Two Bulls on a sidewalk in Whiteclay, Nebraska. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Bryan Bluebird Jr., Leah Brown Bear and George Two Bulls on a sidewalk in Whiteclay, Nebraska. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

“Unfortunately, the type of alcohol you usually see with these transient problems is usually they’re larger serving containers. They’re not the traditional 12 ounce. They’re usually 20, 24 ounces. And Instead of being 5 percent or less alcohol which is what normal beer is, 6 percent or under, they’ll be 8.5, 9, 10 percent alcohol by volume,” Rupe said.

Sitting on a stoop in Whiteclay, Leah Brown Bear says she and her friends prefer beer with higher alcohol content.

“We like to drink the other stuff – I like to drink the Camo. It’s higher,” Brown Bear said.

Asked if she would continue to come to Whiteclay if higher alcohol beer were not available, she said, “Probably not,” adding she would “probably go somewhere else, like Rushville or Chadron or Gordon to get it.”

At a recent meeting in Whiteclay, Leah White Bear Claws of the Chadron Native American Center said it would help if people from the reservation couldn’t drink there.

“I know we can’t control a person’s drinking by closing a bar because they’ll go to any other bar,” Bear Claws said. “But if you close this bar they’re going to have to go 20 miles down the road. You’re going to make it so much tougher to be an alcoholic. But right here it’s so easy.”

Nebraska Liquor Control Commission Chairman Bob Batt says he visited Whiteclay a couple of years ago, and saw people drunk on the street.

The entrance to Whiteclay, Nebraska. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The entrance to Whiteclay, Nebraska. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

“What I see is, I see a big mess. And that we have people who are killing themselves,” Batt said.

But Batt says he was accompanied by a state trooper who inspected all four stores in the town and found no violations of the state’s liquor laws.

That is not convincing to activists who want the stores closed. One is filmmaker John Maisch, (pronounced MYSCH) who last year released a documentary called “Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian.” In it, Maisch interviews Native Americans like Robert Young Dog about hanging out and drinking in Whiteclay.

“Who’s the number one guy of Whiteclay?” Maisch asks. “There’s no one – no number one guy in Whiteclay,” Young Dog replies. “Are you all equals?” Maisch asks “Yeah. What’d you guys think – recording me, thinking that(‘s the) old boss of Whiteclay? Hell no,” Young Dog said. “No bosses?” Maisch asks. “No bosses…The beer’s our boss. That’s our boss,” Young Dog said, laughing.

At last month’s meeting in Whiteclay, Arlette Loud Hawk talked about the temptation to ignore the people hanging out on the street.

“Denial is Whiteclay. You walk through there. You look at ‘em. ‘Oh no. That’s the zoo. That’s the zoo. Just keep on looking this way. Let’s not look at those Indians,” Loud Hawk said. “No, no, no, no. You know what those animals standing in Whiteclay right now (are)? Those are all from Oglala. Those are my relatives.”

Maisch is a Nebraska native who now teaches in Oklahoma and was general counsel to that state’s Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission. Maisch was blunt about how he sees the state of Nebraska’s role.

“I think that the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission – specifically its chairman Bob Batt, and its executive director Hobie Rupe — have failed to perform their duties to strictly enforce the laws of the state in the best interest of public health and safety,” Maisch said.

Batt disputes that.

“That’s a lie. That’s an absolute, total lie,” Batt said.

Rupe disputes Maisch as well.

“He doesn’t know what kind of enforcement we’ve done. If we do enforcement that doesn’t result in a violation or a transaction, he doesn’t know how much we’ve done,” Rupe said.

Activists say the stores violate the law by doing things like selling to intoxicated people and minors. Maisch says only three inspections were conducted over the last 11 years.

Nebraska State Patrol spokeswoman Deb Collins says there have been at least 11 inspections. Rupe says three stores pleaded guilty to selling to a minor in 2010, paid fines ranging from $50 to $100, and kept operating.

Rupe says making Whiteclay an alcohol impact zone would be far from a total solution.

“Would this be a tool? Yes. (But) the problems of Whiteclay and Pine Ridge are far outside of my pay grade,” Rupe said.

Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago tribe from northeast Nebraska, says he’s tired of people saying larger problems must be solved before anything can be done about Whiteclay.

“That question’s way bigger than me. I’m not elected to anything. But I know this is wrong. You don’t have to change the whole world. ‘We want to change the whole world, and then we’ll go change Whiteclay.’ That’s the logic. And I don’t understand it,” LaMere said.

Sitting with Leah Brown Bear on the stoop in Whiteclay, George Two Bulls says he wants things to change.

“Okay let’s be honest here. Let’s be honest. We’re really trying to clean up our act. Everybody. Everybody — we’re all having a hard time. Everybody’s having a hard time. And we can’t be struggling with this life, you know?” Two Bulls said.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts says he, too wants change in Whiteclay, but many suggestions have come from outsiders without local knowledge.

“There can be a brighter future for the community,” Ricketts said. “But that change will be spearheaded by individuals who have intimate knowledge of the challenges the community faces, and the vision to realize that change.”

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