Oglala Sioux break ground on nursing home


July 19th, 2011

White Clay, NE – For decades, the tiny town of Whiteclay in northwestern Nebraska’s panhandle has been a sore spot, known primarily as a place where Native Americans from the Pine Ridge Reservation, just across the border in South Dakota, come to buy beer and drink.

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But now, there’s a new promise for Whiteclay. The Oglala Sioux Tribe is planning to build a nursing home there. (Click here for the tribe’s nursing home webpage.)

Wilmer Mesteth and Tom Poor Bear bless the ground where the nursing home is to be built. (Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

On a recent warm, sunny morning, people were already beginning to gather on the streets of the town to drink, recreating a scene that’s earned Whiteclay nicknames like “Skid Row on the Prairie.” Last year, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, enough beer to fill nearly 5 million 12 ounce cans was sold by four beer stores in Whiteclay, whose population was listed by the Census Bureau as 10.

But on this day, in a grassy field just south of town, others were gathering for a loftier purpose.

Several dozen people listened as Wilmer Mesteth offered a prayer in Lakota for a groundbreaking ceremony for a nursing home. Abraham Tobacco sang the Sioux national anthem.

Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele talked about the importance of the nursing home.

“We’ve got a lot of elderly here, we’ve got a lot of elderly out in nursing homes, lonely, no one to visit,” he said. “We want to bring them home.”

Gary Ruse, a former banker from Gordon and a consultant to the tribe, talked about a survey he said showed the need for such a facility.

We found out there’s between two and three hundred Native American elders that are housed in nursing homes all over South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana. From this tribe, over 300.

“And they want to come home,” he continued. “I get calls every day: When is the nursing home going to open? When can we apply for a job? When can we bring grandma or grandpa?'”

The tribe is hoping to get loans totaling $13 million from the Shakopee Tribe in Minnesota to build the facility, which they would repay with Medicaid reimbursement for the home’s residents. Shakopee officials say they’re still reviewing the loan request.

If things go as Oglala Sioux tribal officials hope they will, the home would open in August of 2012. Plans call for it to have 60 beds, with room to expand by another 20, and it would employ 75 to 100 people – a much-needed boost for a reservation with high unemployment.

It hasn’t been easy to get the nursing home approved. Steele says the tribe tried first to work with South Dakota, but that state had a moratorium on new nursing home beds.

So, even though the vast majority of tribal lands are in South Dakota, officials turned to Nebraska. And while past efforts to get this state to crack down on beer sales in Whiteclay have been unsuccessful, on this project, Steele said, there’s been cooperation.

Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele and Nebraska State Senator LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth at Whiteclay nursing home groundbreaking. (Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

“We really thank the State of Nebraska for working with us,” he said.

Steele credited Nebraska state Senator LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth for helping make the project viable. Louden said one key is that even though money to pay for the nursing home patients’ care will pass through Nebraska’s Medicaid program, it will be all federal money, with no cost to state taxpayers.

The fact that the nursing home site is on the Nebraska side of the state line also has historical significance, said Wilmer Mesteth, the tribe’s historic preservation officer.

“They call this place ‘wihuta okatan’ – it means, ‘where they drive the stakes of the lodges down.’ That’s what it was called by the Lakota people in 1879. The camp in the early reservation was spread all the way over to…about two miles from here, and all the way up to Pine Ridge.”

Since then, a lot has happened, including the government adding 50 square miles in Nebraska to the reservation in the late 1800s, but then taking away most of it in the early 1900s, a move whose legality is still contested by many Native Americans.

Given that contentious history, some non-Natives might be expected to voice concerns about the tribe building in Nebraska. But Jack Andersen, a commissioner for Sheridan County, which includes Whiteclay, said that’s not the case so far as he knows.

“To be honest with you, I haven’t heard any objections,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised by that …”

Andersen pointed out that Whiteclay already has more businesses than just the beer stores – groceries, for example – and he says the proposed nursing home promises more economic benefits.

“My feeling is that anything that provides jobs in and around Sheridan County will provide money for people, whether they live on the reservation or whether they live in Sheridan County,” he said. “Some of that money might get spent in places like Rushville, Whiteclay, Gordon and Hay Springs. And any money that comes into the area is a benefit to Sheridan County.”

Steele said building the nursing home in Whiteclay might help lessen the problems associated with the town.

“This possibly will impact the consumption of alcohol, not only in Whiteclay but just also the general idea of people going there to visit elderly and their family members and their own family members going there, that people will stop purchasing alcohol there,” he said.

Whether or not that hope will be realized will become clearer if the nursing home begins operations as planned a little more than a year from now.

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