Ideas For Improving Whiteclay Discussed, But Obstacles Remain


September 15th, 2016

Street scene in Whiteclay, Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Street scene in Whiteclay, Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Whiteclay, Nebraska has four stores that sell millions of cans a beer each year to residents of the nearby — and officially dry — Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Now, some local people are brainstorming ideas to clean up Whiteclay. But big obstacles remain, and some critics say things won’t improve until the beer stores are shut down.

Whiteclay has a reputation as a place where people loiter and drink. But there’s more to the town than that, including a couple of cafes, a general store, and a grocery store.

Inside the Whiteclay Grocery, shoppers – most of them Native Americans — stock up on essentials. Lance Moss has owned the store for 20 years, and before that, it belonged to his parents. Moss said when he was young, a few mostly older people would come to town, buy alcohol, and then almost hide under some trees to drink. “Now, it’s just blatant. They’re setting out in front of my building,,” Moss said. “I tell them to leave and they just tell me go to hell or whatever. They don’t listen, they’re getting younger. They’re getting a little more aggressive. Something needs to change.”

People have been saying something needs to change in Whiteclay for years. Activists have pushed for Nebraska to shut down the beer stores. That’s not what Lance Moss says he wants. “People need to get off of this ‘Close the liquor store’ thing down,” he said. “For people who think that way, that’s the only thing that they’re good with. My group? That’s a nonstarter for us.”

Moss leads a local task force brainstorming ways to clean up Whiteclay. His store doesn’t sell beer, but the task force includes members from stores that do. Moss said if those stores closed, Pine Ridge residents would drive somewhere else to buy alcohol, and some would probably still drink it in Whiteclay.

It is illegal to drink on the public street. But Sheridan County Attorney Jami Simmons, another member of the task force, said there are plenty of places on private property where people  go. “There’s no one there to kick ‘em off. The property is not fenced in. It’s not posted ‘No trespassing’ or anything of that nature,” Simmons said. “So those individuals are on private property consuming that alcohol. There’s no law against drinking alcohol on private property.”

Cities and villages can pass laws against related problems like panhandling or urinating in public. But Simmons says since Whiteclay — population 10 — is unincorporated, it cannot. And Nebraska law limits what counties can do.

That is not convincing to critics like John Maisch. Maisch is an attorney who used to enforce Oklahoma’s liquor laws, and released a documentary about Whiteclay two years ago. He wants the beer stores closed. And he said Sheridan County could act against people drinking in public and the stores themselves. “I think there are plenty of current laws, both criminal and administrative, that could be enforced by Sheridan County. But they either don’t have the will to do it or they don’t have the financial ability to do it,” he said.

At a recent meeting of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, Maisch pointed to the death of Sherry Wounded Foot, a woman he said was beaten in Whiteclay, as evidence that the town is “lawless.” The Sheridan County Attorney’s offices said it is investigating.

Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins, another member of the task force, said a larger problem would not be solved by closing the beer stores. “That solution would solve some of them problems they’re having in Whiteclay alright,” Robbins said. “But I don’t think that would solve the issue that the tribe is having with alcohol on the reservation.”

That issue includes fetal alcohol syndrome, which affects an estimated one in four babies born to Pine Ridge residents.

Still, Whiteclay remains perhaps the most visible sign of the problem. Through a public records request, Maisch got a list of ideas the Whiteclay task force sent to Gov. Pete Ricketts. It includes changing state law to let counties enact more ordinances, eliminating abandoned buildings, and stationing full-time law enforcement in Whiteclay. Robbins highlighted another idea on the list. “A step forward I think would be, there’s more money from somewhere comes out to put in a detox center,” he said.

Standing with a group of people leaning against a wall outside the grocery store, Randy High Horse agrees with that idea. “That’s what I would like to see. A detox center here in Whiteclay. Because …by throwing them (people who drink on the street) in jail, by putting them in the system – that’s not working,” High Horse said.

Doug Bissonette is an administrator with the Oglala Sioux Tribe headquartered in Pine Ridge, two miles from Whiteclay. Bissonette says suggestions from the Whiteclay task force raise an important point. “It looks like it needs a lot of funding. It mentions a detox center, and that has to be ongoing all the time for the people that’s in Whiteclay and they’re going to detox them overnight. But long term, that’s probably what they need,” Bissonette said.

Sheriff Robbins made a similar point. “A lot of the stuff we’re talking about involves money – lots of money,” he said.

One idea that might not cost any public money that the tribe has discussed is legalizing alcohol on the reservation, and using some proceeds to fund treatment. Voters endorsed legalization three years ago in a referendum. But it was stopped by legal challenges. The tribal council was to vote this May to schedule another referendum, but defeated the idea in the face of protests.

Meanwhile, Lance Moss says the task force is still discussing ideas for Whiteclay. And while they want to find local solutions, Moss says law changes or funding will probably have to be approved in Lincoln. “We all realize that, in the end I think, probably the solution or the means for the solution will have to probably come from the eastern end of the state. There’s going to have to be something in the state legislature or something to pertain to us to be able to deal with this,” he said.

The Legislature reconvenes in January. Meanwhile, activists continue their efforts to shut down the beer stores. The licenses are up for their annual renewal in April.

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