Whiteclay is wrong target; aim at alcoholism problem

Published February 12, 2009

Critics continue to shoot at the wrong target in their indignation about the fact that four beer-only liquor stores in tiny Whiteclay, Nebraska sell more than four million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Emotional, irrational indignation, waxing and waning for years, has flared high again, fueled by a documentary film entitled “The Battle for Whiteclay.”

One critic has described the Whiteclay beer sales as a “boil” on the face of Nebraska.

Attorney General Jon Bruning, never reluctant to take a publicly-popular side in a controversial public issue, has declared: “It is a sad situation, and we need to do more…I’m not done trying.”

Good Intentions Not Enough

Members of a Creighton Prep theology class said they are launching a petition drive to urge President Obama to overturn a 1904 order signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. Until the 1904 order took effect, federal policy had been to forbid alcohol sales within a five-mile buffer zone around the legally “dry” Pine Ridge Reservation.

Ending the buffer zone meant that Whiteclay, just south of the Nebraska line at the edge of the Pine Ridge reservation, would fall within the no-alcohol restriction if the buffer zone were revived.

A great deal of indignation over Whiteclay and all those beer sales, but it is totally off target. If Whiteclay is a “boil,” then the alcoholism rampant on the Pine Ridge Reservation is a cancer, a tremendously more serious problem than liquor sales in Whiteclay.

As a practical, non-emotional issue, shutting down beer sales in Whiteclay would simply drive the beer-drinkers to travel from their supposedly “dry” reservation to other northern Nebraska communities like Chadron, Hay Springs, Rushville and Gordon, increasing the potential for drunken driving by virtue of longer distances from the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Are the well-intentioned anti-Whiteclay crusaders aware of the fact that a number of the Indian reservations in South Dakota—in contrast to the Pine Ridge Reservation north of Whiteclay—allow liquor sales on the reservations, where they are subject to tribal control?

Look At Other Reservations

Interestingly—although apparently unknown to or ignored by the anti-Whiteclay zealots—the very large Rosebud Indian Reservation some 30 miles due east of the Pine Ridge Reservation is one of several South Dakota reservations which allow liquor sales. Also apparently unbeknownst to or disregarded by the Whiteclay-focused crusaders is the fact that beer sales are allowed in five communities within the Winnebago and Omaha Indian Reservations in Thurston County in Nebraska.

Beer can be bought at eight (that’s right, eight) locations in Pender, four in Emerson, three in Walthill, two in Rosalie and one in Thurston.

In short, I think a strong case can be made that instead of hyperventilating about Whiteclay, Nebraska, the anti-Whiteclay crusaders should turn all that firepower on Pine Ridge tribal leaders, urging that the symptoms of alcoholism be addressed closer to where the alcoholics live; i.e., on the reservation.

With well-intentioned, friendly pressure should come a commitment to work hard to help the tribe overcome, or at least alleviate, the alcoholism problem, by working to help create jobs and doing anything else that can reasonably be done to get at the root causes of the alcoholism.

That certainly would be a worthy undertaking for an indignant filmmaker and newspaper columnist and attorney general and earnest young high school students.

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