Battle for Whiteclay rages at UNO

Published Friday November 13, 2009
BY EMILY JOHNSON
THE GATEWAY (University of Nebraska at Omaha)

About 60 people assembled in the Milo Bail Student Center Nebraska Room at noon on Tuesday to discuss an issue that has been weighing heavily on the minds of Native Americans and their advocates in Nebraska.

Taylor Keen of Creighton University, a professor of business and director of Creighton’s Native American Center, presented a lecture called “The Tragedy of Whiteclay, Nebraska: Alcohol and Sovereignty” as part of UNO’s Native American Heritage Month’s lineup of events.

The official documentary “The Battle for Whiteclay” will be shown in the student center on Nov. 17 at noon.

The lecture was preceded by a video presentation created by students from Creighton Prep high school explaining the problem of Whiteclay, Neb.

In Whiteclay, population of 14, four alcohol stores exist, profiting almost solely off the local Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which lies mostly within South Dakota. The reservation’s boundaries end only 200 feet from Whiteclay, prompting Oglala Sioux tribal members to drive off-reservation and buy alcohol to drink both on- and off-reservation.

“I think anyone who watches these situations is going to have a visceral response from seeing the devastation,” Keen said. “The basic facts are that 80 percent of the population of Pine Ridge are considered alcoholics.”

Most reservations formed treaties prohibiting alcohol around the turn of the 20th century. The federal government set up 50-mile buffer zones around the reservations in which alcohol couldn’t be sold.

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt legally exempted Whiteclay, removing the buffer zone at its citizens’ request to bring commerce to Pine Ridge. The State of Nebraska Liquor Commission currently makes the sale of alcohol at Whiteclay legal, Keen said.

Today, Whiteclay’s four stores sell the equivalent of 4.5 million 12-ounce cans of beer annually, selling 12,500 cans a day, according to The Battle For Whiteclay Web site.

“One hundred years later, all that’s left is the sale of alcohol,” Keen said. “This is barely even considered a township. No churches, no post office, no police force, for sure. Its sole existence is to provide alcohol to citizens on Pine Ridge.”

Keen presented solutions that have been discussed over the years, from the effects of reinstating a buffer zone to eliminating the reservation’s prohibition policy.

Another option he and attendees examined is the possibility of somehow taking the some $300,000 a year Pine Ridge residents are spending on Whiteclay alcohol and using it to improve reservation conditions.

For intstance, poverty on Indian reservations the worst in the nation. The life expectancy on reservations is 50 years old, compared to the national average of 78 years old.

Keen feels an extended buffer zone is not an effective resolution.

“To me, the only effective solution is that the sovereigns themselves should come to a solution, so that means members from the governor’s office of the State of Nebraska, the governor’s office in South Dakota, the elected leadership of Pine Ridge and hopefully, a whole bunch of concerned citizens,” he said. “You get all of the sovereigns who have a stake in the situation come to an agreement and say, ‘We’re going to stop this.’ Everyone just passes the buck to each other. To me it’s the biggest social injustice issue in Nebraska, if not the U.S.”

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