History has lessons for those tackling the Whiteclay issue

Published Wednesday October 14, 2009
A View From a Washichu

Once again, the Nebraska Unicameral is taking a look at the Whiteclay issue.

It was announced that they are going to “study” the tiny hamlet that is located just south of the town of Pine Ridge, S.D., which sells millions of cans of beer per year to the “dry” reservation.

In case they miss it, let me remind Nebraska lawmakers of the role of their predecessors in the evolution of the town from what it was in the early part of the 20th Century, a small town doing business with the residents of Pine Ridge, to what it is today — the so-called “Little Skid Row on the Prairie.”

It is still a town that exists to trade with the Oglalas. There are several businesses that do not sell beer and malt liquor. But there are four that do, and they are what have given the town a bad name.

Once upon a time there were two liquor licenses in the town of Whiteclay. This was before any Indian was permitted by law to drink alcohol in the United States. Many have forgotten that Native Americans were the only race to have prohibition imposed upon it. It was illegal to sell alcohol to Indians from 1834 until 1953. Of course, that did not in any way prevent alcohol from being sold and distributed to Native Americans. Before this ban was lifted, plenty of booze went out the back doors of the two bars located in Whiteclay.

And then in 1962, the Nebraska Unicameral decided to fund full-time law enforcement in the towns of Whiteclay and Pender, Nebraska, which is near the Winnebago Reservation.

The man for the job in Whiteclay was Jim Talbot. He grew up nearby, had brothers who had married into the tribe, and was someone who knew both cultures and peoples well. He and his family lived in town and it was his job to keep an eye on things. He was by all accounts, an evenhanded lawman.

During his tenure as a deputy sheriff, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission decided it was now okay to approve two more liquor licenses. So then there were four bars.

But money became tight in Lincoln. The legislature cut off funding for the deputy sheriffs in 1974. Fulltime law enforcement in Whiteclay was gone. Did the Liquor Control Commission then suspend the two licenses they had added? Nope. The four bars were so rowdy, that Sheridan County changed the rules to make them off-sale only. Suddenly, there were men and women drinking along the road. The rowdiness just moved outside.

This chain of events is all documented in my book, “The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns.”

There is a third factor in the creation of Whiteclay that its opponents gloss over. And that’s Pine Ridge’s failed policy of prohibition. Whiteclay opponents are fighting two powerful “isms” in our society: alcoholism and capitalism.

It’s up to the citizens of Pine Ridge to decide whether it wants to sell alcohol within its borders. No outsider such as myself has the right to criticize them for making this decision. Any community that finds it reprehensible to sell a product has the right to not do so.

But I can observe that prohibition of alcohol as a policy to tackle alcoholism on Pine Ridge has been an abject failure. Prohibition always fails. Period. It failed from 1834 to 1953. It failed when the 18th Amendment was passed in 1920 and the entire nation banned booze.

Reputable scholarly research shows that during the 13 years of Prohibition in America per capita consumption of alcohol increased. Deaths to alcohol related causes increased.

Criminals such as Al Capone made loads of money selling Canadian whiskey. Exactly the opposite of what the Prohibitionists intended. Does any of this sound familiar?

In the 1970s in Omaha, 19 year olds could drink in Iowa, and they couldn’t in Nebraska. So the bars in Council Bluffs did big business. When I was in college, alcohol was not served in Lincoln on Sundays. The result? Packed bars on Sundays just past the city limit.

Alcohol, firearms, fireworks, gambling. Wherever one jurisdiction bans one, and a state nearby doesn’t, you will see nearby businesses taking advantage. The good citizens of Nebraska choose not to allow slot machine gambling in their state. For gambling can every bit as destructive as drugs and alcohol. And where does the Rosebud tribe build its casino? About three inches over the Nebraska border. So the vice goes both ways.

So the question for Pine Ridge leaders is: what is your policy to tackle alcoholism in your community? If the answer is: “We just don’t sell it here.” I’m sorry. That’s not a policy. You’re banning the sales, not the availability.

The Oglalas need to tackle the “demand” part of the equation with realistic strategies to reduce alcoholism in the community. Meanwhile, the unicameral and the Liquor Control Commission needs to right the wrongs it perpetrated in the 1960s and 1970s by providing fulltime law enforcement in Whiteclay and permanently suspending the licenses of any business that violates the law.

These suggestions are not easy to pull off. But you have to start somewhere.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns, which was recently named the 2009 Nebraska Nonfiction Book of the Year. He can be reached at: www.stewmagnuson.com

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