Omaha, Lincoln youth take up Whiteclay cause

Published Wednesday November 25, 2009
A View From a Washichu
BY STEW MAGNUSON

LINCOLN, Nebr. — In the state of Nebraska, if you can get anyone to show up to an author’s lecture while the Cornhuskers are playing a football game, it’s a small miracle.

But on a football Saturday two weeks ago, about 25 to 30 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus came to hear me speak about Whiteclay, Nebr., the hamlet on the Pine Ridge-Nebraska border that sells millions of cans of beer and malt liquor to the dry reservation every year.

I decided to focus the two talks I gave that weekend on the controversial community because it has been the topic of debate in the Nebraska Unicameral.

For those in the eastern part of the state, Whiteclay is somewhat of an “out of sight, out of mind” issue. The Lincoln and Omaha newspapers do occasional features on the town and have since the 1999 marches that were organized to demand justice for the deaths of Ronnie Hard Heart and Wally Black Elk, Jr. two Lakota men found dead just over the border in South Dakota.

But an interesting phenomenon has happened recently. Students from high schools and colleges in Omaha and Lincoln have taken up the cause. A Facebook page, “The Hidden Massacre of Whiteclay, Nebraska,” has more than 2,600 members. There are other pages devoted to the issue as well.

I was invited there by the UNL Political Science Honor Society. I gave the same talk the following day at a Barnes and Noble in Omaha, and a group of Millard South students, along with their teacher, came to take notes.

The fact that students who live hundreds of miles away from Pine Ridge in the eastern part of the state have taken up this cause should be heartening to the Pine Ridge residents who want the ugly part of Whiteclay to go away.

That’s because the policies that created the situation in Whiteclay and that allow the deplorable conditions there to continue are made and sustained in Lincoln, not Sheridan County, Nebr.

Although my book, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, devotes several chapters to Whiteclay, and came out in August 2008, I don’t think it has much to do with the renewed interest in the Whiteclay topic. Credit for that probably goes to documentary filmmaker Mark Vasina, who directed “The Battle for Whiteclay.”

Vasina has been tirelessly traveling from town to town all over the Great Plains showing the film to any organization or school who wants to screen it. Usually, Winnebego activist Frank LaMere comes along for the discussions that take place afterwards. Word is, Vasina never accepts any personal appearance fees — only travel expenses. He recently showed it at The New School in New York City, where the crowd numbered in the hundreds even though the Yankees were playing in a World Series game that night.

Vasina and I don’t agree on everything when it comes to Whiteclay. He came to my UNL lecture, and we had a good discussion about what would happen if the four beer sellers there suddenly no longer existed. But I think we both agree that law enforcement in the town is inadequate.

My book and his documentary compliment each other well, I believe. I take the readers from the late 1800s when “whiskey ranches” just over the border were a source of illegal alcohol, to the deaths of Hard Heart and Black Elk in 1999, and up to about early 2004, when the Tribal Council voted not to have a referendum allowing sales of alcohol on Pine Ridge. In order to keep my manuscript at a reasonable length, I had to stop my research about there.

“The Battle For Whiteclay” thoroughly documents events that happened after 2004, including all the failed efforts in Nebraska to get a handle on the problem.

At the end of the lecture, the student organizer of the UNL event, Sarah Melecki, summed up the problem best. Whiteclay is a complicated problem that is going to take complicated solutions, she said.

Will the solutions spring up from this grassroots student movement? Will the documentary push the legislature or Liquor Control Commission to take action? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, the fact that so many youth in the eastern part of Nebraska are becoming involved in this issue is something positive coming out of this very ugly situation.

A list of screenings for the documentary, study guides and how to order a DVD, can be found at: www.battleforwhiteclay.org.

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. Contact him at: www.stewmagnuson.com.

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