Drink, and despair, around every corner in Whiteclay

Published Sunday March 8, 2009

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, along with the producer of a recent documentary film about the town, conducted a tour Friday for two state senators and a member of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

WHITECLAY, Neb. — His eyes reddened and nose disfigured by years of alcohol abuse, Brett Long Soldier guarded a black plastic garbage bag of discarded beer cans as if it were a bag of jewels.

The cans would eventually be redeemed for cash, good for the next can of beer for the 35-year- old who lives on the streets of this border town.

A tall can of Hurricane, the preferred malt liquor here, costs $1.50.

The spot where Long Soldier spends his days is marked in graffiti. “Lambi” (his nickname) is spray painted on the wall of a boarded-up storefront.

“What are you wasichus doing here,” shouted Eli Bald Eagle, using a derogatory term for white people, as he approached on diabetes-swollen legs, bracing himself with a cane.

“Don’t you know, this is the way we live, this is the way we drink and this is the (expletive) way we’re going to die,” Bald Eagle, 47, said. “There’s no way anybody’s going to change that.”

Misery is not hard to find in Whiteclay.

What is hard to find are answers to the wretched alcoholism, poverty and Third World conditions of this dusty collection of buildings along Highway 87 in extreme northwest Nebraska.

Whiteclay is home to 14 residents, several dozen street people, two cafes, two grocery stores, a soup kitchen and four liquor stores.

The liquor stores sell 3.2 million cans of beer a year — almost all to residents of the adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol sales and possession are banned and alcohol-related problems are rampant. Unemployment on the reservation is estimated up to 80 percent.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, along with the producer of a recent documentary film about the town, conducted a tour Friday for two state senators and a member of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

The lawmakers, Russ Karpisek of Wilber and Colby Coash of Lincoln, and Liquor Commissioner Bob Batt of Omaha walked away shaking their heads at the spectacle of a place known as “skid row of the Plains.”

“It’s like freakin’ Beirut,” said Coash, a freshman senator whose grandfather ran a gas station in Whiteclay two decades ago.

“The Battle for Whiteclay” documentary has rekindled the debate about alcohol sales here and the exploitation of American Indians. Mark Vasina, an activist with Nebraskans for Peace and the film’s producer, helped lead the tour.

It came 10 years after the murders of two street people in Whiteclay brought waves of national publicity, protests and visits by politicians. The killings remain unsolved.

“If this was going on in any white community in Nebraska, they would do something about it,” Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Indian Commission, said from her office in Lincoln.

“But when brown people are dying,” she said, “it doesn’t seem that people are so concerned.”

Batt disputed that statement. He said he took the commission post last year to “make a difference.”

Toward that end, he conducted impromptu inspections of the four liquor stores with a state trooper. But like other enforcement efforts in the past, the checks failed to turn up evidence of liquor law violations.

The four current liquor license holders have one violation among them in the past decade: a charge of selling to a minor.

Vasina, though, told the visitors that violations occur every day in Whiteclay. They just are not detected by authorities.

Street people, he said, tell him they can sell government-issued commodities, such as cheese and hamburger, to stores in Whiteclay in exchange for cash or credit for beer. He said he has talked to women who say they’ve exchanged sex for alcohol.

Batt didn’t expect to find evidence of those violations, but he felt compelled to check anyway. He’d been forewarned by Vasina and Bruning that even unannounced visits to Whiteclay somehow become known in advance.

Bruning pledged to push again for more effective law enforcement in Whiteclay, asking that the specifics not be disclosed. He made the same pledge last month after a screening of Vasina’s documentary: that he’d show state decision makers what he has seen in Whiteclay.

“It’s not enough to do nothing. We’ve got to do something,” Bruning said.

Karpisek, chairman of the legislative committee that deals with alcohol matters, said after the visit that he’d seek an interim study by lawmakers on what can be done about Whiteclay.

Coash said that perhaps the best step would be to help fund the soup kitchen that opened here two years ago. It’s operated by Hands of Faith Ministries.

Batt said Whiteclay is a symptom of much bigger problems: joblessness, substance abuse and hopelessness that plague the Pine Ridge reservation, which last year had the second-lowest per capita income in the country.

“This problem is 150 years old,” he said. “It doesn’t start in the beer stores. You have to have an alternative” to alcohol.

Tim Giago, a well-known Lakota newspaperman and columnist who grew up on the reservation, said the town will be cleaned up only if the tribe and its members deal with the alcoholism problems.

Giago said closing down the liquor stores would simply force people farther down the road to buy beer, leading to more highway deaths. He voiced a common but often-rejected suggestion: to allow alcohol sales on the reservation, with the proceeds used to battle the problems.

Sobriety efforts on the reservation may be having some effect, said Giago and Kevin Killer of Pine Ridge, recently elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives. There’s greater shame in drinking, they said, and greater emphasis on staying sober, though programs on the reservation are lacking.

According to the Nebraska liquor commission, liquor sales in Whiteclay have been slowly dropping in recent years. They declined 6 percent over a four-year period, to 395,302 gallons of beer in 2008.

That’s still about 28,000 gallons per resident of Whiteclay. And at least one store clerk here said the decline is due more to price increases.

Vasina said he was encouraged by the response of the Whiteclay visitors Friday. He had urged them not to be overwhelmed by the vast problems here but focus on what small steps might be taken toward an eventual solution.

On the streets, the panhandlers, though friendly, didn’t seem to care.

They said they were glad there’s a soup kitchen in town now and wish there were warmer places to crash than the vacant buildings and cardboard shacks where they pass out now.

When asked by Karpisek if the street people would use a rehabilitation center if one were built, Frank Jealous of Him, a 31-year-old former tribal cop, responded, “Nah.”

“Some people have problems,” he said. “We turn to alcohol.”

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One Response to “Drink, and despair, around every corner in Whiteclay”

  1. Righting a Century of Wrongs: Whiteclay, Nebraska | OpenForum - a blog by the Health and Human Rights community Says:

    [...] Nebraska, population 14 (more or less) has been called the “skid row of the plains” for its four liquor stores, which all do brisk business — [...]

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