A search for solutions at Whiteclay
Published Sunday January 31, 2010
BY KEVIN ABOUREZK
LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR
Bruce BonFleur sees more than desperation, more than sadness in the eyes of the men and women he meets every day on the dusty streets of Whiteclay.
He sees hope, and he sees a desire to improve their lives.
“The street people of Whiteclay and Pine Ridge matter,” he said. “They are entitled to our help, and they are able to help themselves.”
That’s just what BonFleur wants to do: give those who spend their days and nights drinking beer in Whiteclay a chance to work and feed themselves.
But BonFleur, director of the ABOUT group, a Christian outreach ministry in Whiteclay, knows he can’t create jobs and hope alone.
“We’re looking for positive solutions,” he said, “but to get to those positive solutions, some things need to happen.”
Some things are happening, as evidenced Friday when Gov. Dave Heineman and other state officials flew to Gordon to meet with Oglala Sioux tribal leaders to explore solutions to massive alcohol sales at Whiteclay.
The meeting was part of a coordinated effort to improve conditions in the border town, an effort that has resulted in two bills introduced this session aimed at alleviating health and social ills among Native people.
Recent efforts to improve conditions for Native people have extended beyond the halls of the State Capitol, however.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln has been working with Attorney General Jon Bruning to find grant funding to help BonFleur, who has proposed building a recycling center in Whiteclay using the labor of street people in the town. He also has called for a massive cleanup of the litter-strewn village, an effort that would include tearing down abandoned buildings.
In addition, on Jan. 13, Sen. Bob Krist of Lincoln traveled to Pierre, S.D., to meet with state representatives there to talk about Whiteclay. Krist met with five representatives, including South Dakota House of Representatives Speaker Timothy Rave.
“The response was very favorable,” Krist said of the meeting.
He said Nebraska leaders can’t fix problems in Whiteclay alone and will need the help of South Dakota and federal officials.
“It’s the moral thing to do. It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Rave agreed that solutions in Whiteclay and on the Pine Ridge Reservation would require support from state and federal leaders.
He said he wouldn’t support shutting down beer stores in Whiteclay. That hasn’t been proposed this session in the Nebraska Legislature either.
Shutting down the stores, he said, would only move the problem farther down the road.
Rave also said he didn’t think South Dakota leaders would support spending money on solutions in Whiteclay this legislative session, considering the fiscal crisis his state is facing.
That’s similar to the Nebraska Legislature’s attitude toward new spending this legislative session.
“Frankly, I’m not sure that’s the answer,” he said. “I think it’s a more long-term solution to improve the whole socioeconomic scale down there.”
However, Rave said, he and other South Dakota representatives remain open to discussing other possible solutions to alcohol sales in Whiteclay.
For Coash, those solutions should include cleaning up the border town.
Given the town’s proximity to the reservation, Whiteclay could become a beacon to new businesses, he said. But first, the town needs to be cleaned up.
“If you were looking to open up a business, it’s not the kind of place you would want to go,” he said.
Abandoned properties need to be demolished. Trash needs to be picked up, and those who drink and sleep on the streets should be employed in that effort, Coash said.
To that end, Coash has connected BonFleur with Bruning’s office. He said Bruning has certain discretionary funds from settlements with companies that could be used to fund BonFleur’s recycling center and cleanup efforts.
“They just want to do good work and help,” Coash said of BonFleur’s ministry. “They just don’t know what’s available to them.”
The ABOUT group already runs a used clothing store and soup kitchen in Whiteclay, BonFleur said. The group also is establishing Lakota-operated businesses in its Whiteclay building, including a craft supply shop and a graphic designer and T-shirt printing business.
He said he hopes to host a cleanup of Whiteclay in late spring or early summer.
“We will actively seek volunteers and people who care on both sides of the border to come together for this day in Whiteclay – not to protest, but to build and improve and grow together,” he said.