Don’t give up Whiteclay battle

Published Saturday February 6, 2010

In a year in which spending measures are squashed in the Legislature almost before the ink dries, it’s encouraging that a few bills have been introduced to do something about the festering problem in Whiteclay.

As many Nebraskans know after a decade of media attention — including a film, “The Battle for Whiteclay,” directed and produced by Mark Vasina of Lincoln — four stores in the tiny village sell about 4 million cans of beer a year.

The tiny village reeks of misery. Drunks sleep in the street. Fights break out. Public urination and defecation are common.

The town is a source of much of the booze that fuels rampant alcoholism on the Pine Ridge Reservation just across the state border in South Dakota. The reservation has one of the highest alcoholism-related mortality rates in the country, Terryl Blue-White Eyes told state senators at a hearing last year.

A bill that would divert money that the state collects in sales tax on the beer sold in Whiteclay to fund alcohol treatment and health facilities, as well as economic development and law enforcement efforts, was introduced by Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, whose district includes Whiteclay.

Because the state already has collected millions in sales tax revenue over the years, the diversion to alcohol treatment in this special case seems overdue.

The bill would earmark 70 percent of the sales tax revenue on booze collected within a 30-mile radius of Whiteclay — about $270,000 a year. The bill also would apply to Macy in the Omaha Indian Reservation.

Other bills to fund treatment facilities in the Whiteclay area and to boost state fees on alcohol shipping have been introduced by Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber.

Karpisek, Louden, Gov. Dave Heineman, Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Patrol Superintendent Bryan Tuma and Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln met with Oglala Sioux tribal leaders in western Nebraska last month.

David Rooks, a columnist for the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota, who said he spent two years “as a raging alcoholic, staring bleary-eyed over the counter of a beer cooler onto White Clay’s benighted street,” wrote “periodically, the moral and spiritual decay of this apparently Godforsaken little burgh reaches critical mass. This sends out a psychic wave of negative energy that tweaks the consciences of legislators and journalists alike.”

Rooks added that it “should be a source of shame for every self-respecting tribal member to be standing by expecting some, however well intended, half-baked solution for Whiteclay from the federal government or state legislatures.”

Certainly it’s true, as Rooks indicates, that the Lakota themselves should take it upon themselves to be part of the solution. But it’s also true that after all these years of benefit from this wretchedness, Nebraska state government should do its part.

Perhaps by using some of the state’s beer revenue for treatment, a critical mass can be reached that will produce permanent improvement to the tragedy that is Whiteclay.

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