Three rays of hope brighten outlook for Whiteclay
Published Monday March 29, 2010
BY PAUL HAMMEL
LINCOLN — After years of effort and scores of meetings, there is good news about Whiteclay, the Nebraska border town known as the “skid row of the Plains”:
– The Oglala Sioux Tribe, along with a group of Nebraskans, announced success in a complicated six-year effort to locate a 70-bed nursing home near Whiteclay.
– A faith-based nonprofit is getting a $30,000 federal stimulus grant to create jobs by starting a recycling business, greenhouse and possibly a day-labor endeavor.
– A religious-based group that runs a soup kitchen and craft mall in Whiteclay is holding a communitywide cleanup April 22 through 25. It will be funded by a $10,000 grant from the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.
These developments represent an about-face from past grim reports on Whiteclay.
The town’s four beer stores have been blamed for a slew of alcohol-related problems on the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, just across the Nebraska state line.
“God told me that he was going to transform Whiteclay when we came here six years ago,” said Bruce BonFleur of the ABOUT Group, the nonprofit. “Now all of this is coming together.”
Since the still-unsolved slayings in 1999 of two street people in Whiteclay, the town has drawn national notoriety for its immense beer sales — more than 3 million cans of beer a year — and its link to the rampant alcoholism, alcohol-related violence and other problems on the reservation.
But after numerous protests, dozens of special law enforcement efforts and several visits by politicians, the beer stores remain open and the street people are still drinking, urinating and passing out on the streets.
But the prospect of 100 new nursing home jobs is raising hope.
Some say if you tear down the dilapidated buildings, clean up the trashy lots and bring employment, Whiteclay could be cleaned up.
“When you have zero jobs up there and you go from zero to 100, that has to be an improvement,” said State Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth. His northwest district includes Whiteclay.
For many years, the Oglala Sioux have been seeking help to build a nursing home. But South Dakota has long had a moratorium on such facilities.
With the help of Louden and former Gordon, Neb., banker Gary Ruse, the tribe maneuvered through a web of federal and state red tape to obtain permission to build the nursing home on tribal-owned land on the Nebraska side of the border.
One concern was how to ensure that the State of Nebraska is not responsible for the Medicare costs of the mostly South Dakota residents who will live in a nursing home in Nebraska.
Tribal Chairman Theresa Two Bulls said the facility should be open by the fall of 2011, allowing the elderly to be close to their families in Pine Ridge, S.D., the headquarters of the tribe.
Louden said an alcohol detoxification or treatment facility is still being pursued in conjunction with the nursing home.
He has a bill pending in the Legislature to allocate $100,000 for Whiteclay to pay a grant writer to seek matching funds for treatment facilities or law enforcement in the town. Budget concerns, however, make final adoption uncertain.
The grants for the ABOUT Group grew out of a 2009 trip to Whiteclay hosted by Attorney General Jon Bruning. It was inspired by a documentary film on the lack of progress in addressing the drunkenness and despair of the place.
Sens. Russ Karpisek of Wilber and Colby Coash of Lincoln launched a legislative interim study on Whiteclay, and that led to the possibility of obtaining grants for a general cleanup of the town.
Coash said he’s a believer in the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement that if petty crimes are not tolerated and property damage is promptly repaired, bigger problems and bigger crimes will go away.
He said the result may be that there’s “more respect” for Whiteclay, fewer street people and a better atmosphere for business. Coash has relatives who live in Whiteclay, which has two grocery stores and a couple of cafes.
BonFleur said he’s hoping to employ a handful of people to collect aluminum cans and other recyclables and by starting a greenhouse and a day-labor business.
The cleanup may include painting over graffiti on main street buildings and demolishing some of the empty structures that dot Whiteclay’s weedy lots.
“So many people told us nothing was going to change, it’s always going to be the same,” BonFleur said. “This means some hope for people on the reservation and in a place with such a dark and sordid history.”