Tribal support could improve lives on the reservation

Published Tuesday March 30, 2010

SCOTTSBLUFF, NEB. — Over the years we’ve grown skeptical of efforts to “solve” the problem of beer sales in Whiteclay.

Much of the noise seems calculated to promote the careers of celebrity “activists” rather than address the real problem, which is rampant alcoholism on the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation. Critics of the beer merchants have always found it convenient to overlook that those buying the beer are willing customers who would simply look elsewhere if the Whiteclay stores were shut down.

We’ve always detected a whiff of racism in the notion that the Great White Fathers in Lincoln should address the issue rather than the Lakota people themselves. After all, the reservation bans alcohol, and one way to curb the problem would be to aggressively address the bootlegging that takes place at the border. Until the tribe and its members get fully behind the effort to make life better on the reservation, shuttering Whiteclay would provide only a temporary fix.

Now, however, a few glimmers of real hope are emerging.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe plans to build a nursing home across the Nebraska border near Whiteclay that will create up to 100 jobs in the area. The tribe’s consultant, Gary Ruse, says there are about 200 tribe members in Midwest nursing homes who want to return to the reservation. Although most of the tribe’s land is in South Dakota, Ruse says Nebraska has been more cooperative in the tribe’s efforts to building the facility. South Dakota has long had a moratorium on such facilities. The 60-bed nursing home is expected to cost $10 million. The tribe hopes to break ground on tribal land in Nebraska in late spring or early summer, with completion in fall 2011.

Nebraska plans to take steps as well. Lawmakers have given second-round approval to an amendment and bill (LB1002) to provide $100,000 [sic] that could eventually be used to help build an alcohol treatment enter or increase law enforcement in Whiteclay.

Meanwhile, 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. And a religious-based group that runs a soup kitchen and craft mall in Whiteclay is holding a community-wide cleanup April 22-25. It will be funded by a $10,000 grant from the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.

Hope, jobs and lifestyle changes will go further than protests and dire documentary films to improve lives in Whiteclay.

“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, who is a sponsor of the bill to create an alcohol detoxification or treatment facility.

What is often unmentioned in discussions about Whiteclay is that there are other businesses there that don’t sell alcohol and serve the retail needs of tribal members, as well as providing jobs. More jobs, alcoholism treatment and improved law enforcement might not get as much media attention, but they’re more likely to do some actual good.

It’s too soon to predict whether the efforts will be successful. Whiteclay has been a long-running tragedy on many levels. But if tribal members are willing to work at solution, other people are willing to help. That’s a big improvement over paternalism and finger-pointing, which have produced little in the way of progress over the years.

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