Winnebago business leader: Poverty at heart of Whiteclay debacle

Published Wednesday April 7, 2010

BELLEVUE — A Winnebago business leader and attorney called massive beer sales in Whiteclay and alcoholism on the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation symptoms of greater economic problems on the reservation.

“If you want to do something about Whiteclay, put a factory in Whiteclay,” said Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Hochunk Inc. “Create a different environment where people don’t run to get away from the problem.”

He suggested solutions in Whiteclay — where four beer stores sell more than 4 million cans of beer a year — during a panel discussion Wednesday at Bellevue University.

The discussion featured Omaha Creighton Prep High School President Tom Merkel, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Theresa Two Bulls, who joined via video conferencing, and activists.

Videos produced by students at Red Cloud High School near Pine Ridge and at Creighton Prep were shown during the event.

This session, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill that set aside $25,000 for a grant program for economic development, law enforcement and health-related programs near Whiteclay.

Morgan said poverty is the greatest challenge in Pine Ridge, where jobs are scarce and rampant alcoholism is fed by hopelessness. He said shutting down beer stores in Whiteclay would only move the problem as tribal members bought their beer elsewhere.

Several panelists said it is up to the tribe to address underlying social problems that have led to alcoholism and a high demand for alcohol.

“We as a tribe, we need to start nation building,” Two Bulls said. “We are the only ones that can make a change.”

She said tribal laws, including prohibition, need to be enforced, although at least one panelist criticized the reservation’s alcohol ban.

Stew Magnuson, author of “The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder,” described prohibition at Pine Ridge as a complete failure.

“Whenever you have prohibition, you’re going to have places like Whiteclay.”

He said prohibition only increases demand for alcohol and leads to bootlegging, which he described as the method by which most tribal members buy alcohol from Whiteclay.

Mark Vasina, director of the documentary “Battle for Whiteclay,” said liquor laws in Whiteclay must be enforced before any kind of economic development can be successful.

“Whiteclay can be a retail and tourist hub, a major adjunct to what goes on in Pine Ridge,” he said.

Morgan offered the story of his own tribe’s economic successes as a blueprint for possible success at Pine Ridge. With a new school, hospital and housing, the Winnebago people have managed to create jobs and hope, he said.

“What we’ve been able to do is create economic prosperity, or a measure of it,” he said. “The real problem to me is poverty. If we can figure out a way to deal with it, I think we may have a way to deal with the situation.”

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