Still looking forward: Bellevue University hosts Whiteclay forum

Published Wednesday April 14, 2010
THE READER (Omaha, Neb.)

BELLEVUE, NEB. — On a cold, rainy April 7 morning, Native American flute music drifted through the Humanities auditorium at Bellevue University. People have gathered for a panel discussion about Whiteclay, Neb., the tiny, unincorporated group of buildings on the border of South Dakota from which members of the neighboring Pine Ridge Indian Reservation purchase staggering amounts of alcoholic beverages annually. Typically, high unemployment — near 80% on the reservation itself — mixed with plentiful alcohol is a recipe for disaster, and Whiteclay is no exception. Rampant crime, vagrancy, gang activity, prostitution, and vandalism plague the Reservation and its surrounding areas. It has gained national recognition as a chronic tragedy, dating to at least the 1960s, which nobody seems willing to resolve.

Attendance was spotty at first, but picked up when the forum entitled “Whiteclay: The Next Generation” began. After a mournful-sounding traditional Lakota prayer, the moderator introduced the panel. Guests included Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Mark Vasina, director of the documentary Battle for Whiteclay, Frank LaMere, a prominent Indian activist and director of Four Winds Community Center, Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., Fr. Tom Merkel of Creighton Prep, Stew Magnuson, author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder and Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns, and professor Taylor Keen, director of the Native American Center at Creighton University.

The Pine Ridge reservation prohibits the consumption of alcohol and sits mostly in South Dakota, while four beer stores in Whiteclay is just 5 miles across the border in Nebraska. The ease with which people walk, hitch-hike, or drive to Whiteclay is what makes the area so intensely troubled. The audience was shown video clips of Whiteclay and Pine Ridge to drive home just how impoverished and troubled the area is. In fact, the only bright spot in the videos seemed to be the schools, which looked modern, staffed by eager teachers. Panelists agreed that economic development and education were the key solutions to the problems plaguing Pine Ridge.

“Poverty is the biggest problem on the Pine Ridge reservation,” LaMere said. He said other reservations around the country experienced similar problems, but that as soon as economic development occurs, particularly through tourism, there is a decline in alcoholism and vagrancy. He cautioned against relying too much on legal remedies, arguing “the law tends to protect economic interests over social interests. If the law could be changed to benefit the tribe, it would have been done already.” That sentiment was echoed by many involved in the issue, who believe the Nebraska government is loathe to step in because beer stores in Whiteclay are thriving.

On the reservation, the police force has been cut to less than half of its traditional level due to lack of funds. Nowadays, 12 to 20 officers per shift patrol an area the size of Rhode Island. “It’s like living in a ghetto. Someone’s getting beat up every other night,” resident Richard Wilson told The New York Times in 2009.

Professor Keen and Tom Merkel cautioned against endorsing quick solutions proposed by outsiders.

“There is a temptation to look at the problems of Whiteclay and be very paternalistic,” said Keen. “We know what’s best. But we need to approach the issue in a very humanistic, responsible way.”

Mark Vasina, a former Wall Street businessman, even envisioned a scenario where the state would step in and clamp down on the sale of alcohol in the area, likening this type of approach to how Times Square was purged of its porn shops, prostitutes, and vagrancy in the mid-to-late 1990’s. “Now Times Square is one of New York City’s number one tourist destinations, whereas 20 years ago, no one really wanted to go there,” he said. The problem, however, is that those types of methods are highly controversial. In New York, then-mayor Rudi Giuliani faced sharp criticism for using draconian methods of jailing and muscling out undesirable Times Square inhabitants.

The panelists seemed to unanimously endorse the prospect of enhancing economic opportunities through education. Unfortunately, looking forward seems to be the only thing those working for change in Whiteclay can do. On March 29, Nebraska lawmakers decided to forgo creating a fund for addressing the alcohol-related problems at Whiteclay. Citing a lack of clear strategy or participation of other government entities, the Legislature voted to withhold the $100,000 fund, and instead gave second-round approval to $25,000 and the hiring of a grant writer at $30,000. The bill was sent to Gov. Dave Heineman, who didn’t immediately indicate whether he would approve or veto it.

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