Unearthing hope from beneath Whiteclay trash

Published Sunday April 25, 2010

WHITECLAY – Jack Andersen pulled beer cans and plastic bottles from a flooded ditch Saturday, trying to make a dent in the pile of garbage that had collected for untold months and years in a neglected corner of this village near Pine Ridge, S.D.

With only a light brown leather jacket to protect him from the cold wind and rain, he stuck his hands into brown muck and jerked bottles of Bud Light and cans of Camo Black Ice from the ground.

“This is kind of hopeless,” said Andersen, tossing a can into a black trash bag. “This could go on all day and not even know we did anything.”

Hopelessness isn’t anything new to Whiteclay, where four beer stores sell nearly 4 million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The town is known as a gathering place of some of the reservation’s most destitute, who drink beer under awnings and on sidewalks in plain view of travelers along Nebraska 87.

But on Saturday, more than 40 volunteers, including nearly a dozen street people, tried to bring hope to the town. Armed with black and white trash bags, ponchos and gloves, they combed the town, picking up plastic, glass and aluminum recyclables.

On a windy and rainy day that barely broke 50 degrees, the volunteers walked along the highway and back streets, trying to sweep the town of piles of trash that so clearly reflected the prevalent business here: beer sales.

A Christian outreach ministry in Whiteclay sponsored the cleanup, held two days after Earth Day. Bruce BonFleur, director of the ABOUT group, said he was happy at the turnout, though he had expected more people. He said the cold and rain likely deterred more people from taking part.

He tried not to complain about the rain, however, saying it was needed to bring moisture to the parched land and cleanse it. For his part, he hoped the cleanup might ease the spiritual drought ailing Whiteclay, he said.

If only for a few hours, that seemed to be the case Saturday as street people donned ponchos and picked up litter, laughing and teasing each other.

“They aren’t hopeless,” BonFleur said. “They aren’t uncaring. That’s why they’re helping, is because they respect what we’re doing.”

Andersen, chairman of the Sheridan County Board of Supervisors, hopes efforts to clean up Whiteclay will bring positive attention to the town, which he said has seen more than its fair share of negative attention. The town has many positive attributes, including two grocery stores and a caring business community, he said.

BonFleur also hopes efforts to clean up the town will reap rewards for Whiteclay, such as a strengthened business community and, perhaps, future economic development.

ABOUT received a $10,000 grant from Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning’s office for the cleanup, which began April 17 with a youth cleanup day and ends today with a sunrise ceremony and breakfast.

On Thursday, Nebraska state legislators and Bruning attended an opening ceremony for the event, which included dedication of a new greenhouse and recycling center which ABOUT plans to build using nearly $30,000 in federal stimulus funds provided through the Northwest Community Action Partnership, based in Chadron.

The group also plans to use the funds to start a day-labor program that would connect sober street people in Whiteclay to businesses, agencies and individuals in need of part-time labor.

On Saturday, a preview of that work program could be seen on Whiteclay’s streets, where about a dozen street people helped pick up garbage.

Among them was Bret Long Soldier, who on any other day would be drinking beer, tossing his empty cans in ditches and on the streets. But Saturday wasn’t any other day, as the 36-year-old Lakota man joined other street people helping pick up garbage.

“Nothing else to do besides drinking, so I might as well help out,” he said, bending over to pick up a bottle. “I want to see it better up here. I want to see it a lot cleaner than it is.”

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