Whiteclay a village on the edge

Published Sunday July 18, 2010

WHITECLAY, Neb. — Business is booming in Whiteclay, and it’s not just the 4.6 million cans of beer sold there last year.

Many people know Whiteclay as the small, unincorporated village on the border of Nebraska and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a tiny spot on the map with a big alcohol problem. It’s where four beer stores sold 191,649 cases of beer in 2009, according to the Nebraska Liquor Commission. That translates into about 4.6 million cans.

But two Whiteclay business owners said few people realize the border town is also the place that sold $2.7 million worth of groceries in 2009.

Vic Clarke, manager of Arrowhead Foods in Whiteclay, and Lance Moss, owner of the town’s other grocery store, Whiteclay Grocery, each did more than $1.3 million worth of business last year, without selling a single can of beer. They sell food and general merchandise, but no alcohol in their stores. At least 95 percent of their grocery customers come from Pine Ridge, people like Ron and Daniel Clifford, who drive 2 miles to Whiteclay almost daily to shop.

“No tax,” said Ron Clifford of his grocery shopping trips to Nebraska. “If we got the gas money, we’ll go to Chadron.” The nearest Wal-Mart is located in Chadron, 45 miles from Pine Ridge.

Nebraska exempts food products from its 5-½-cent sales tax, something that South Dakota doesn’t do.

And food prices are generally considered lower at the Whiteclay stores than they are at Sioux Nation Shopping Center’s grocery store in Pine Ridge village, owned by Cohen’s Wholesale out of Illinois.

On June 10, the Cliffords were among an estimated 1,000 customers who shopped for groceries in Whiteclay. At 12 a.m. on the 10th of each month, electronic food stamp cards are activated with the recipient’s monthly credits and by the time Moss opens his store at 8 a.m., people are waiting in line to shop. Parking lots are crowded and traffic jams the one paved road that passes through town.

“I’ll do one week’s worth of business in one day,” said Moss, who had sales receipts of about $24,000 on June 10.

The story is much the same across the street at Arrowhead Foods, where Clarke, the former owner, adds an extra cashier or two just to handle the monthly rush of shoppers. Neither store sells beer, wine or liquor, but Clarke proudly points out that he did sell $42,000 worth of broasted chicken in 2009.

“That’s a lot of broasted chicken,” he said.


There are many reasons people drive from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay, and beer is just one of them, said Moss, a 41-year-old second-generation grocery store owner. Moss bought Whiteclay Grocery in 2000, a business he grew up in when his parents owned it until the 1980s. His mother, Cathy Anderson, runs the Whiteclay post office where about 50 people get their mail. The post office is located in the grocery store,

People come to Whiteclay to get their lawnmowers fixed and their chainsaws repaired. They come to buy used cars and to eat in the town cafe or its newly-opened drive-through burger shop.

Customers also come to town to shop for tools, tennis shoes and horse tack at Abe’s New & Used.

Norma Blacksmith and her niece Robyn Two Crow have more work than they can handle at the newly opened Native Quilting Shop. Blacksmith recently moved her longtime star quilting business out of her house in Pine Ridge and into a building in Whiteclay owned by the ABOUT Group, a local ministry that has been active in Whiteclay for six years.

And ever since the state of South Dakota raised taxes on cigarettes by $1 per pack in 2007, more reservation residents drive across the state line to purchase cigarettes in Whiteclay. Cigarette sales have quadrupled at his store, Moss said.

“A third of my total sales is probably cigarettes,” he said.

There are 20 businesses listed by the Nebraska Department of Revenue in the Whiteclay zip code, four of them off-sale beer stores. In 2009, Whiteclay businesses did almost $5 million ($4,965,000) in taxable sales, up from $4.2 million in 2008 and $3.9 million in 2007, according to Doug Ewald, Nebraska tax commissioner.


The four beer “stores” — Jumping Eagle Inn; D&S Pioneer Service; State Line Liquor and Arrowhead Inn — are little more than big beer cooler storage units fronted by a sales counter in a small public area.

At the Arrowhead Inn, the beer cooler is an enormous L-shaped room in a former filling station that is kept at 40 degree. Beer is stacked 9 feet high.

The front of the package beer store is a counter, with several doors behind it that all lead to the cooler.

The beer stores comprise the majority of the net taxable sales in Whiteclay, but exact sales tax numbers from individual businesses are considered proprietary information and not available to the public. Jumping Eagle is owned by Stuart Kozal; D&S Pioneer is owned by Douglas and Steve Sanford; State Line is owned by Clay Brehmer and Arrowhead Inn is owned by Jason Schwarting, who also owns Arrowhead Foods.

Overall beer sales in Whiteclay have risen three years in a row; from nearly 400,000 gallons in 2007 to 426,586 gallons in 2008 and 431,207 gallons in 2009.

Clarke counts himself among five or six permanent residents of Whiteclay. He has lived in Whiteclay since 1993 in a five-bedroom house that’s attached to Arrowhead Foods, which was formerly VJ’s Market when he owned it. Clarke sold the store to Schwarting in 2008, but continues to manage it.

Others put Whiteclay’s population at 14, and according to the U.S. Census, 62 people live in the Whiteclay zip code, which covers a wider area of northern Sheridan County. Whatever its official population, 4.6 million cans of beer makes for a whopping “per capita” beer sales figure.

“You always hear in the media about how Whiteclay has the highest ‘per capita beer sales in the world,’” Clarke said. “Given our population, I probably sell more broasted chicken per capita than any place in the world, too. I bet I sell more hamburger per capita than anybody in the nation.”

With a 5-½ percent state sales tax in Nebraska, approximately $273,000 in sales tax was collected in Whiteclay in 2009, Ewald estimated.

That number doesn’t include motor vehicle taxes paid by used car dealers in Whiteclay or the $133,674 in state excise taxes and $250,100 in federal excise taxes that Whiteclay alcohol sales produced in 2009. Excise taxes are paid by the beer distributors out of Gering and Scottsbluff that service Whiteclay.

As a business owner, Moss doesn’t think Whiteclay gets its money’s worth in public services for the taxes that it sends to Lincoln each year.

“There’s really no public services in Whiteclay,” said Moss, who lives two miles south of town.

There is no municipal water source, or much in the way of public infrastructure in Whiteclay. Residents and businesses have private septic system for sewage disposal and garbage is burned in incinerators or barrels, since there is no commercial garbage collection in Whiteclay.

Its public safety needs are handled by either the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Department or the Nebraska Highway Patrol. Sometimes the Pine Ridge ambulance service sends emergency medical personnel for medical needs across the state line.

But Moss is also a pragmatist about the social problems that plague Whiteclay. He takes a fatalistic view of the alcohol-addicted vagrants who line its streets most day, panhandling customers who come and go from his grocery store.

“It is what it is,” Moss said. Nothing will change in Whiteclay until one of two things happens, he said: Individuals either make the choice to get off the streets or law enforcement removes them.

Moss rarely calls the sheriff or highway patrol to deal with troublesome vagrants, because law enforcement’s presence causes more problems for his paying customers than it solves with the vagrants, he said. He accuses police of ignoring the vagrants and taking down license plate numbers of people shopping in his store. Compliance checks for liability insurance, or issuing tickets for busted headlights, is often the result.

“The cop’s presence, it hurts business,” he said.

The Cliffords were back in Whiteclay on June 11, shopping for used tools from Lew Abold at his general merchandise store.

That day, as many others, they encountered their cousin J.J.Winters, one of 20 or so people loitering in Whiteclay. Vagrants sleep on the sidewalk, drink in abandoned buildings and wander Whiteclay panhandling for money to buy another beer.

Winters asked for money and a smoke, but only got a cigarette from his cousins.

Like many Native Americans, the Cliffords often feel an obligation to give money, food or a ride back home to Pine Ridge to their relatives that they encounter on the streets of Whiteclay.

“That way, they’re not bothering other people,” Ron explained.

Blacksmith, 70, said the addicted street people — some of whom are her relatives — are bothering her and others. She takes the opposite approach with them.

“They know they’re going to get preached at by me,” Blacksmith said. “I tell them Lakota warriors are not alcoholics and drug addicts.”


Bruce Bonfleur, director of the ABOUT Group’s 555 Whiteclay Christian ministry, thinks the days are “numbered” for Whiteclay vagrants, in part because their daily existence is finally being acknowledged in the halls of state government in Lincoln.

Whiteclay is ready for transformation, said Bonfleur, and he has big plans for what it should look like.

He organized an April clean-up, Whiteclay Redux, 2010, with the help of a $10,000 state grant. The cleanup fell far short of his goals to demolish abandoned buildings.

His vision of the new, improved Whiteclay would have an aluminum can recycling facility; a commercial greenhouse operation, Green Tipi Gardens; a day labor program and a variety of Lakota artists marketing their crafts directly to tourists, as Blacksmith and Two Crows do.

Whiteclay should be the gateway to cultural tourism opportunities on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, not a repository for street people, he said,

Clarke is frustrated by Bonfleur’s approach to Whiteclay’s vagrant problem, something that Clarke accuses the ministry of increasing over the years by putting out a welcome mat of free meals and warm blankets. He has seen other ministries come and go through Whiteclay over the years and admits he’s suspicious of their motives and their results.

“Are we not enabling?” Clarke asks, naming a litany of free goods and services, including a disc golf course that Bonfleur offers in town.

Another ministry, Hands of Faith, serves three meals a week — two lunches and one breakfast — at 555 Whiteclay. A filthy couch that’s losing its stuffing sits in the shade outside the ministry’s building, providing a comfortable seat on a hot day.

But Bonfleur said his ministry has switched gears to provide more work opportunities, and fewer handouts, to vagrants. It was recently the recipient of a $30,000 partnership grant from the Northwest Community Action Partnership in Chadron. Those American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds will pay for a day labor program and the planned greenhouse in Whiteclay, under the auspices of ABOUT.

The economic reality of Whiteclay is especially apparent in the location of the new drive-through burger shop managed by Michelle Talbot. It is housed in the back of the Arrowhead Inn beer store, in what was once a laundromat.

So the beer sales that contribute to exploitation and addiction on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation also provide a place for Talbot to run a thriving business that employs two people and provides a much needed service.

“There wasn’t any place to get a burger after 6 p.m.,” Talbot said.

The long-running battle to eliminate the human problems posed by Whiteclay may hinge on finding some way to balance the tensions between the sale of beer and the sale of everything else, including Talbot’s burgers.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com.

Jomay Steen contributed to this story.

(16) Comments

badger123 said on: July 23, 2010, 11:03 am
The Pine Ridge reservation’s tribal government needs to have a business branch that can build a mega store and mini mall or partnership with Walmart to provide services to the reservation residents. Keep those dollars on the reservation while providing employment for tribal members. If you don’t have the transportation to travel to Chadron, Rapid City, ect., you end up paying up to quadruple the price for an item you need at Sioux Nation. I think this is a good bet for the tribe to generate income and fullfil a need rather than the ill-conceived mining/carbon credit schemes.

Itsjustmyopinion said on: July 20, 2010, 6:17 pm
And I have to argue WicazoTanka I believe that there are many more than 12,000 people living on the reservation.

Itsjustmyopinion said on: July 20, 2010, 6:15 pm
Poor store owner… police presence hurts his business. What about unexplained deaths in White Clay? Maybe if there was more prevalent police presence, people wouldn’t be found dead in the abandoned buildings behind the booming alcohol businesses. Maybe Nebraska could use some of the tax revenue they are recieving to provide detox and treatment for the street people of White Clay. I have no sympathy for the business that would be loosing revenue because of police presence. Maybe the grocery shopping would be safer and more pleasant. White Clay provides opportunity for businesses, and not just the ones that provide alcohol. There are so few places in Pine Ridge to shop. You CAN get groceries and a good meal in White Clay if you want to see all the sadness. I’m not saying that alcohol sales need to stop, but the tax money being made from it should be used to help fight the disease.

WicazoTanka said on: July 20, 2010, 8:00 am
Shunkaska, I think you and I are on the same side. However, your arguments changed from the booze issue to many other retail issues. Strictly for the booze issue, we disagree and I still say again out of respect for the decision of the Oglalas who made the decision booze is poison and you don’t poison your own to save them.

From an economic perspective, Pine Ridge has what, 12,000 people living on it? Statistics say there are over 50% under the age of 18. How many more under age 21? (I know age will not stop most and there are plenty of under-21-alcoholics) You now have a market of perhaps 5,000. How many drink in that spectrum? How many are unemployed, 80%? Four stores to cater to a couple-three thousand drinkers where 700-800 have a job, that doesn’t make financial/business sense. You have Scenic, Gordon, Interior, Kadoka, Chadron, Rushville, Olerichs and Hermosa who all sell it and they won’t go away. Competition would remain fierce and the tribe or any other business person probably won’t take that gamble with their own money.

Would any store in Kyle, Sharps Corner, Pine Ridge, or Oglala want the business or associated ills? White Clay “sales” are in the millions. Taxes are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which go to the state. What is their profit margin (great for individual store owners with a small number of employees)? What does a $10/hour clerk make per year, $20K. $20k multiplied by 100 = $2 million in salaries. Manager salaries = $35-$40K, multiplied by 4 = $160K. Tribal tax vs. state tax? Will the drinkers go to White Clay to avoid the extra tribal tax and booze probably 10-15% more expensive? (yes) How many counselors are needed, 40 @ $60k/year, another $2.4 million in salaries per year? Four new buildings at $150k a piece or $800K.

The market will not bear the burden and the medicine is poison.

Junkyard Dog said on: July 20, 2010, 6:45 am
I have an idea! Lets allow it, and drop the tax on it so nonnatives will make the drive to the rez to save money?

shunkaska said on: July 19, 2010, 3:07 pm
“Wicazo” we find each other on opposite sides of a fence..I find the teaching Of Grand Fathers qualities of Honor, Humility, Generosity, Compassion, Perseverance, Humility and Wisdom also to be found everyday in my job…Trying to create jobs, to keep our dollar on the rez as long as we can before it leaves. The Jewish communities it is said will touch a dollar 8 times before it leaves, the Lakota is less than one. Why do people by more groceries off the Rez..Why can’t we have 4-6 tribal stores employing 100′s, we need to eat…To think our people do not drink and spend money to do so is to stick ones head in the sand, so why not open up 4 liqour stores and employe 60 more people…Yes we have a huge Alcohol and drug problem, statistics say unemployement is a huge factor..look at the suicide cluster we have, some also believe that has to do with no future..so again we create a center to educate, heal, to make whole agian.We would use todays best behavior modification plus our traditional by our elders..We spend alot of money on sporting goods why not clothe our reservation teams, sell the schools shoes and equipment,plus be open for our individual needs, maybe get off reservation teams to place orders…we agian create jobs…Someday I would love to see where our hand is not out to reseave but is out to hand money to someone in need…this is done thru education and creating jobs…why not spend the millions at home…we have needs,we can take care of them…

Comment Maker said on: July 19, 2010, 2:39 pm
If Whiteclay makes THAT much money, where does it go? If Whiteclay is making this much money, why doesn’t it incorporate itself? Build apartments, or improve their buildings; something. Where does their money go to? It’s just so complex to think about how all of these people are spending all this money to people who appear to be greedy and selfish.

WicazoTanka said on: July 19, 2010, 12:52 pm
It was told to me long that that to be a Lakota is a difficult thing (Lakota kin otehika yelo). The old ones required everyone to contribute to the group by being a brave and content whole person. They taught all of our grandfathers and grandmothers that ideology. Bad things happened to those granfathers and mothers but their lessons allowed for survival of those of left today. Some contemporaries follow them while some don’t.

The Oglala around when the decision was made to keep the rez dry were wise and knew of the poison in alcohol and how it made people crazy. Those decision makers were more Lakota in the sense they only thought and spoke in Lakota and the American ways were secondary. Many today, me included, think in English and try to back track to “what would our Lakota grandfathers do”.

The suggestion has been made for the Oglala of today to make the rez wet and reap the financial benefits of employing as was written “a hundred people” and several million in profit and taxes. Pine Ridge is inundated enough with the problems of alcohol and poisoning their own to save them is not a Lakota choice. The Old Ones’ wisdom would be cast aside for a few dirty dollars.

Programs and funding exist already, though like everywhere they are not sufficient to cover the need, and you can’t lead a horse (an alcoholic) and make make him drink (or stop drinking). The choice to be a whole person comes from within and their are plenty of family members who would welcome their “zombie relatives” back if they knew they were out of the zombie realm, the realm of being alive and waiting for death in a drunken haze. Recovered(ing) alcoholics in my family and circle of friends all say they themselves just got tired and woke up and that was the driving factor.

So again, honor your Old Ones and don’t poison your own to save them.

Good article by the way that showed something other than the beer and booze sale story.

greensleeves said on: July 19, 2010, 12:12 pm
It is nice to know that WhiteClay does provide services besides the sale of beer. I think what is really upsetting to me is that most of the grocery buying is done with food cards. Don’t these people have enough pride to get a job and feed their own families? I know jobs are hard to come by. but I have seen a lot of talent coming off the reservation. Why isn’t their a large Native American Art facility where these people can earn a living selling their wares? If you have ever been to Crazy Horse Monument, you can see there is a market for these works of art, why not on the reservation?

shunkaska said on: July 19, 2010, 11:22 am
You have a small community that sees a business oppurtunity and cashes in…than you have the Rez whinning about how much money this community makes on Alcohol and Grocery sales..their sales tax generates $260,000 for Nebraska and if anyone should be whinning it should be White Clay because it sounds like they get nothing in return for their tax money. The real sad story is the Pine Ridge Tribe for enabling this oppurtunity to slip thru their hands of employing their unemployed in Tribal Stores and Tribal liquor sales, not only do they missout of employing 100′s of tribal people in jobs from sackers/stockers/butchers/sporting goods/check out/asst mgs and mgs of the stores to the Liqour store mgs and workers and the profits go into the tribes pockets to pay for treatment facilities that higher our nurses/councilors/elders for traditional healing…instead we point fingers/have road blocks/its like holding on to this old dam with so many holes instead of building a new one that will open the doors for our reservation in employment and fiscal rewards…we can continue to do nothing but whine our change are approach to a swing in our favor….people shoud be having road blocks to keep us in the rez to spend our money instead of blaming communities that service our people…to say Pine ridge is a dry Rez is to show ones ignorance..we might not legally sell but the bootleggers have been getting rich and the surrounding communitys of the rez are making money that we should be making instead….To the good people of White Clay you are not to blame for our own laziness not to act in a business decission to blame you is to take the focus off our own short comings….

devils advocate said on: July 19, 2010, 11:01 am
Sicangu Warrior – i have to disagree, white clay is not murder in plain sight. its more like suicide. no one is forcing anyone to drink. simply meeting demand. Millions of people across the country use alcohol responsibly every day. Some dont. The demand is the problem…not the supply.

Pavlov said on: July 19, 2010, 8:48 am
Selling alcohol so close to the reservation is an invitation for criticism of your establishment. So get used to it, and know we will always be trying to drive them out. People will still drink, blah blah blah, not the point. The point is to have less access, not more. Only greed can explain their presence so near our lands. As for painting a ‘clearer picture’ the millions in groceries sold illustrate that White Clay could make plenty of cash selling us food but that is not good enough for them. The cash made from offering alcohol as well is not something the greedy shop owners are willing to part with. Greed is ugly, greedy people are ugly before God and the rest of us. I can’t imagine being a supplier of alcohol to my people, I guess that’s a Native quality-caring for others.

fallrivercitizen said on: July 18, 2010, 8:26 pm
what I find so ironic is that people seem to think if White Clay quit selling alcohol then there would not be anymore problems with Native Americans drink on the Rez!! Wake up people, they will just get it else where, or they will be drinking mouthwash, Lysol, Nyquil and any other thing they can get there hands on. Alcohlism is a terrible disease, but blaming the shop owners for it is like blaming your doctor for getting cancer

Sicangu Warrior said on: July 18, 2010, 9:39 am
White Clay Nebraska is a good example of the political values we are faced with today in America. Consumers vs business. How far can a business go to make a profit? Tylanol pulled it’s products that it knew was hurting it’s consumers. Do the business community in White Clay see the toils of their product and services? That is an acceptable risk to making their own mortage payments and livelyhood? The human cost seems to say White Clay Nebraska = murder in plain sight but the political lens says profit at any cost much like when we choose politics over people. As the children affected by White Clay Nebraska on both sides of the boarder watch, we place our community values on the table for all to see.

klsplenty said on: July 18, 2010, 9:32 am
Everyone from Pine Ridge should read last weeks Tim Giago’s article about the prohibition of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Rez. I think that there may be some truth in it saying that White Clay has financed the upkeep of the prohibition for years.

RV Resident said on: July 18, 2010, 8:57 am
It’s about time! For years the RCJ has been running articles portraying Whiteclay as nothing more than a source of alcohol. Thanks for finally painting a more complete picture.

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