Liquor debate goes to core of town’s ties to reservation

Published Saturday July 17, 2010

The irony of Whiteclay is that it sits in what was originally a “buffer zone” created by the U.S. government to “protect” the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation from illegal whiskey peddlers operating in the area.

In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur decreed a 50-square-mile buffer zone in Nebraska south of the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota to protect Native Americans from the ravages of alcohol, according to the web site for the documentary film, “Battle for Whiteclay.” In 1889, and again in 1890, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation incorporating this buffer zone, known as the White Clay Extension, into the boundaries of the reservation. But in a 1904 executive order by President Theodore Roosevelt, 49 of the 50 square miles of the White Clay Extension was placed into the public domain over the protests of Lakota elders and others concerned that the need for a buffer zone still remained. Today, there is still one square mile of Pine Ridge tribal land in Nebraska near Whiteclay, the remnant of President Arthur’s buffer zone.

Except for a short time in the 1970s, the sale and possession of alcohol has always been prohibited by tribal law since the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was created. Denver American Horse, an announced candidate for president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, would like to change that.

American Horse said he will work to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation. The additional taxes that now go off-reservation could be used to fund much-needed alcohol treatment programs, he said.

Recent tribal administrations have opposed the legalization of alcohol sales on the reservations.

Documentary filmmaker Mark Vasina, the director and producer of “Battle for Whiteclay,” said the idea that the solution to Whiteclay is legalizing alcohol on Pine Ridge is misguided.

“It’s a red herring — to say the reservation shouldn’t be dry and then Whiteclay wouldn’t be a problem,” Vasina said. “It’s hard for white people in Nebraska to wrap their mind around the idea that white government is failing to do its job as far as crime in Whiteclay goes.”

Vic Clarke, manager of a Whiteclay grocery store, thinks ending the prohibition against alcohol sales on Pine Ridge would be the “biggest economic boon they could do.”

“Why not keep those dollars on the reservation?” he asks.

Clarke, who has been called the unofficial “mayor” of Whiteclay, has a simple, if somewhat expensive and unorthodox, proposition for doing exactly that. He thinks the Oglala Sioux Tribe should purchase Whiteclay – the entire village with all its land and buildings, lock, stock and barrel – and incorporate it back into the boundaries of the reservation. Then, the tribe would have both the benefits, and the responsibility, of alcohol sales in Whiteclay.

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