Beer big business for Whiteclay, Neb.

Published August 27, 1971

A traveler driving north of Rushville on Hwy. 87 soon notices a change in the Nebraska scenery. High bluffs topped with thick forests of Ponderosa pine begin to appear in place of grassy sandhills as one approaches the South Dakota border and Pine Ridge Reservation.

The small Nebraska towns, with their seemingly insolvable problems, are left behind. That is, all of the towns but one – Whiteclay, situated a few feet from the Nebraska-South Dakota border.

In an effort to eliminate the problem of alcoholism on the reservation, the tribal council has banned the sale of alcohol on Pine Ridge. With that order came the birth of Whiteclay, a town that consists of two taverns, a grocery store that sells beer, a gas station that sells beer, and a pawn shop that makes lack of money not much of a problem in getting beer.

Whiteclay is not a pretty town. There is no city manager there to worry about beautification codes, and no traffic officer to be bothered by the cars sitting deserted at the side of the highway.

There are no parks or playgrounds in the town, although children play together in front of the taverns while they wait for their parents. The town also has no doctor, fire department, residential district and no policeman or marshal in residence.

The small businesses of Whiteclay do more than a modest share of trade with Indians who come over from the reservation.

According to Mike Smith, who is private legal counsel for all four beer vendors and also Sheridan county attorney, the firms often handle the highest on-sale [sic] beer volume in the state of Nebraska.

Whether any of the Whiteclay firms sell the most beer in the state is hard to prove. But if one or more of them aren’t at the top, they’re not far away, as figures show.

In June of this year, Pioneer Mobil Station in Whiteclay sold more than 3,343 cases of beer alone. Stabler’s Bar sold more than 2,108, Jumping Eagle’s Inn, 1,716, and H & M Shopping Center, nearly 500.

That’s a business most Lincoln or Omaha tavern operators would envy.

Three of the retailers were suspended for violations last spring. Jumping Eagle’s Inn was closed in April. The day it reopened, H & M was closed. It’s reopening was followed the next day by the closing of Stabler’s Bar. In spite of the violations, beer flowed just as freely from Whiteclay.

Roger Welsch, a Nebraska Wesleyan professor who has long been concerned with Indian problems in the state, calls Whiteclay a great source of shame to Nebraska.

“You can talk about topless entertainment in Omaha all you want, but no place in the state is as depraved as Whiteclay. It’s a hellhole, sitting there taking advantage of boundary laws in order to make alcohol available to Indians against the institutionalized wishes of the tribe.”

Another man, a Nebraska Indian who claims he was a regular Whiteclay customer when he lived on the reservation, says it a little differently:

“You whites are really something. You can talk about the problem of alcoholism all you want. But look at Whiteclay and you learn one thing. You sure ain’t losing money on our ‘problem’.”

‘Problem’ Heard Often

“Problem” – the term has come up again and again during visits to the Sandhills towns. There’s been talk of Indian problems, white problems, police problems, and not least of all, talk of no problems.

Visitors can ask questions but answers are harder to come by.

And unlike Nebraskans living in the small Sandhills towns, the one-time traveler passing through the state can forget them all as he heads north on Hwy. 87, and leaves Nebraska. And then it’s South Dakota, and the problems begin all over again.

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