Social justice battle continues on the prairie

Published Tuesday March 10, 2009

Four beer stores in a small unincorporated town in northwest Nebraska sell more than 4 million cans of beer annually. That’s more than 11,000 cans every day.

The place is Whiteclay, located on the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It’s known as the state’s “skid row on the prairie.”

For decades, a battle has been waged between the owners of these four beer outlets and the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The owners say they are meeting a demand, but some of the Native Americans who reside on the reservation believe the easy access to so much alcohol is harmful to their fellow residents.

A visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is an eye-opening experience. The impoverished residents face a multitude of problems, including high unemployment and a lack of health care and education. Another serious problem is alcoholism.

Despite a ban on the sale and possession of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the close proximity of Whiteclay makes it easy for people from the reservation to walk or drive to one of the beer stores.

“We as Nebraskans cannot be allowed to talk of the ‘Good Life’ when Whiteclay beer sellers flourish in our backyard,” said Frank LaMere, one of the Native Americans featured in the documentary “The Battle for Whiteclay.”

In the documentary, LaMere talks about the damage caused by alcoholism. He speaks of battered families, fatal accidents and broken dreams.

“We need leaders with vision and commitment. We have talked a good game about change at Whiteclay, but those with power have no nerve. We are going to pray for leadership and for all those who are willing to stand up to say that we are better than this.”

To get the attention of political leaders and to build awareness of the problem, a rally and prayer ceremony were held March 2 on the steps of the State Capitol in Lincoln.

Mark Vasina, producer and director of “The Battle for Whiteclay,” attended the rally.

“We want people to hear about what’s happening in Whiteclay,” he said. “You can read and talk about it, but until you go there you really don’t understand.”

During the five years he spent filming the documentary, Vasina recorded public protests against the beer stores, legislative hearings on bills concerning the problems in Whiteclay and meetings of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. He also filmed individuals on both sides of the issue.

Vasina, a member of Nebraskans for Peace, began showing his documentary in late 2008. A free showing of “The Battle for Whiteclay” is planned for April 1 at Creighton University’s Hixon-Lied Auditorium in the Harper Center. After the film, a forum is scheduled with Vasina and LaMere. The documentary and forum are set for 4 to 7 p.m.

Take it from someone who has seen “The Battle for Whiteclay” and talked with its producer/director … the event at CU April 1 is well worth your time.

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