Filmmaker puts focus on Whiteclay

Published Monday February 2, 2009

LINCOLN – Mark Vasina quit a management job on Wall Street a decade ago to launch a new career as a documentary filmmaker in his home state of Nebraska.

The 55-year-old native of Colon, Neb., chose as his first subject Schuyler, Neb., and the impact an influx of Hispanics has had on a typical farm town.

Then, at the urging of a friend, six years ago he visited Whiteclay, Neb., the notorious border town where more than four million cans of beer are sold each year, mostly to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Alcoholism is rampant there, and it is illegal to possess liquor on the reservation.

Vasina’s filmmaking focus suddenly changed. The result is a 113-minute long documentary called “The Battle for Whiteclay.”

“When I saw what was going on, and talked to people on the street, it had me,” Vasina said.

The film made its theater debut over the weekend at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, and will show there through Thursday. Other showings are planned across the state in coming weeks.

The film documents the struggle of activists, which includes Vasina, as they try to persuade local, state, tribal and federal officials to address the alcohol-related problems caused by the so-called “Skid Row of the Plains.”

It has been a decade-long struggle, sparked by the still-unsolved killings of two Pine Ridge residents in Whiteclay in 1999, and marked by a string of protests that have brought national publicity but few changes.

“We have turned everywhere, and asked everyone, but nothing has changed,” said Frank LaMere, a Native American activist from South Sioux City, Neb., who was among the first to call attention to Whiteclay, a remote unincorporated village of 14 people in northwest Nebraska with four beer-only liquor stores.

At a panel discussion of the film on Sunday, frustrations poured forth about the lack of action. But there was also a pledge of new action by Attorney General Jon Bruning and the launching of an effort by some Omaha Creighton Prep High School students to enlist President Barack Obama’s help.

The students, members of a Creighton Prep theology class called “Awareness,” said they are launching a petition drive to urge President Obama to rescind a 1904 order by then-President Theodore Roosevelt eliminating a five-mile buffer zone of no-alcohol sales around the dry reservation.

If that happened, the Whiteclay liquor stores would have to shut down immediately.

“In our class, everyone wants to do something about this,” said Prep student Ian Langin.

Bruning, the only state official to attend the panel discussion, was peppered with questions from an audience of about 70 people about why Nebraska has not done more.

The attorney general said he has tried some things, including an attempt to get Pine Ridge tribal police cross-deputized so they could bring more law enforcement patrols to Whiteclay, which sits right across the border from South Dakota.

But $200,000 in federal funds pledged for the project went unspent, Bruning said, because none of the tribal police met the standards of Nebraska law enforcement officers.

“It is a sad situation, and we need to do more. . . . I’m not done trying,” he said, adding that he had no sympathy for the “soulless bloodsuckers” who sell alcohol in Whiteclay.

Bruning said he would talk to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission about holding a hearing on license renewals in Whiteclay.

He said he also would ask new state senators to visit Whiteclay with him to see the problems and seek a new undercover law enforcement effort from the Nebraska State Patrol.

The film by Vasina, a former president of Nebraskans for Peace, clearly shows violations of state liquor laws, including intoxicated people drinking alcohol on the streets and drinking in the parking lots of the liquor stores.

One segment shows a state trooper investigating the sale of malt liquor to an intoxicated woman. The woman appears clearly drunk on a video captured by the trooper’s in-car camera, and a breath alcohol test indicates that she is above the legal limit to drive a car.

But the film segment ends with the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission voting 2-1 against punishing the liquor store, State Line Liquors, for selling the beer. The evidence was conflicting and not convincing enough, said two commissioners, Dick Coyne of Omaha and Rhonda Flower of Scottsbluff after the vote in 2006.

Bruning on Sunday said that law enforcement efforts have been frustrated because Whiteclay locals know when a state trooper is in town.

Vasina, in an interview last week, called the actions of the state trooper, Mick Downing, “heroic,” but said the case helped illustrate how public policy decisions contribute to the misery on the Pine Ridge, which sits in one of the two poorest counties in the U.S.

“It’s not hard to understand what’s going on in Whiteclay, but there’s a lack of will in the system to treat this as a problem,” Vasina said.

Most panelists on Sunday agreed that closing down the liquor stores in Whiteclay, while not a complete solution to the alcoholism on the reservation, would help.

Vasina was unsuccessful in getting any state senators to introduce legislation this year to address the problems in Whiteclay, but he credited Bruning for listening and trying to help.

He said he hopes his film will increase awareness of the “misery” caused by the Whiteclay liquor sales, and inspire a new push to seek solutions.

“Everyone realizes that something’s wrong there,” he said. “It’s hard to figure out what to do.”

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