Alcoholism challenge: Pine Ridge frustrations

Published Tuesday March 10, 2009

This Omaha World-Herald staff editorial sparked a series of letters to the editor (reprinted below following the editorial).

A drive northward on State Highway 87 offers views of some of northwest Nebraska’s most picturesque landscapes. Amid the rolling hills and idyllic ranchland, first-time visitors to the area will find the drive to be a relaxing experience.

Until they reach Whiteclay.

At that point, visitors come face to face with one of this region’s most mortifying social problems.

Drive slowly through Whiteclay, and you’ll likely see Native American men sitting along the road, often in a stupor. Stop and park, and you see up close the despondency of individuals visibly in the grips of alcoholism.

Just up the road from Whiteclay, across the shortgrass plains country that marks the border with South Dakota, lies the Pine Ridge Reservation. Home to the Oglala Sioux, the reservation is lamentably burdened by unspeakable poverty and hopelessness. The four liquor stores in Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of fewer than 20 people, sell beer in remarkable volume to the reservation’s residents.

Trying to solve the problem of Pine Ridge desperation is, of course, a long-standing conundrum. It is no surprise that Pine Ridge was visited in 2005 by the president of the World Bank, an international entity that attempts to address poverty in the most desperate corners of the Earth.

News coverage in the Sunday World-Herald told how activists are again drawing attention to the problem. A delegation of conscientious Nebraska leaders—Attorney General Jon Bruning; Nebraska Liquor Control Commission member Bob Batt; and State Sens. Russ Karpisek and Colby Coash—recently visited Whiteclay on a fact-finding trip.

The beer sales are legal on the Nebraska side of the border, and monitoring for violations of state liquor laws is one of the few tools available to the state.

It is regrettable that the State of Nebraska’s cross-deputization agreement with the Pine Ridge Reservation has not produced significant results. Under that agreement, tribal police officers could apply to be deputized as officers in both Nebraska and the Pine Ridge reservation.

During the visit last week, Bruning said he would explore additional, practical options, and that’s appropriate. But Tim Giago, a longtime Oglala Sioux newspaper publisher and commentator, is correct when he says that the fundamental problem is the alcoholism that afflicts so many on the reservation.

As Giago and others explain, even if every beer seller in Whiteclay were shuttered, that would just lead people to drive from the reservation to get their beer.

At present they walk two miles along sidewalks to reach Whiteclay.

The reservation is working hard to promote effective alcohol treatment, and Oglala Sioux leaders deserve support in that effort. As long as the alcoholism problem remains unaddressed, so will the terrible heartache one inevitably confronts on the drive northward on Highway 87.


Find solution to problem
Published Thursday March 12, 2009
THE PUBLIC PULSE (Letters to editor)

The heartbreaking spectacle of Whiteclay, Neb., is accurately described by a March 10 editorial. It cries out for appropriate and effective public policy to address this terrible tragedy.

Certainly, we must focus federal and local programs on solutions to the crippling poverty and despair on the Pine Ridge Reservation and demand adequate funding for alcohol treatment for the Oglala Sioux residents.

We must not, however, succumb to the mistaken view that four off-sale beer dealers continue to operate in Whiteclay because they have violated no liquor laws.

The State of Nebraska’s responsibility to strengthen public health and safety regarding the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay must not be overlooked because of the enormity of the problems facing our Oglala neighbors.

Mark Vasina, Lincoln
Filmmaker of documentary on Whiteclay


Removing alcohol won’t help
Published Sunday March 15, 2009
THE PUBLIC PULSE (Letters to editor)

I have three words for the Carrie Nation- type prohibitionists expressing opinions about the problems in Whiteclay, Neb.: Prohibition doesn’t work.

If liquor stores were closed in Whiteclay, people would go wherever they could find alcohol.

The fundamental problem of the Pine Ridge Reservation is the absence of an economic base to provide jobs and hope to the people who live there.

Alcoholism is a major symptom of the socioeconomic ills that beset this community.

David Orso, Lincoln


Close the liquor stores
Published Wednesday March 18, 2009
THE PUBLIC PULSE (Letters to editor)

David Orso (March 15 Pulse) and other well-intentioned individuals seem only too quick to equate the closing of liquor stores in Whiteclay with prohibition—popularly regarded as discredited by the American experience. Whiteclay is the tiny Nebraska village with four off-sale beer stores on the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Consider your options if, as has been alleged in Whiteclay, convenience stores near your home routinely sold alcohol to underage neighborhood youths, sold alcohol to intoxicated individuals who consume it at all hours on your streets and exchanged beer for sex with young women from your neighborhood—all without effective intervention by law enforcement. My bet is you would demand that these stores be closed.

I urge everyone to learn the facts about Whiteclay. This town’s predatory liquor stores must be closed.

If authorities continue to ignore this relatively simple and inexpensive action to improve the lives of many of our Oglala Sioux neighbors on the Pine Ridge, how can we expect them to tackle the deep issues of poverty and despair that result from a century and a half of official neglect and abuse?

Jeff Mohr, Omaha


Their higher calling
Published Friday March 20, 2009
THE PUBLIC PULSE (Letters to editor)

If one believes there is a reason for everything, then it is easy to see why Jon Bruning visited Whiteclay, Neb., instead of running for the U.S. Senate.

Seems like Mr. Bruning, Bob Batt of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission and State Sens. Russ Karpisek and Colby Coash have been summoned by someone and something far greater than a political office endorsement.

Finally, Nebraska’s finest are searching for the answers to help these wonderful, God-loving people on the reservations.

Thank God we have someone on the Liquor Control Commission who cares about lives instead of dollars.

Sue Armstrong, Omaha


Can’t force sobriety
Published Monday March 23, 2009
THE PUBLIC PULSE (Letters to editor)

There is a serious flaw in the logic of those who think that closing the liquor stores in Whiteclay, Neb., would reduce alcoholism on the Pine Ridge reservation.

For a jobless alcoholic, time and distance are not deterrents. If you close the nearest source of alcohol, he will find an alternative, whether it be the next closest town selling alcohol or someone who buys alcohol in bulk and starts selling it on or near Pine Ridge illegally.

It should be obvious the only people who can truly solve this problem are the Oglala Sioux themselves. They have to want to get better. We cannot force recovery on them.

Wyatt Troia, Omaha


Failing to do our best
Published Thursday March 26, 2009
THE PUBLIC PULSE (Letters to editor)

I disagree with the position Wyatt Troia expresses in his March 23 letter regarding the growing problem of alcoholism within the Pine Ridge Reservation’s Oglala Sioux community.

This problem is aided by the absurd number of liquor stores in the border town of Whiteclay, Neb. Mr. Troia states that removing these liquor stores would not stop alcoholism on the reservation and would be an ineffective way to force sobriety on this community.

Mr. Troia’s assessment of the situation may unfortunately be true. If the Whiteclay stores closed, others might pop up and continue this cycle of alcoholism.

However, this is no reason not to try. A government that gives up on its people gives up on its vision of a society that helps and encourages others to reach their God-given potential.

By allowing liquor stores to offer cheap alcohol right outside of the Pine Ridge borders, with a clear intent to sell to an alcoholism-plagued society, our government is giving up.

Pete Fey, Omaha


Find care for alcoholics
Published Friday March 27, 2009
THE PUBLIC PULSE (Letters to editor)

It is clear that many good people confuse the very different roles of personal responsibility and public policy when confronted with the tragedy of alcohol abuse.

This confusion can be particularly damaging to those who live with the epidemic alcoholism that plagues the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Those who shape public policy in Washington, D.C., South Dakota and Pine Ridge must confront the issues of economic viability, access to adequately funded substance abuse treatment programs and social cohesion.

But policymakers in Nebraska must address the legal issues related to the ready availability of so much beer in tiny Whiteclay, Neb.

Honoringthe ruleof law in Nebraska is Nebraska’s responsibility. This is especially true when the reservation, for reasons of public health, prohibits the sale and possession of alcoholic beverages.

It has been alleged that dealers in Whiteclay illegally sell beer to minors and intoxicated people, accept government surplus commodities and stolen goods and accept sexual favors from young women in exchange for beer.

Public officials must address the shameful environment in which Whiteclay beer dealers are permitted to take advantage of many who struggle with crippling alcoholism. We have looked away for too long.

Carol McShane, Lincoln


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One Response to “Alcoholism challenge: Pine Ridge frustrations”

  1. Wyatt Troia Says:

    I’m Wyatt Troia, the writer of one of the letters you posted. I just want to make it clear (since the OWH edits these things so much) that I completely support the revocation of liquor licenses to stores that are breaking the law, and I support the construction of rehab facilities, to offer the OPTION of recovery.

    My fear is that people are under the impression that closing Whiteclay will be a cure-all, when it is really just a small step. If it happens, and the Indians start buying liquor from decent, honorable bar owners in other towns, there will be no option of shutting down the stores. We have to improve the economic situation to combat the feeling of hopelessness that leads people to alcoholism, and we need to make sure that those who want to get better have the resources to do so.

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