Kevin Abourezk reviews The Battle for Whiteclay

Published Friday Jan 30, 2009

As a reporter for this newspaper, I’ve covered the struggle for change in the reservation border town of Whiteclay for the better part of the past decade.

Controversy over alcohol sales in Whiteclay, where four beer stores sell an estimated 11,000 cans of beer a day, have long garnered headlines. The stores largely make their profit off Oglala Sioux tribal members living on the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota, where alcohol is banned.

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Because of my years of reporting on this issue, I comprehended most of the events depicted in “The Battle for Whiteclay,” a new film produced and directed by Lincoln resident Mark Vasina.

For those not well-versed on this controversy, the film will serve more as a lecture on government bureaucracy than a story about a tribal society sinking under the weight of alcoholism and hopelessness, fueled in part by alcohol sales in Whiteclay.

Rather than focus on the people destroying themselves on the streets of Whiteclay or the reservation families ripped asunder by alcoholism, the film focuses on three Native activists fighting for change in the border town: Frank LaMere, Russell Means and Duane Martin Sr. It follows them onto the streets of Whiteclay for protests and into countless board rooms as they argue for meaningful change in Whiteclay.

The movie quickly gets submerged in a quagmire of board meetings and legislative hearings, where officials are considering the fate of Whiteclay. While the movie starts with a narrator reciting a list of statistics and facts that describe the social problems facing the Oglala Sioux, it uses that narrator just once more at the end.

Without a regular narrator and with little more than a label at the start of each new scene describing the date and setting, the film fails to provide any significant context for the parade of public meetings and public officials it depicts.

As a result, it’s likely to leave most viewers scratching their heads trying to understand what role each scene and meeting plays in the larger story.

The film does come up for air with an occasional scene in Whiteclay or on the reservation.

One scene shows a reservation resident driving over cans he’s collected in Whiteclay with his pickup to recycle them. The man says he collects 1,000 pounds of cans a week, most of them from Whiteclay.

But the film quickly shifts from Dan Nelson’s story to a Nebraska Liquor Control Commission hearing in Lincoln where the commission is considering allegations a Whiteclay beer store sold alcohol to two intoxicated Natives.

Every good story needs a sympathetic hero, someone whose struggles the audience can relate to and understand.

In “The Battle for Whiteclay,” the heroes are LaMere, Means and Martin, though the film never fully explores any of their personal histories or motivations. Nor does it really examine the impact of alcohol sales on the Oglala Sioux people.

Instead, it depends on a litany of public meetings and nameless officials discussing obtuse issues to try to elicit concern for the people of Pine Ridge.

But few are likely to see a procession of relatively unknown people on soapboxes as heroic.


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