For Whiteclay, still more problems than answers

Published Thursday September 6, 2007
BY NATE JENKINS
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

LINCOLN, Neb. — One semitrailer a week normally passes through Whiteclay, delivering enough food to fill two small grocery stores in the village, population 14, and those in a few nearby towns.

Before a recent celebration on the adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is officially barred but holds one of the poorest, most alcohol-ravaged populations in the country, the food truck was outnumbered by three others that arrived the same day.

They deliver another staple of the area — beer.

About 4 million cans of it are sold each year in four stores in Whiteclay, a northwest Nebraska town situated just yards from the South Dakota reservation.

People are often passed out on the sidewalks or panhandling for money to buy beer in the hamlet. It is only two miles from Pine Ridge, a town of 3,500 and the largest on the reservation, which covers an area about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Liquor law and DUI offenses in Sheridan County, which borders the reservation and includes Whiteclay, are almost double the rate statewide in Nebraska — despite what locals say is scant law enforcement.

Sixty-five to 70 percent of the jail population in Sheridan County’s jail “has an address from the reservation,” said Sheriff Terry Robbins.

To some, the stark images of Whiteclay and its proximity to the dry reservation are old lessons in the futility of prohibition.

To others, it’s a shameful blight created by Nebraska’s unwillingness to tackle the problem head-on, either through more stringent liquor laws or banning booze in the village altogether.

Sporadic attempts over the past four decades to legalize alcohol on the reservation have failed. The Nebraska Legislature has been pressured to increase enforcement or limit liquor sales in the town but hasn’t passed laws to do so.

The state Liquor Control Commission denied one application to sell beer in the town, but the decision was overturned last year by the courts.

More recently, an agreement that would have would have allowed tribal officers to patrol Whiteclay is nearly in the scrap heap of failed efforts.

Half of the $200,000 earmarked by Congress to pay for Pine Ridge officers to patrol the Nebraska town slipped away this spring, unused by the tribe, and the other half is in danger of being lost because the tribe has not taken steps necessary to cross-deputize officers.

Robbins said his officers visit the town about four times daily.

Lance Moss, who grew up in Whiteclay and now owns Whiteclay Grocery, doubts that is accurate. During the rare times officers do come to town, Moss said, they don’t do much and seem more intent on making appearances “so they can say they’re doing something.”

Is anything being done to combat the public drunkenness?

“Not anything, not one single thing,” said Moss, 38, whose parents used to run the store. Not much has changed over the years, said Moss, who argues that the influence of the reservation, not Whiteclay itself, is the problem.

“People think it’s a little piece of hell,” he said of Whiteclay. “It’s not. The people that come here are good people. They’re just so bored and consumed by alcohol; it’s all they have.”

Problems on the Pine Ridge reservation that spill into Whiteclay are similar to the acute poverty and blight Lisa Adams used to see as a prosecutor in Newark, N.J.

“Many of the problems that exist here are mimicked in urban areas with urban blight,” said Adams, a Pine Ridge tribal judge. The prohibition against booze on the reservation, she said, isn’t working, just as it didn’t work nationally in the 1920s. In Pine Ridge it has caused a proliferation of bootlegged alcohol, she said.

Despite the grim images Pine Ridge and Whiteclay present, she sees hope.

“I see an enormous potential for them to bring themselves back to a place they want to be and to do that within the constructs of their own place. The question is whether they can recognize their power and ability to do so.”

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