Activists to blockade Whiteclay beer sales

Published June 3, 2006

A coalition of activists is hoping to choke the transport of alcohol from the Nebraska village of Whiteclay to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The plan: Starting June 28, they would set up a blockade on the reservation side of the state border to stop Whiteclay customers and confiscate their beer.

Organizers are planning to operate the blockade through the summer and possibly into the fall – as long as it takes to shut down the beer stores in Whiteclay.

Those four stores sell an estimated 12,000 cans of beer a day, mostly to tribal members from the reservation, where alcohol is banned. For years, activists have championed tougher law enforcement there.

“This is sort of like trench warfare,” said Mark Vasina, president of Nebraskans for Peace, which is helping organize the blockade. “Private individuals will be manning the blockade.”

The details are still being hammered out, Vasina said.

But here’s how it could work: Activists stationed in Whiteclay would use radios to inform those at the blockade of drivers they see buying beer. Those at the blockade would stop the cars when they tried to return to the reservation, taking the beer.

Organizers are unsure whether the people stopping cars would need to be deputized by the tribe, Vasina said. Also unanswered is whether those at the blockade could confiscate alcohol.

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has said it plans to send a busload of supporters in July, he said. Organizers hope other tribes and activists will join, too.

The Strong Heart Civil Rights Movement of Pine Ridge also is helping organize the blockade. The group’s event flier urges others to “Get the Warrior Out of the Bottle.”

Work is underway, meanwhile, to gain the blessing of the Oglala Sioux tribal council.

At least one tribal council member needs no prodding.

Alex White Plume, vice president of the tribe, said he supports the idea and is hopeful organizers can gain the support of other council members.

He said the tribe has struggled for years, without success, to get the state of Nebraska and Sheridan County officials to stop the illegal flow of alcohol onto the reservation.

“We’re just totally out of options,” he said. “Now it just has to be direct action.”

Mary Eckholt doesn’t object to efforts to stop beer sales to the reservation but said she is worried what effect the blockade would have on her Whiteclay business, Mary’s Gift Shop.

Even innocent people, she said, dislike driving through blockades.

“It’s not going to help,” she said. “It’s going to hurt business. I don’t know how much it’s going to hurt.”

Blockade’s origins

Two recent events in Nebraska sparked a decision by Native and Nebraska activists to set up a blockade on June 28 to stop the flow of alcohol from Whiteclay to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, said Mark Vasina of Nebraskans for Peace. Those events include:

March 13: The Sheridan County Board of Commissioners voted to automatically renew liquor licenses for the beer stores in Whiteclay, despite hearing from 22 people, the majority of whom opposed the renewals.

March 31: The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission was wrong to deny a liquor license to a beer store in Whiteclay – the Arrowhead Inn. The store since has reopened, making it the fourth in the town.

Organizers initially planned to start the blockade June 25 – the 130th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn – but decided to postpone it when they were told too many supporters would be participating in Sun Dances around the reservation that day, Vasina said.

Had it begun June 25, the blockade would have commemorated the last battle the Lakota won against the U.S. government, a battle that ended with the deaths of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and 268 of his men.

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