A Different Perspective on Whiteclay

Nebraska’s skid-row on the prairie

Published February 01, 2009

There is a scene in Mark Vasina’s film The Battle for Whiteclay that provides what is likely the single best civics lesson to be found on film.

Any film.

Whiteclay is the notorious northwest Nebraska widespot in the road where four outlets sell 4 million or so cans of beer every year, mostly to the Oglala Sioux who live on the reservation that is literally just a hop, skip and falling-down stupor away.

Tribal leaders and other activists have railed for decades that the State of Nebraska should find a way to do away with the beer stores. The state’s position comes down to: The people with licenses are selling a legal product, and unless there is evidence to revoke those licenses … that’s that.

The Battle for Whiteclay is being screened at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln through Feb. 5.

About the civics lesson.

It was shortly before 6 a.m. Friday and I was ready to call it a long day and put off watching the remainder of the film. Besides, the scene at hand had to do with an open-and-shut case before the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, wherein an employee of one of the beer venues had sold a can of suds to a pair of Indians who were stumbling, stammering loaded when they walked into the place.

Anyone who sells alcohol to an intoxicated person is in violation of Nebraska law. Next case.

My eyelids and my Apple were only seconds from being closed when a member of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, circa 2005, spoke from the screen: “I guess I can’t tell from the evidence (pause) I would have to vote no.”

Her voice was followed by my own, spewing epithets as I fumbled to make the DVD rewind.

The commissioner, Rhonda R. Flower, had effectively voted not to sanction the store.


The scene replayed. There was Flower, looking like a canary-fed cat, casting her “no” vote.

A few seconds later, another commissioner, R.L. Coyne, said he personally thought the employee in question was guilty, then added, “but I don’t think the evidence was clear enough to convict them. So, I’d have to vote not guilty.”

And then, I half smiled. It was one of those spontaneous half-smiles that’s first-cousin to a snarl, and all I could say to myself was: Son-of-a-bitch! It never changes. Never!

With no sacrilege or sarcasm intended: The next thing that flashed in my mind was the massacre at Sand Creek in Colorado. That was the one where the leader of a peaceful clan of Indians, upon realizing his people were being attacked by the militia, raised an American flag over his lodge. He thought the oncoming murderers might realize they’d made a mistake. And, in any event, if his people gathered around him under and near the flag, they surely would be safe.

They were massacred with a bloodlust that Custer would have admired. Envied, probably.

To my mind, the message contained in the massacre was no different, not one damnable bit different, than the message the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission telegraphed to Native Americans that day: Unless it’s promising to take something from you, the government’s word and the government’s laws aren’t worth the paper that will later be torn up in your face.

The evidence that Flower and Coyne didn’t find sufficiently clear consisted of a videotape in which a state trooper watches two Oglala tribe members go into the store empty handed and come out carrying a can of malt liquor. He goes in and asks the guy behind the counter if he had just sold them a can of beer. The employee says he did. The audio is very, very clear. No garble. No guessing about this word or that one. The tape also shows the trooper giving the two Indians a field sobriety test. They flunked reaaal big.

You might wonder how two sane, sober commissioners could look at that video and not conclude that a violation occurred. Me, too.

And with that scene, Vasina brought the sorry, shameful story of Whiteclay into perfect focus.

The Battle for Whiteclay is not a “Red man, good; white man, bad” film.

This is the place where, most likely, some readers are letting go with: “Oh, for gawd’s sake. Those Indians are disgusting. All they do is get drunk. They’re filthy most of the time. They sell their government commissary to get money to drink. They get everything free …” If I missed anything on your favorite list, be assured that I’ve heard it, one time or another.

Let me respond by saying that there is no question, no legitimate question, that tribal leadership has not been sufficiently effective. Period.

Now, let’s talk law and order.

It is illegal to have beer on the rez.

It is illegal to drink beer on the premises of the off-sale venue.

It is illegal to drink beer on the sidewalk and/or on the road.

So, where can someone who buys a beer in Whiteclay drink it, legally? It isn’t logical to say they could drive home to some nearby town. If they lived in a nearby town, why would they drive to a rathole like Whiteclay to buy beer?

Such being the case, is a place that sells beer in Whiteclay a public convenience, or a public nuisance?

Vasina’s documentary also addresses a common rejoinder to those—including myself—who have said: If the Indians couldn’t buy beer in Whiteclay, they’d find a way to other towns, most likely via motor vehicle, to get beer. There would be just as much drinking, but more carnage on the road.

Indian activist Frank LaMere of the Winnebago tribe pointed to a special sort of racism in that argument, partly by raising a question.

Can you imagine a comparable situation being ignored in suburban Omaha or Lincoln because putting an end to it would just mean that the problem would relocate?


Whiteclay is a disgraceful problem.

Unfortunately for the Oglala, it is more a problem for Indians than it is for white people.

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