Fran Kaye reviews The Battle for Whiteclay

June 2008

The day after I received my review copy of The Battle for Whiteclay, my brother told me that our friend Jamie Yellow Horse was dead. Funny, irrepressible Jamie, who a year ago had stood with us outside the governor’s mansion to protest against the scheduled execution of Carey Dean Moore. Jamie, who always insisted on tuning the car radio away from my sacred NPR to Country-Western. Jamie, who moved back to Pine Ridge last fall, concerned that he would not survive another winter on the streets of Lincoln. Jamie Yellow Horse, who survived the winter but not the spring, drinking on the streets of Whiteclay.

The Battle for Whiteclay is a two-hour-long documentary film, produced and directed by Mark Vasina, about how four off-sale stores in the tiny hamlet of Whiteclay, Nebraska sell millions of cans of beer every year to people like Jamie — vulnerable adults who come from the officially dry Pine Ridge Reservation a few feet across the South Dakota state line to enlist a few beers (particularly the fortified malt liquors like “Hurricane” and “Colt 45” that allow a man or a woman to get drunk quicker) in a fruitless attempt to forget unemployment, disappointment, and more than a century of cultural genocide.

The film focuses on the activism of those who have called on the State of Nebraska to enforce its own liquor laws so that Whiteclay is no longer an attractive nuisance to the people in Pine Ridge. Since the establishments are all off-sale and since the reservation is dry, there is no legal place for most of the purchasers to drink their beers. Jamie and his friends, like much of the clientele, were drinking in public, which is illegal in Nebraska. In addition, as the video makes clear through footage almost accidentally shot by a Nebraska state trooper, establishments continue to sell to patrons who are intoxicated — also illegal in Nebraska. Investigator Byron Peterson has repeatedly heard allegations that that at least some of the dealers have been known to sell on credit, sell to minors, sell for sexual favors and trade beer for services, such as the shakedown of other patrons who have defaulted on credit agreements. Jamie and his friends chose to drink in Whiteclay. But they have the right to the context of protection from their own addictions that other Nebraskans have, and they did not and do not receive it.

In addition, Whiteclay is in a section of Nebraska that was originally set up as a buffer zone for the Pine Ridge reservation. President Theodore Roosevelt unilaterally abrogated this agreement more than 100 years ago, but the legality of that action is in question, and it may be that the liquor stores are illegal under properly understood federal law.

The documentary shows scenes of drinking in Whiteclay and gives a background glimpse of the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation, but most of it focuses on the various processes that opponents have taken to close down the beer stores. Thus we see a teach-in and march in Lincoln, marches and blockades in Whiteclay, and hearings at the county board, the state liquor commission and the state legislature dealing with various licensing questions. Most of the decisions favor the beer stores. After all, those millions of cans of beer constitute considerable profit for those who sell them, as well as generating sales and excise tax revenue for the State of Nebraska and the federal government. We see and hear the people who drink (mostly Lakota), the people who regulate the drinking (mostly white), and the people concerned with closing down illegal beer sales in Whiteclay (Lakota, white, and other Indian activists such as former AIM leader Russell Means, Oglala Lakota member Duane Martin, Sr., and Frank LaMere of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska).

I watched the video with students in my summer Native American Literature class at UNL. Most of them were ‘ordinary’ middle class students, uninformed about Whiteclay or Native issues in general. They found the video eye-opening and informative. A few had received minor alcohol-related citations and were amazed at the volume of public impairment that was tolerated in Whiteclay. People die in Whiteclay and nothing happens, but if a UNL student were to die drunk on the streets of Lincoln there would definitely be a public outcry. Lincoln is also well served by Cornhusker Place, a detox center, which offers protection to folk like Jamie Yellow Horse who pass out or are otherwise publicly impaired in the city and county.

While the students found the shots of various board hearings boring, they also found them informative, and one student — who had been thinking to herself that this had nothing to do with her — changed her mind when she saw her state senator on the screen. This did concern her, and as a voter, she had a say in who sits on the legislative committees governing Whiteclay. Although the video talks about the astronomically high rate of poverty and unemployment on Pine Ridge and the complete lack of alcohol treatment facilities in the region, the students said that they would have liked to see more emphasis on how shutting down Whiteclay could be part of sustained economic and social development on both Pine Ridge and in northwest Nebraska. They certainly agreed that the beer stores made Whiteclay a death trap for people caught in the vicious circle of despair and drinking, and that checking the illegal and predatory sales was important. But they also agreed that this open sore was primarily a symptom of the underlying dysfunctions on the reservation.

Closing down Whiteclay would not mean that everyone was safe and happy on Pine Ridge. Any huge social problem can only be solved one piece at a time. Stopping the sale of beer for illegal consumption in Whiteclay is one tangible part of a solution — one that could be achieved if Nebraska were willing to enforce its own laws and to take seriously its obligations to regulate liquor sales. What the students applauded most in the film was the portrayal of the Pine Ridge activists, the young men, the mothers, the grandmothers, who maintained their sobriety and pride in the midst of the despair, who did not give in to drinking, and who were voting with their feet in the marches, their heads in the blockades and their hearts against the excessive beer sales. These activists, like community activists in any ill-favored community, will have to be the core for change on Pine Ridge and in Whiteclay. But they deserve all the help they can get from Frank LaMere, Russell Means, Byron Peterson, Mark Vasina, Nebraskans for Peace and everyone else.

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