Film aims to turn up heat on Whiteclay

Town’s beer stores ‘export … misery to Pine Ridge’

Published Thursday April 23, 2009

A documentary coming to Sioux Falls next week chronicles a situation one Nebraskan describes as “genocide” that continues today on the South Dakota-Nebraska border.

“The Battle for Whiteclay” aims to depict how alcohol has ravaged Pine Ridge families for generations and – eventually – to shutter four Nebraska businesses that sell huge amounts of beer to reservation residents.

The film will be shown at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Black Sheep Coffee House, 1007 W. 11th St.

“Whiteclay has made millionaires and has filled tax coffers in the state of Nebraska, and they have been able to export the misery to Pine Ridge and to South Dakota,” Native American activist Frank LaMere said in an interview Wednesday.

According to the film’s promoters, Whiteclay is home to four businesses that sell the equivalent of 12,500 cans of beer a day, mostly to customers from the Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is banned.

The film follows LaMere and fellow Native American activist Russell Means “through the streets of Whiteclay to the halls of Nebraska’s State Capitol in their efforts to end alcohol sales in the place many have dubbed ‘skid row on the prairie,’” according to an announcement for the free Sioux Falls screening.

In the film, men are shown passed out in the streets of the village.

“How can we talk about the good life, how can we talk about the promises of our state when Whiteclay flourishes in our backyard?” says LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska who lives in South Sioux City, Neb.

Mark Welsch, Omaha coordinator of Nebraskans for Peace, has seen the film and said it left him stunned that Nebraska allows the stores to remain open.

“I mean, we’re killing Indians by allowing that to happen,” he said. “It’s genocide. It’s no different, really, than when we were shooting them in the heads, when we were trying to take over their land.”

Driving home message

Filmmaker Mark Vasina of Lincoln, Neb., says his goal in creating the documentary was to drive home the story in a way that words alone can’t.

“Certainly my reason for making it was to provide a much better way to help people in Nebraska and around the country understand what’s going on,” he said. The film, he adds, “is a way to take people into Whiteclay.”

It also has given Vasina and his colleagues a platform for discussion. Tuesday’s Sioux Falls screening will include a discussion after the film.

Whiteclay, an unincorporated village with 14 residents, is about 200 feet from the Pine Ridge Reservation border. Its four beer stores sell the equivalent of 4.5 million 12-ounce cans of beer annually, according to promoters of the film. According to figures from the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, 395,302 gallons of beer were sold at Whiteclay in 2008.

Obeying the laws

Stuart Kozal, a proprietor at Whiteclay’s Jumping Eagle Inn, said Wednesday that another businessman in town had given him a DVD of “The Battle for Whiteclay,” but he has not had an opportunity to watch it yet. The Jumping Eagle sold 45,754 cases of beer in 2008, according to estimates from the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

Kozal said he was too busy Wednesday to speak at length about the issue.

In 2007, he told USA Today that he’s a businessman who obeys the laws. It’s illegal to sell alcohol to anyone visibly intoxicated or under age. Kozal also told the newspaper that he’d consider closing his store “if I honestly thought that doing away with Whiteclay would do away with the problem on the reservation with alcohol.” It wouldn’t, he said then. “It’s got to come from within the person.”

Governor holds the cards

Politically, there have been several elected officials in Nebraska “who, I think, have been sincerely concerned about this,” Vasina said. However, “there’s a wall that everyone runs up against when you deal with this, and it’s hard to break through that wall or cross over that wall or go around that wall.”

In Vasina’s view, the governor of Nebraska could be the key to improving the situation.

“I think the governor is the single most important person in the solution to this problem within Nebraska,” he says.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman has been silent on the issue.

Vasina says he can’t recall Heineman ever making a public statement on the matter.

Heineman’s communications director, Jen Rae Hein, also said this week that to her knowledge, the governor has never made any public comments regarding Whiteclay.

Asked whether the governor has seen the documentary, Hein said he has not.

LaMere says he voiced his concerns to the governor early on in his administration.

“He acknowledged my concern and walked away from it,” LeMere said. “When Nebraskans and South Dakotans truly understand the impact that Whiteclay has on all of us, I fully expect that we will act.”

Today, however, Nebraska law officers and legislators are aware of the situation in Whiteclay, and “they have no will to change it.”

“Even when a great truth stands before you, there’s no guarantee that those in the public trust will act,” LaMere said. “That is Whiteclay 2009.”

Jeff Martin can be reached at 605-331-2373.

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