Mary Barry-Magsamen has seen the worst that life can throw at people.
As director of a nonprofit that serves women and families overcoming addiction and mental illness, she’s seen the effects of substance and domestic abuse on families.
But even her professional experience didn’t prepare her for a recent trip to Whiteclay, where she and a small group of Nebraska dignitaries went to learn about the effects of alcohol sales on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“I’ve seen poverty. I’ve seen really chronic mental illness,” she said. “It’s not that I’m a rookie or new to any of these issues. It was just so depressing to see that there.
“There just seems to be no hope or no sense of something good can happen.”
The road from Lincoln to Whiteclay is long, and it ends abruptly in a place where men and women drink openly in the streets near four beer stores that sell nearly 4 million cans of beer a year. The town, population 10, has long been the source of divisiveness between activists who would like to see the beer stores shut down and those who support their right to operate.
Riots in 1999 left a grocery store burning and several protesters injured in the streets of Whiteclay.
At the state Capitol, senators have tried for years to pass legislation that would close the beer stores.
Last year, the four beer stores sold the equivalent of 3.9 million 12-ounce cans of beer. That compares to 3.6 million cans the year before.
Sales generate significant tax revenue, with $114,000 going to Nebraska last year and $213,000 to the federal government by way of excise taxes.
Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, who has long led efforts to shut down the stores, said he is hopeful state officials, including recently elected Gov. Pete Ricketts, will find the political will to address the tragedy in Whiteclay soon.
“It is not hyperbole to say that as Nebraskans we have blood on our hands and that through our failure to act we have contributed to the deaths of thousands,” said LaMere, who went to Whiteclay with Barry-Magsamen, state Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, legislative aide Kaitlin Reece and filmmaker John Maisch.
“Every time Nebraska leaders beg the question, more die and children suffer -- in the name of what?" LaMere asked. "Free enterprise and money?”
Bruce Bonfleur, who runs Lakota Hope Ministry in Whiteclay with his wife, Marsha, said little has changed since efforts to shut down the beer stores began more than a decade ago.
Just as many stores operate in the town as did more than 15 years ago. Just as many men and women go there each day to buy beer, and just as many people drink in the streets as did when he and his wife first opened their ministry 13 years ago.
“Nothing has changed on the street,” Bonfleur said. “There are still people suffering in all kinds of ways, emotionally, physically.
“There’s no physical evidence of the state of Nebraska doing anything to improve the conditions up here.”
That could change.
In a recent statement to the Journal Star, Ricketts said he plans to seek changes in Whiteclay by working with those with knowledge of the community’s problems.
“As many parties have sought solutions for Whiteclay’s challenges over the years, many suggestions have come from outsiders without local knowledge,” he said. “My administration is committed to working with community leaders, law enforcement and the Department of Health and Human Services as they work together to support change in Whiteclay.
“There can be a brighter future for the community, but that change will be spearheaded by individuals who have intimate knowledge of the challenges the community faces and the vision to realize that change.”
Maisch, who grew up in Grand Island, is the producer of the recently released film “Sober Indian/Dangerous Indian,” which explores alcohol addiction and sales in Whiteclay. He also is a former Oklahoma assistant attorney general whose job involved enforcing state liquor regulations.
He said he got interested in Whiteclay three years ago after visiting with Diane Riibe, former executive director of the Omaha-based Project Extra Mile.
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One of the most effective means state leaders in Oklahoma found to reduce liquor violations was to prohibit off-sale liquor licenses in towns with fewer than 200 people. Towns that small simply don’t have the public infrastructure or law enforcement to deal with alcohol sales, Maisch said.
With the nearest law enforcement agency more than 20 minutes away, Whiteclay certainly lacks adequate protection, he said.
He said he decided to document the lives of four men who drink regularly on the streets of Whiteclay to raise awareness of the devastating effects of alcohol sales on the Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge.
He'd like to see state or federal legislation that would ban beer sales in the town, as well as increased funding of tribal programs that support families hurt by alcoholism.
However, Maisch said, real change in Pine Ridge must come from within, something he said he realized after listening to a prominent Lakota activist near a campfire one night.
“One woman said a sober Indian is a dangerous Indian and 'that’s why they’re afraid of us, because we’re sober.'"
Maisch has shown his film across Nebraska, and along the way met Barry-Magsamen and Crawford.
Crawford said she wanted to go to Whiteclay so she can better navigate any future legislation to improve conditions in the town.
She said she hasn’t decided whether to propose such legislation.
“I have a lot to learn yet,” she said.
In early July, those lessons came fast and hard as she saw firsthand the human tragedy she'd only heard about. People drank next to dilapidated, boarded-up buildings, while others begged for change from visitors.
“That is a striking view when you first see it,” she said.
She said she saw many outright violations of state liquor laws, including public intoxication. And she believes many of the problems could be solved by increasing law enforcement in Whiteclay.
Crawford said she knows many people have tried to solve the problem, but she isn’t deterred.
“Just because we can’t solve all of the problems in Whiteclay doesn’t mean we shouldn’t solve any of the problems in Whiteclay,” she said. “The question is, what is the appropriate step to take this year, if any?”
Maisch said it will be important to focus on the public cost to motivate lawmakers to make lasting change.
For example, he said, drunkenness in Whiteclay forces nearby communities to constantly send fire trucks, ambulances and police cruisers to respond to emergencies. In addition, local governments spend thousands of dollars each year prosecuting crimes that occur there, he said.
“Whiteclay is allowed to exist on the back of the taxpayers of Nebraska,” said Maisch.
He said he and LaMere plan to hold a summit on the Pine Ridge Reservation in mid-October that will seek solutions.
And next summer, Maisch plans to host a walk from Whiteclay to Scottsbluff, home of High Plains Budweiser, the largest distributor of beer to Whiteclay.
He said Budweiser sells nearly 70 percent of the beer purchased in Whiteclay.
“Budweiser really holds the key to changing Whiteclay,” he said.