A little more than two years ago, Whiteclay, Nebraska, was an unincorporated town of 12 located 200 yards from a dry Pine Ridge Reservation that had four stores selling about 11,000 cans of beer a day.
Now, many of the people who worked years to shut down those beer stores and give people on the reservation hope of a better day, can gaze into the future and see that dream become real.
John Maisch, formerly of Nebraska and now living in Oklahoma, is one of them.
"Frank (LaMere) would often say that he was always told that closing Whiteclay's beer stores would be impossible. And it probably was impossible," Maisch said. "And then at some point it became impractical."
Then about a year before the stores closed, he said, the momentum shifted, and impossible and impractical became, instead, inevitable.
This weekend, Whiteclay will hold its fourth leadership summit, the first without Winnebago activist LaMere, the leader who worked from 1999 to 2017 to close Whiteclay’s four beer stores.
Last year's summit was the first since the town's four beer stores were closed through a 2017 Nebraska Supreme Court decision. Maisch, an attorney and director of the documentary, "Sober Indian Dangerous Indian," and LaMere led the summit last year.
The summit will reconvene with heavier hearts, Maisch said, because of the losses of LaMere and Alan Jacobsen, 65, another Whiteclay activist, who died unexpectedly in May.
LaMere, 69, died June 16 of bile duct cancer.
He said at the time of the last summit he was optimistic about the future of Whiteclay and the Pine Ridge.
“Healing begins when the talk of healing begins,” LaMere said. “Healing begins when those who can provide that healing step up and those who need that help can respond.”
It wasn't so long ago that Whiteclay was identified with sheer hopelessness and despair. Now, sometime in the future it could be known as a place for help and healing.
"Having a strong, meaningful presence in Whiteclay is the only assurance that the beer stores will never return there," Maisch said.
Lincoln resident Jacobsen understood the obligation Nebraskans had to help mitigate the harm caused by Whiteclay beer sales.
Before his death, he set into motion the purchase of the Lakota Hope Center in Whiteclay for use as a fetal alcohol spectrum disorders trauma center.
After his death, Maisch purchased the 5½ acres so it could be used for the trauma center, if that is what is decided.
"Having secured this property is a really important first step," he said.
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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are neurological and cognitive conditions that can be caused by women drinking alcohol when they are pregnant.
Nora Boesem, of Newell, South Dakota, who has fostered more than 160 children from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and adopted eight of them, said in a Journal Star guest editorial that while it has been the joy of her and her husband's lives, raising the children has also been filled with heartache, because each child has suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Boesem, who has a master's degree in social work and is a qualified mental health professional, and Deb Evensen, who has spent more than 35 years working with teachers and counselors to develop strategies to communicate more effectively with students and young adults with the disorder, will speak at the summit.
They will talk about the trauma center they have imagined that could provide fetal alcohol spectrum diagnosis, treatment and prevention services to those in Pine Ridge.
Maisch said some people might think getting a trauma center up and operating would be impossible or at the very least impractical. But those people who were involved in the closing of the beer stores know what it's like to go from impossible to inevitable.
"And that's really what we're striving to do," he said.
The 60-bed Oglala Sioux Lakota Nursing Home was opened in the past five years south of Whiteclay. And it is already expanding, with the walls and roof up for a 12-bed memory care unit, he said.
Another concern on the reservation has been high rates of violence and murder against Native women. Murder is the third-leading cause of death in the United States among American Indian and Alaska Native women, and rates of violence on reservations can be up to 10 times higher than the national average.
Nebraska ranked seventh-highest, and Omaha is in the top 10, for missing indigenous women cases.
In the past year, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill (LB154), introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, that will instruct the Nebraska State Patrol to collect data on missing Native women in the state, study the problem, identify barriers, and create new partnerships for reporting before June 1, 2020.
Other speakers at this weekend's summit include:
* Darrell LaMere, who will share early childhood memories of his brother, Frank.
* Dennis Carlson, who will pay tribute to Jacobsen.
* Favian Kennedy, who will speak about the Oglala Lakota tribe's growing number of treatment programs.
* St. Monica's Mary Barry-Magsamen of Lincoln, who will speak about the contrast between her first visit to Whiteclay in July 2015 and her visit to Whiteclay in October 2019.
The summit will take place at Our Lady of the Sioux Church, U.S. 18, halfway between Whiteclay and the Prairie Wind Casino and Hotel in Oglala, South Dakota, and at the outdoor arbor at the Lakota Hope Center.
Cost of registration for the summit is $50. Email DryWhiteclay@cox.net.