When Dennis Carlson first drove through Whiteclay in June 2015, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
So, in April 2016, he visited again. The sights hadn’t changed, with people passed out drunk or urinating on sidewalks in the unincorporated community of 12 residents.
“It was something I could not imagine was taking place in Nebraska. I’m a lifelong Nebraskan,” said the retired counsel for discipline for the Nebraska Supreme Court. “It was stunning. It was so immoral, and it reeked of evil.”
A year after Carlson confirmed his suspicions, the four beer stores in town — which sold an average of 3.5 million cans of beer to residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation a few hundred yards across the South Dakota border — were denied a renewal of their liquor licenses by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, which cited a lack of law enforcement in the area.
On April 30, 2017, the stores closed for good, over the objections of many Sheridan County residents. Whiteclay hasn’t sold a drop of alcohol since.
In the three years that have followed, the ripple effects of the closures have spread across Sheridan County and the Pine Ridge.
Using statistics from state agencies, John Maisch, a Nebraska native who teaches business law at the University of Central Oklahoma, has quantified some of the differences in a research paper he published last week.
Many of the changes — such as decreases in drunken-driving crashes and felony charges filed in county court — flowed logically from the closure of the beer stores.
“Not only Whiteclay, but Sheridan County is better off with these stores closed,” said Maisch, who also produced the documentary "Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian" about Whiteclay. “Nebraska today is less complicit than it was three years ago in the destruction of a tribe and a community.”
Ever since President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 shrunk the 50-mile buffer zone around the Pine Ridge to 1 mile, Whiteclay sat in a prime location to sell beer to the officially dry reservation — and did just that for more than a century.
The violence alcohol fueled in Whiteclay has dried up, said Sheridan County Sheriff Jeff Brewer. Gone are the vagrants and drunks passed out on the streets, the fights that occasionally turned fatal.
He estimates his department handles no more than one or two calls from Whiteclay per week.
“As far as problem areas in the community, I wouldn’t say it’s one,” said Brewer, who was elected to his post in 2018 after serving as police chief in nearby Gordon.
“I can’t say something won’t pop up tomorrow. But that environment there always had problems that raised issues we didn’t have the manpower to deal with.”
Despite the volume of beer sales that disappeared quite literally overnight in 2017, sales tax receipts increased in subsequent years. State sales taxes collected in Whiteclay and Sheridan County have grown 11.5% and 3.2%, respectively, since 2016.
The construction of a Family Dollar store in 2017 spurred much of the growth in Whiteclay. Pine Ridge residents noted the store always seems busy, along with more patrons at the town’s grocery store and restaurant.
Much of that, they say, stems from the safer environment.
“People feel comfortable going up there now,” said Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from 2013-14, and a cousin of Jeff Brewer. “Before, you were harassed by street people, following you into stores, asking you for money.”
Whiteclay’s streets cleaned up quickly following the end of alcohol sales.
Restoring the damage the beer store owners caused the tribe, Maisch said, will take far longer.
“Once we turned the faucet off," he said, "it’s going to take time."
Oglala Lakota County, across the South Dakota border from Whiteclay, is entirely within the Pine Ridge Reservation. It has the lowest per-capita income of any of the 3,143 counties in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association found no county’s residents had a shorter life expectancy (66 years).
Bootlegging remains on the reservation, said Favian Kennedy, executive director of Anpetu Luta Otipi, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s comprehensive alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment program.
Substance abuse and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are widespread. A 2013 survey found the average Pine Ridge resident had 10 drinks per sitting — far above the federal guidelines for binge drinking — despite "a large portion" of Pine Ridge residents abstaining from alcohol.
He noted the agency also sees far fewer people addicted to just one substance than in years past.
“Individuals affected most by Whiteclay have the most severe alcohol-abuse disorders,” Kennedy said. “That’s not going to go away with the stores closing. The norms are changing in a positive direction, but that’s slow.”
Though the closures still anger some residents, Jeff Brewer said, a safer Whiteclay has freed up Sheridan County deputies to more aggressively combat methamphetamine.
Bryan Brewer now considers Whiteclay “a regular little town” — something he’d never thought he’d say — primed for business growth.
Carlson, too, is amazed at the transformation in the five years since he discovered and became involved with Whiteclay.
“It’s hard to describe the feel of old Whiteclay,” Carlson said. “It was a place of hopelessness and despair and depression. To think that Nebraska participated in that shocks one’s conscience.”
Though the societal and health problems on the Pine Ridge remain far from solved, the end of alcohol sales marked the first step down a new path forward for tribe — and brought about a new noun to describe Whiteclay.
“There’s a lot of hope for Whiteclay,” Kennedy said. “The cloud of hopelessness has lifted.”
Continuing coverage: Battle over Whiteclay beer stores
Journal Star coverage of the life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as well as the efforts to close the beer stores in Whiteclay.
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