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Whiteclay

Whiteclay as seen from the south last October.

One month has passed since the last beer was sold in Whiteclay. In that time, it has seen plenty of changes.

The thousands of cans of beer sold per day, drunks passed out on the sidewalk and emergency calls to Sheridan County officials are in the past. In their place is a task force that includes leaders from the Oglala Lakota tribe, state of Nebraska, nonprofits and others to transform the so-called “skid row on the prairie” into something it has never before been – a positive for Pine Ridge.

Eyesore buildings have been demolished. Native and governmental leaders have visions that include a rehabilitation center, business incubators, a public park and even a YMCA. These are big dreams for Whiteclay made possible after its four beer stores lost their liquor licenses effective May 1.

A legacy of selling alcohol – and the rampant public safety and health problems it presented – to the officially dry Pine Ridge Reservation just across the border in South Dakota can’t be erased overnight.

But now, Whiteclay’s despair is slowly being replaced by a welcome, cautious hope.

While the shadow of alcohol sales and a court appeal loom over the long-overdue rejuvenation, this change is a needed one for Whiteclay and the adjacent Pine Ridge reservation.

The South Dakota reservation is the poorest in the United States, with nearly half of its population below the federal poverty limit and unemployment that often exceeds 80 percent. There, residents have among the shortest life expectancies – 47 for men, 52 for women – in the Western Hemisphere, while fetal alcohol syndrome and infant mortality rates are many times higher than the national average.

These are the lasting scars of Whiteclay. They will not heal overnight.

Whiteclay’s entire history has centered on selling alcohol to the Natives on the dry reservation, stemming from the moment in 1904 that President Theodore Roosevelt shrank the 50-square-mile buffer zone intended to keep bootleggers and liquor off the reservation.

Yes, residents on the reservation have other sources to get alcohol. But Whiteclay was the most notorious and easily accessible contributor to the alcoholism and societal problems for Pine Ridge because of its proximity within walking distance of the reservation’s largest community.

The closures of Whiteclay’s beer stores alone can’t solve problems on Pine Ridge – that’s why having an outlet for constructive change is so critical. Rather than exacerbating the reservation’s problems, Whiteclay now has the potential to begin addressing and possibly reversing the chaos it helped fuel.

Now, the excitement and ideas surrounding the Whiteclay task force must come to fruition. The Nebraska community, at long last, can take the first few steps on a road to right more than a century worth of wrongs inflicted upon the Native nations of Pine Ridge.

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