It was once a place for carnivals and dances, a place for families and picnics. So how did the town of Whiteclay come to be known as a place of booze, violence and protest?
BY KEVIN ABOUREZK | Lincoln Journal Star
WHITECLAY — She came here to dance.
Propelled by news of the war’s end, she piled into the back of a friend’s pickup and flew to Whiteclay. The wind in her hair, the smiling, laughing faces of friends painted gold by the setting sun.
The 14-year-old wasn’t bothered by the lack of music. It was enough to leave behind for a moment the responsibilities of taking care of her brothers and sisters.
Remembering that afternoon 60 years later, Yvonne Powers pauses and reminds herself Whiteclay isn’t what it used to be — a place for dances, picnics and carnivals, a welcome escape from reservation life.
Now it offers a different kind of escape.
“I have a lot of mixed feelings,” she says. “The issue really isn’t how many bars there are. The issue is, ‘Why do they buy it?’”
Few places are as vilified as this.
Here, four beer stores sold the equivalent of 4.5 million 12-ounce cans of beer in 2003, mostly to Oglala Sioux tribal members living on the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, population 15,500, just across the Nebraska border in South Dakota.
The beer sales in the unincorporated town inspired heated debate in the halls of Nebraska state government. The sales spurred 150 protesters to march on the Governor’s Mansion in March 2003. Protesters demanded tougher enforcement in Whiteclay, where they claim alcohol violations are commonplace. The fuss over beer sales has caused many to forget the other merchants doing business on the town’s streets.
Nearly every year, including this one, Nebraska legislators debate alcohol sales in Whiteclay. Officials including former governors, heads of the Nebraska State Patrol and the state’s attorney general clamor over improving law enforcement in Whiteclay.
Their proposals are numerous.
* Legalize alcohol on the reservation
* Provide additional law enforcement to patrol Whiteclay
* Stop alcohol sales in the town
Meanwhile, tribal activists and anti-alcohol advocates portray the alcohol trade in Whiteclay as an example of contemporary exploitation of Native people. They see little excuse for the existence of four liquor licenses in a village of 14.
For more than five years, a Nebraska nonprofit group has helped keep the town in the spotlight.
“Whiteclay is not a community, it’s an enterprise,” said Tim Rinne, state coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace. “We sell 11,000 cans of beer a day to a population that can’t legally drink it. It’s a recipe for criminal activity.”
* * *
To Marguerite Vey-Miller, Whiteclay in the 1970s was a place to avoid if you wanted to keep your teeth.
The little town had beer joints then, and she remembers it as a place you went to see spectacular fights, barroom brawls that would inevitably pour into the street.
So maybe it was only natural she would later decide to research the similarities the village had with other down-and-out places. On a clear, cold November afternoon in 2003, she conducted her research using a scale her husband devised as a doctoral student in sociology.
The scale identified characteristics shared by skid rows, downtrodden neighborhoods usually found in cities where the homeless and substance-addicted congregate.
While walking Whiteclay’s streets, the director of a Chadron housing agency says she witnessed men sharing alcohol, people loitering and, most shocking, women offering sexual favors for alcohol. The existence of four beer stores, two secondhand stores and a pawn shop only added to the similarities Whiteclay shared with inner-city ghettos used to devise the scale.
Looking back at her research, she blames Nebraska leaders for allowing Whiteclay to become her state’s version of skid row.
“You would think the state would be embarrassed by Whiteclay, but they’re not,” she says.
To Vey-Miller, the cause of their apathy is obvious: money.
In 2003, the state of Nebraska collected $115,000 in alcohol excise taxes from beer stores in Whiteclay. That same year, the federal government collected $248,000 in excise taxes from those stores.
Excise taxes are separate from sales taxes. While an individual business’ sales taxes are kept confidential, sales taxes collected from a community are not.
In 2002, the state of Nebraska collected $194,000 in sales taxes from Whiteclay businesses. That figure includes taxes collected from the town’s beer stores and its two grocery stores, two restaurants, a gift shop, furniture maker and the odd assortment of auto repair and sales businesses.
Of course, the state isn’t the only beneficiary of Whiteclay beer sales.
Beer store owners have reaped untold fortunes from the town’s alcohol trade.
For one Lakota woman, the sale of alcohol in border towns comes at too high a price.
Judy Merdanian, a 61-year-old retired nurse, lost her 32-year-old son, Bart, when his car was struck by a drunken driver racing home from a South Dakota border town four years ago.
“They call alcoholism a disease, but yet they legally sell alcohol and we deal with the results,” she said. “Why should all these reservation border towns be making these millions of dollars?”
* * *
They could just as easily be fraternity brothers manning the house bar on a rush weekend.
Dan Brehmer, 28, has a goatee and reads a magazine behind the counter. Clay Brehmer, 30, wears a baseball cap and looks barely old enough to drink himself as he hands a six-pack to a customer.
The brothers handle a brisk business on this warm December afternoon at their Whiteclay beer store and gas station, State Line Liquor. They make change and pull tall cans of malt liquor from a cooler behind the counter as a Native man swings the front door open and asks, “What can I get for six bucks?”
Without speaking, Clay shoves several cans of Hurricane — 6 percent alcohol — over the counter.
The newest alcohol merchants in town, the Brehmers opened their store in February 2002. Dan lives in Chadron, a town of 5,600 about 25 miles southwest of Whiteclay. Clay lives in Rushville, population 1,000, about 22 miles south of the border town.
They share equal proceeds from the business and, without revealing figures, admit it is a moneymaker.
“I know we do better business than Chadron,” Dan Brehmer says. “It is good.”
The Brehmers say they understand and even lament health problems and crime caused by drinking on the reservation. But they say they are meeting a demand fed by tribal members unable to buy alcohol elsewhere.
Besides, were they to refuse to sell alcohol to Natives, they would be labeled racists.
“I think that dry reservation is a joke,” Dan says. “Somebody’s always going to make money off it.”
Like other business owners in Whiteclay, the Brehmers say they don’t like seeing drunken men and women loitering on the town’s streets. They would like to see their streets cleaned up, which they say would attract business.
If it weren’t for drinkers in the streets, Whiteclay wouldn’t have the rowdy reputation that attracts negative media attention from around the country, they say.
“It’s more like the Wild West up here,” Dan says.
As you drive the town’s gravel roads, it’s easy to focus on the men and women drinking in alleys and under awnings of abandoned buildings. It’s easy to wonder who would sleep on the makeshift beds built along the sides of buildings. It’s especially easy to forget there are other businesses here.
That would be a mistake, says Vic Clarke, owner of VJ’s Grocery.
Whiteclay isn’t just about beer, he says. It’s about providing tribal residents with the necessities of life — food, gifts and flowers.
The 48-year-old credits the Lakota people for his business’ 11 years.
“Without the reservation,” he says, “Whiteclay wouldn’t exist.”
He tries to give back, hiring Native people, donating money to Alcoholics Anonymous on the reservation and offering credit to customers when they can’t afford milk, bread and fruit.
Still, he has not always been treated likewise.
In July 1999, protesters looted and burned his store after a march held to protest the unsolved murders of tribal members Ronald Hard Heart and Wally Black Elk.
Clarke doesn’t blame the Lakota for the incident. He says outsiders were responsible for the destruction. In fact, he says, during subsequent marches, Lakota people lined up outside his store to protect it.
Sure, Whiteclay has its problems, he says. He especially dislikes seeing drinkers drive his customers away, whether by begging for money or urinating in public.
Regardless, the media have gone too far in portraying the town as a hellhole with no redeeming qualities, he says.
“I love living here. This is home. I love the people,” he says, sitting in the five-bedroom home he shares with his son behind the store. “We’re here and there’s a purpose.”
* * *
They called the scenic, tree-lined stretch of highway “Sioux-icide Drive.”
The deaths of friends along the road between their town and Whiteclay prompted Rushville High School students to bestow the ghastly name upon it more than 30 years ago, says Ken Winston.
“When the Native Americans got killed, no one paid any attention to it,” says the 52-year-old Lincoln attorney and former counsel to the Nebraska legislative committee that deals with liquor control laws. “I just think that people get stereotypes ingrained in their minds.”
State and tribal leaders on both sides of the border have long fought to find solutions to the many social problems burdening the Lakota as a result of border town alcohol sales.
Their efforts to implement solutions have been an uphill struggle.
The most recent push began with the murders of Hard Heart and Black Elk, whose battered bodies were found in a ditch between Pine Ridge and Whiteclay. The deaths led tribal activists to host marches from the reservation to the Nebraska border, protesting alcohol sales and demanding justice.
The deaths also caught the attention of a Nebraska activist group.
In many ways, Nebraskans for Peace has been responsible for keeping state leaders’ eyes fixed on Whiteclay since 1999. The group helped organize a 2001 march to Whiteclay, as well as a 2003 demonstration and panel discussion in Lincoln. They also have worked to get state senators involved.
“Whiteclay is not only a poster child for border towns but also for lax liquor control enforcement,” says Nebraskans for Peace President Mark Vasina.
After spending more than a year documenting life in Whiteclay on film, Vasina says violations of liquor laws are routine and evident to even the most casual observer. The most effective solution, he says, might be the most obvious: Enforce the law.
But Martin Costello, a Nebraska State Patrol officer who oversees alcohol enforcement for the agency, says the Patrol is already enforcing the law in Whiteclay.
He says granting the town’s three liquor licenses extra coverage means neglecting enforcement of the 600 other licenses that exist in towns with no local law enforcement.
Besides, he says, simply issuing citations isn’t enough.
“It doesn’t address some of the more pressing social issues that come with this,” he says.
Vasina agrees enforcement is only part of the solution, and he suggests shutting down alcohol sales in Whiteclay.
Doing so would force tribal members to buy alcohol farther down the road in Rushville or Gordon, where residents would not be as likely to allow such flagrant violations of the law as take place in Whiteclay each day, he said.
“That would force the alcohol sales into towns that have community standards,” he says.
Tim Rinne, the group’s state coordinator, sees the root of the problem in state leaders’ unwillingness to address alcohol sales and regulation. Many state senators and elected officials simply don’t like the idea of denying anyone the right to make a living at a legal trade, he says.
Yet he argues there is something inherently immoral about a body of government reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in alcohol taxes while not attempting to remedy the effect of those sales.
“It all boils down to a question of political will,” he says. “Does the state of Nebraska have the political will to address this issue?”
At least one state leader does.
Sen. Don Preister of Omaha has taken a personal interest, introducing four bills since 2002 that would have affected the town.
Preister says he was motivated to help after reading about the unsolved murders. His proposals included using excise taxes collected from the town to pay for law enforcement and prohibiting liquor licenses in communities lacking adequate law enforcement. The first bill he introduced would have prohibited alcohol sales in Whiteclay.
None made it past the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee.
Some wonder why, including Rinne, who questions whether senators simply see Native people as drunks not worth protecting.
“I think we have a bunch of white senators with stereotypes about Indians,” he says.
Preister says he never experienced overt discrimination when trying to get his bills passed and argues senators are simply uneducated about conditions in Whiteclay. He says his efforts have helped change perspectives.
“I think there are senators who recognize now that it’s a problem.”
Some changes, however, are on the horizon in Whiteclay.
A new jail and detox center are being built just east of the road between Pine Ridge and Whiteclay. The $16.5 million facility will have 96 jail and detox beds and will employ about 50 people.
Tribal leaders hope to provide alcohol and substance abuse treatment as part of the center’s programs.
And efforts are progressing to improve enforcement in Whiteclay.
For two years, the state of Nebraska and the Oglala Sioux Tribe have discussed cross-deputizing tribal police to patrol the village, a plan that was stalled by lack of money.
That changed in September, when U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne, R-3rd District, secured $100,000 in federal money to go toward paying tribal police to enforce laws in Whiteclay.
The money should be available as soon as the state and tribe finalize details of the agreement.
“We just feel this is a real embarrassment to the state, and we want to do whatever we can to help,” Osborne says.
* * *
Charlotte Black Elk wants her tribe to attack its own problems.
“If people had some pride,” she says, “they wouldn’t be panhandling in Whiteclay.”
It starts with the pride of going to work each morning, she says. With reservation unemployment rates hovering at 85 percent, few tribal members know the joy of providing for their families through a hard day’s work.
What’s stopping Oglala Sioux tribal leaders from creating jobs?
“Sloth and politics,” says Black Elk.
Tribal leaders need to quit talking about economic development and make it happen, she says. By providing jobs, the tribe would give its members hope for the future. And that hope would eliminate the Lakota people’s reliance on alcohol to soothe their pain, she says.
“Those social issues have to be addressed by our tribe and our people.”
Yvonne Powers, who once lived on the reservation, agrees it’s up to the Lakota to determine their destiny.
The 73-year-old retired nurse who lives in Lincoln remembers a time when stores in Whiteclay wouldn’t sell alcohol to the Lakota. The light-skinned, half-Lakota woman describes once being asked by a darker-skinned uncle to buy beer for him.
That was back when the town was known as Dewing, a name still recognized by Sheridan County officials. Back when it was still rare to see Lakota men and women drinking on the town’s streets, or elsewhere.
“We weren’t afraid and nothing happened,” she says. “It was a nice little town.”