In the southwestern corner of South Dakota, just off I-90 as it scrapes by the Badlands, there lies a beautiful expanse of rolling prairie, interrupted only by ridges of rugged rock face and pine. This is the Pine Ridge Reservation—home to the Oglala Lakota. As a band of the powerful Lakota tribe, most living on the reservation have storied lineages, some even tracing back to Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud. But the spiritual, nomadic culture of their ancestors is not what exists today. It’s been replaced by injustices, tragedies and sorrows spanning more than a century. Chief among them today is a small, unincorporated village on the other side of the South Dakota-Nebraska border.
Whiteclay, Nebraska. 12 people. Four liquor stores. More than 42 million cans of beer sold in the last 10 years.
It fuels alcoholism that affects nearly every family on a reservation where alcohol is illegal. Here, in the most impoverished county in the United States, it spurs domestic violence, murder, suicide and birth defects that are unprecedented almost anywhere else in the country.
Our mission at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is to give readers a view into this remote area of the country. This project is the product of an in-depth reporting class of 12 students who spent months researching, traveling and editing to bring you these visuals and stories. The places we’ve been span a doublewide trailer where love and sheer will combat the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, to dawn breaking over the Nebraska Sandhills where a soldier marches toward becoming Nebraska’s first native senator to the streets of Whiteclay filled with lives who’ve lost their way. In telling these stories, showing what we’ve seen, we hope readers understand the full effect of the relationship between Whiteclay and Pine Ridge.
In a wild four hours of legal ping-pong Thursday, four Whiteclay beer stores went from flipping “Open for Business” signs to “Closed Until Further Notice.”
Here’s how it happened:
At 9:42 a.m., Thursday, Lancaster County District Judge Andrew Jacobsen issued a scorching seven-page ruling nullifying the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s April 19 decision to revoke the licenses of the Whiteclay stores.
Declaring the NLCC decision “arbitrary and unreasonable” and in violation of the constitutional rights of the beer store owners, the judge also ordered the NLCC not to interfere with the store owners’ efforts to renew their licenses in a stream-lined fashion and to then honor those renewals upon application.
Then, as activists, lawyers and citizens of Sheridan County and the Pine Ridge Reservation celebrated or lamented Judge Jacobsen’s ruling in favor of the beer stores, the legal ground shifted beneath their feet once more.
At 1:33 p.m., Thursday, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, acting for the NLCC, appealed Judge Jacobsen’s order to the Nebraska Court of Appeals, an action that automatically reinstated the NLCC’s revocation of the Whiteclay licenses.
By statute, the State Attorney General’s Office supersedes the decision of the lower district court – and that is essentially what took place within four hours Thursday.
So, as of midnight this Sunday, April 30, the beer stores in Whiteclay will lock their doors and the tiny village will dry out. At least, that is, until a ruling by the Nebraska Court of Appeals, which is likely to be heard in the coming weeks.
On the Pine Ridge Reservation, sadness and anger at the morning’s decision, gave way to surprise and renewed hope with the afternoon’s legal reversal.
“That made my day,” said former tribal chairman Bryan Brewer. “I’m just very happy the attorney general has stepped in and that we are back to where we thought we would be. I’m glad that the liquor stores will be closed.”
Tom Brewer, Nebraska’s first Native American senator, called it a “yo-yo day” – one that went from discouragement in the morning to hope by early afternoon.
“It gets you numb because you don’t know if you should react because you don’t know where it’s all going to end,” said Brewer, an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation whose legislative district includes Whiteclay.
Andrew Snyder, a Scottsbluff attorney who represents the beer store owners, echoed many of Brewer’s sentiments. Snyder said he and his clients were flying high after Jacobsen’s decision Thursday morning but “were feeling pretty disappointed” once the afternoon decision arrived.
Snyder said he will challenge the decision to reinstate the beer ban by filing an appeal early next week with the state court of appeals. The process typically takes six to nine months to work its way through the courts, but Snyder said he’s optimistic the ruling this time will come in under that.
“The evidence is pretty clear and there really isn’t a lot to consider,” he said. “The district court decision is clear and correct.”
That morning district court decision did not mince many words.
“The court finds the NLCC’s decision is in violation of the [beer store owners’] clearly established constitutionally protected interests in obtaining automatic renewal of their existing licenses,” Judge Jacobsen wrote. “The NLCC’s order is void as a matter of law.”
Attorney Snyder initially said he was not surprised by the district court ruling favoring his clients. Judge Jacobsen, he said, simply followed the existing law, which has been in place for more than 20 years.
“The LCC can’t get away with side-stepping the law just because it’s politically expedient,” Snyder said. Snyder said he was surprised, however, that the Lincoln judge went one step farther by invalidating the LCC decision, declaring it void.
“This is something that usually takes three to four months,” Snyder said. “It happened so quickly in this case because the law is so clear and because the commission ignored the law, the judge had no other decision to make.”
Just last week, the three-member state liquor commission ordered the licenses revoked effective at midnight Sunday. In undergirding its decision, the commission cited woeful law enforcement, bootlegging, sexual misconduct and public health and safety issues among its reasons for revoking the four Whiteclay beer store licenses.
“I believe these activities of Whiteclay have gone on way too long and my vote is to not renew the licenses,” Liquor Control Commissioner Bruce Bailey said during the April 19 hearing.
The notorious village of seven residents hugs the Nebraska-South Dakota border and racks up annual beer sales estimated at 3.5 million – many to Oglala Lakota residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is illegal.
Several Pine Ridge teen-agers applauded Thursday’s decision to reinstate the beer ban.
“I think it’s a good thing they’re closed,” said 14-year-old Sergio Alvalos. “So much drinking. It’s bad.”
Said 15-year-old Espy Dixon “I think it’s good [they’re shut down.] We’ve had our fair share of people who drink and bad stuff happened.”
Herman Janis, a 46-year-old Pine Ridge resident, laughed when asked his reaction to the day’s legal twists and turns.
“It’s all drama,” Janis said. “It’s not like our whole culture up here is in a stupor.”
Asked his opinion while at a Gordon, Nebraska, gas station, 43-year-old Sam Gibson said he could see both sides of the issue. “Alcoholism is a big problem,” he said. “Maybe they need to get help first, then change things.
“Whiteclay is close to Pine Ridge,” Gibson added. “I guess it’s selfish, but it’s better if drunk driving is just on a small stretch of road. They’ll go where they need to go to get alcohol and the problem spreads.”
For 113 years, the booze has flowed freely in the notorious village of Whiteclay, but the end is near: On May 1, the four beer stores in the ramshackle village of seven people could cease to exist.
So decreed a unanimous vote of the Nebraska State Liquor Control Commission at 11:14 a.m. Wednesday—a decision that triggered cheers and tears in a standing-room-only hearing room on the fifth floor of the Nebraska State Office Building. Citing lackluster law enforcement, a deplorable attention to public health and sexual abuse of young girls, the three commissioners voted not to renew the beer store licenses after their April 30 expiration date.
When the decision was announced, Frank LaMere, a Winnebago activist who has fought for 22 years to shut down the four beer stores, began to weep.
“We acted on behalf of those who have no voice,” he said. “And for one day in the history of Nebraska, we gave voice for those who have none.”
The decision was a dream come true for Sen. Tom Brewer, the first Native state senator in Nebraska history whose district encompasses Whiteclay. After the vote, the Oglala Lakota U.S. Army war veteran-turned-politician gave a jubilant fist pump and broke into a wide smile.
“To hear those words come out of their mouth, you just felt this relief,” he said. “It’s almost like you’ve been sick for a long time and now the fever’s broken and you can see some hope for the future.”
For Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, the decision will have a ripple effect. And, she said, it won’t be contained to Native people, or Nebraska, or the United States. It’s international in scope.
“It means that my life matters,” said gaiashkibos, a member of the Ponca tribe. “It means that we don’t have to be invisible. It means that we are being afforded due process. It means that our voice is heard.”
And it was a day Bryan Brewer, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, thought would never happen. Before he left Pine Ridge on Monday for the hearing, he heard rumors that the beer stores had already won.
Now that the rumors have ceased and the truth prevails, he said, it’s a happy day. But it’s also not the end.
“We have to start the healing process,” Brewer said said. “We don’t have the resources to help our people. Our children go to school every day. Many of them are abused mentally, physically, sexually abused. And they get to school and we have no resources to really help them.”
Omaha attorney Dave Domina, who brought the case against the beer store owners, was emotional after the vote.
“I don’t think you can be a human being and not be moved by it,” he said breaking into tears.
Meanwhile, Scottsbluff attorney Andrew Snyder, who represented the beer store owners, said he and his clients will appeal the case as soon as they receive a written decision from the LCC.
“We believe the decision is wrong and contrary to law,” he said.
Snyder said it’s clear there were forces in play beyond the LCC that were aligned against them. His clients, he said, felt railroaded.
“It’s pretty clear it’s not a random occurrence,” Snyder said. “This was coordinated above their heads on a political level. By political, I mean the governor’s office.”
The case must be appealed within 30 days to the Lancaster District Court. After hearing the case, the court could either reverse, modify, overrule or sustain the LCC’s decision. The court could also send the case back to the commission for further hearings.
The district court could also hold the decision and restore the beer stores’ licenses throughout the appeals process, which Snyder said they will request. The appellate process could take weeks, months or even years depending on how far the case is appealed.
But as of Wednesday morning, the four beer stores—which sold 3.6 million cans of beer last year largely to the Oglala Lakota’s nearby dry reservation—will be out of business in 11 days.
The hearing on whether to renew the four beer stores’ licenses—those of Arrowhead Inn, Jumping Eagle Inn, Stateline Liquor and D & S Pioneer Service—was the result of an Oct. 11 hearing when a county commissioner who oversees Whiteclay said there is not enough law enforcement to address the crime-laden unincorporated village.
On April 6, the LCC heard from complainants and the beer store owners in a hearing room inside the capitol to decide whether Whiteclay had enough law enforcement presence. During the 12-hour hearing, testimony from Whiteclay residents and Pine Ridge officials affirmed that. It also spilled over into issues like bootlegging, human trafficking and public health hazards.
Although the beer stores and their attorney argued that the LCC had no legal right to question the license renewals, the commission felt it was not only a right—but a duty.
“I believe these activities of Whiteclay have gone on way too long and my vote is to not renew the licenses,” said Commissioner Bruce Bailey.
He cited the Nebraska Liquor Control Act at length, pointing to seven specific provisions of the statute as reasons for making the decision.
He also noted that several witnesses had provided critical testimonies—witnesses who work for the Christian-based Lakota Hope Ministry in Whiteclay.
“I’ll be out of a job, which is gonna be good,” said Abram Neumann, a 22-year-old missionary who’s tended to Whiteclay’s street people for the last two years.
Bruce BonFleur, who founded the ministry 13 years ago, said this could be a transformative decision for Whiteclay.
“We look at this decision as an initial and vital early step in what will be a transformed Whiteclay, one that promotes life, healing and hope.”
LCC Chairman Robert Batt said he hopes not renewing the licenses can be the first step in addressing change in Whiteclay. However, he said this isn’t the end of addressing the problems that bring Oglala Lakota there. To fix that, he said, it will require federal institutions to own up to their mismanagement.
“I call for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of the Interior and eventually the president of the United States to take action,” Batt said. “If we can fix countries all over the world, we need to fix the poorest county in North America.”
Many others echoed similar sentiments—that although Wednesday’s decision was good news, it was only the first step in a longer journey.
Nora Boesem, a former nurse from Newell, South Dakota, has taken on Whiteclay-related issues by adopting several Pine Ridge children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Upon hearing the news, she laughed and cried, but above all she felt a sense of duty.
“Now we need to really hit the ground running,” Boesem said. “Today is an emotional day, and I’m gonna let it be an emotional day, but tomorrow is ‘Where do we go from here?’”
John Maisch, an attorney from Oklahoma who directed a Whiteclay documentary, said the sun is finally shining through a long history of overcast, but it can’t end here.
“It’s a time for rebuilding to begin,” Maisch said. “A dark cloud has been lifted over the state of Nebraska.”
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, whom many credited with jump-starting political will around Whiteclay, said Wednesday’s decision is a continuation in an ongoing spiritual journey.
Pansing Brooks said she felt it when LaMere first spoke to her. She felt it the first time she spoke to human trafficking victims. She hopes this—as well as her bill to promote detox, job creation and economic development in the town—will change the parasitic relationship to something much different.
“I envision it as a tourist destination, I really do,” she said. “To help make money for the Native people, to promote their culture and to be able to help bolster and let that community thrive.”
A year ago, Olowan Martinez, a Pine Ridge resident and Whiteclay activist, might have scoffed at that. She had a grandpa die in Whiteclay, a mother who died of cirrhosis, cousins who died in drunk driving accidents and knows many more with similar stories. All the while, she said, Nebraska did nothing.
But the narrative seems to be changing.
Wednesday morning she and several others gathered on the South Dakota-Nebraska state line on the edge of Whiteclay to await the decision. When it was announced, the group celebrated and smiled at each other because for some it was the first sign that Nebraska cares about the Oglala Lakota.
“Just that alone is mending relationships that have been twisted and poisoned by alcohol for generations,” Martinez said. “Over 100, years Whiteclay has destroyed our people, and now their time is up.”
- Tom Brewer, Nebraska Senator
- John Maisch, attorney and Whiteclay activist
- Dave Domina, trial attorney
- former Oglala Sioux President Bryan Brewer
Sitting in a packed hearing room, Frank LaMere holds his face in his hands, weeping with joy and relief.
Earlier on this late-April morning, the longtime Whiteclay activist had “put tobacco down,” praying to the Creator, asking, if He could change Whiteclay, let it change today.
And finally, after more than a century of alcohol sales from Whiteclay to the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, after almost 20 years devoted to closing the town’s four beer stores, LaMere’s prayers were answered.
On Wednesday in Lincoln, the three Nebraska Liquor Control commissioners, acting unanimously, denied the renewal of the liquor licenses of Whiteclay’s four beer stores.
“For one day in the history of Nebraska, we gave voice for those who have none,” LaMere said. “It will be a red letter day in the native history of Nebraska, a red letter day in the history of Native and non-Native relations. I am proud to be a Nebraskan. I am happy.”
On this day, on Pine Ridge, a reservation the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, the 40,000 residents can talk of nothing but this historic decision.
Since 1904, they have lived alongside the saloon town, which has poured millions of gallons of beer across the Nebraska-South Dakota border onto the dry reservation.
In the late 1990s, after decades of suffering the ravages of alcoholism, two unsolved murders in Whiteclay galvanized Indian activists against the beer sales. Steadily mounting pressure forced the LCC to monitor the four beer stores and the area’s questionable law enforcement.
Guy Dull Knife Sr., 69, a lifelong Pine Ridge resident, has been instrumental in Whiteclay protests. Once, he and members of his family set up a roadblock on Highway 87, and in half a day confiscated and emptied 80 cases of beer from cars leaving the village of seven people.
“[This] will save a lot of people...lot of kids that are suffering,” Dull Knife said of Wednesday’s decision.
While celebrating the commission’s decision, many Pine Ridge residents and long-time beer store opponents are shifting their focus to the future.
“It’s a small victory, but it’s nowhere near what our nation needs,” said Olowan Martinez, Whiteclay activist from Pine Ridge and member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. “This is just a small step in ending the liquid genocide, so we’re happy, and surprised, but it ain’t over yet.”
So what’s next?
Nora Boesem is a Whiteclay activist and foster mother to nine Pine Ridge children who suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. She said she was on the phone just hours after the LCC decision discussing funding for establishing detox and treatment centers on the reservation and surrounding areas.
Meanwhile, Former Oglala Sioux President Bryan Brewer said the issues on the reservation – physical and sexual abuse, suicides, murders, extreme poverty – did not begin and will not end in Whiteclay.
But 3 million fewer cans of beer coming onto the reservation, he says, is a start.
“Since [the stores are] gonna be closed, [the tribe] will have an opportunity to do some things that they’ve never done before, and that is to actually get our healing processes started,” Brewer said. “The battle’s not over yet, but we sure won this fight.”
Abram Neumann, a Whiteclay street missionary, testified at an April 6 LCC hearing. He said being unable to take a short walk from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay for a drink helps open the door for recovery from crippling addiction.
“I was talking to one [street person] this afternoon who said this [LCC decision] was gonna be a push that would help him quit, and he was excited for it,” Neumann said. “I think it will be a push for a lot of people to get off the streets.”
Nora Boesem has alternated between crying and laughing in surprise since she heard of the LCC decision.
Surprise because, activists have testified before the LCC for years, but no changes were made. Now, she says, the unanimous vote revoking the beer licenses paves the way for other reservation changes to be made.
“Today is an emotional day...and I’m gonna let it be an emotional day,” Boesem said. “But tomorrow is where do we go from here, hit the ground running. This is the first step in a long line.”
A dozen students enrolled in a year-long depth reporting class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications produced this website. The course focused on the issues in and around Whiteclay, Nebraska, and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. We will continue to update and add content to this site in the coming months.
Website: Matt Hanson
Editors: Joe Starita, Bill Frakes, Roger Holmes, Rebekka Schlichting
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