Death Threats Amid Rebirth of Whiteclay

While serving eight years for his country in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tom Brewer expected to attract enemy gunfire.

But Nebraska’s first Native American state senator did not anticipate he would also get that same threat from his own constituents.

Yet the morning after the three-member state Liquor Control Commission unanimously voted to revoke the licenses of Whiteclay’s four beer store owners, Brewer’s personal cell phone rang.

“I want you to know how upset I am about your decision to close Whiteclay and you’ll regret it,” the Rushville caller said from an undisclosed number. “Enjoy the time you have left because if you come home, you’ll never survive.”

Brewer, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux tribe who lives in Gordon, initially reported the death threat to the attorney general. Later, he decided to back off pursuing it, stressing that he wants to keep the focus on building a new Whiteclay where 3.5 million cans are not sold annually – most of which now go to residents of the dry Pine Ridge Reservation.

“I’ve dealt with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda,” Brewer said. "This doesn’t rise to the level of what I’ve already dealt with.”

The senator also said more than 50 angry Sheridan County residents have taken him to task for the likelihood of more drunk drivers going longer distances to get alcohol. They say shutting down the beer stores will endanger their own health and safety. But not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Abram Neumann, a 22-year-old Christian missionary who has served Whiteclay street people for the last two years, believes it will have just the opposite effect.

He said no one is counting the deaths on the Pine Ridge side and that the bigger picture is controlling alcohol sales.

“When it comes to preventing drunk-driving deaths, the whole reason we wanted to shut down the stores was for the preservation of life,” Neumann said. "The way you can best prevent drunk-driving deaths is by controlling liquor sales, by removing people who will sell to drunk people, lowering the amount of stores, reducing density of alcohol and making sure there’s adequate law enforcement.”

The people on the streets of Whiteclay are feeling more hopeful, Neumann said. He is working with a few of them who want to go to treatment. Others say they will have to go home and get jobs. No one talks about going to other border towns to get beer because “the sense is that they won’t be tolerated there.”

Pending an appeal, the Liquor Control Commission ruled that the beer store licenses will be revoked effective April 30. As of Monday morning, the anticipated appeal of the commission’s decision, which is anticipated, had not yet been filed in Lancaster County District Court.

Meanwhile, Brewer said his spirits were boosted when he found out that the very day the commissioners were taking down the licenses, bulldozers were taking down two dilapidated buildings in the unincorporated village of seven people – signaling, perhaps, the rebirth of a new Whiteclay.

On May 19, Bruce BonFleur, who founded the village’s Lakota Hope Ministry, said he is inviting tribal officials from South Dakota and Nebraska, local people, business owners and economic developers to kick off Whiteclay redevelopment. That could include a gas station, Family Dollar, a hardware store and other potential economic redevelopment in Whiteclay. A day later, Brewer is inviting senators and other officials for a community renewal celebration.

“I believe there are a lot more people now who have a real hope,” BonFleur said. “They see those dilapidated buildings torn down that contribute to the negative atmosphere.”

Left: Buildings being demolished last week in Whiteclay, Nebraska. Right: The view of Whiteclay after the buildings were torn down and removed. Courtesy photos.