A woman lies in the street, sprawled on the pavement, face up in the mid-day summer sun.
Blue jeans around her ankles, underwear hugging her shins. The blistering July heat bakes her bare skin.
She doesn’t move. No one does.
Marsha BonFleur slams the brakes on her truck. She steps out the door and runs across the street to her friend of 13 years.
She touches her face. Nothing. Then a groan. Then a movement. Melissa Shields, 42, is alive. But she needs help.
The Christian missionary who lives down the road hikes up her friend’s pants while calling out to others on the street. But the dozens of people roaming aimlessly pay her no heed.
It’s the life Shields and countless others have lived for decades in Whiteclay, Nebraska—a ramshackle collection of forgotten souls, abandoned buildings, urine-soaked sidewalks, squalid streets and four thriving beer stores.
In the last decade, those four stores in an unincorporated village of 12 residents have sold the equivalent of nearly 42 million 12-oz. cans of beer. Placed end to end, they would stretch from New York to Los Angeles.
Nearly all of those cans were consumed by residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation—a hauntingly beautiful landscape of rolling prairie, rugged bluffs, badlands and canyons. But in that stunning vista also lie some terrible truths.
On this South Dakota reservation, where the sale and consumption of alcohol has been illegal since 1889 (aside from a few months in the 1970s), the Oglala Lakota live in the poorest of America’s 3,144 counties, according to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report. In 2015, 55 percent of its roughly 30,000 residents were unemployed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A decade before, the Department of the Interior put the number at 89 percent.
Here, men die on average at age 47, according to Rainey Enjady, former interim CEO of the Pine Ridge Hospital. That’s a shorter lifespan than any other country in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Its women fare better. On average, they live to 55—on par with Angola, Nigeria and Somalia.
On this sprawling reservation dotted with doublewide trailers, the infant mortality rate was three times the national average in 2007, according to Re-Member—about the same as modern day Syria, Honduras or the Gaza Strip.
“We’re like a Third World country within the greatest country in the world,” said Justin Eagle Hawk, a Pine Ridge resident.
On Pine Ridge, a reservation about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, about 80 percent of crimes are alcohol-related, according to the former tribal police chief, and nearly every family is affected by it.
“A lot of [our] calls are a result of their spending down there in Whiteclay,” said Mark Mesteth, former Oglala Sioux Tribe police chief.
Alcohol also fuels a suicide epidemic that baffles Charles Sitting Bull, Pine Ridge Hospital’s director of behavioral health services. Since December 2014, 1,053 people on the reservation have planned, attempted or committed suicide. The rate for those who succeeded is about 4.6 times the national average.
For Sitting Bull, add it all up and the source of much of his people’s death and desperation is clear: Whiteclay.
A native of Pine Ridge, he grew up around Lakota men and women passed out on the streets of Whiteclay. He saw firsthand the flow of booze and money along Nebraska 87 as it fades into South Dakota 407.
Many decades later, not much has changed on those streets. But it has for Sitting Bull: Instead of watching his family grab the bottle, he tries to help patients put it down.
- Charles Sitting Bull
But for many on Pine Ridge, the black cloud of a tiny Nebraska town hangs too heavily over their lives. So they come to Whiteclay to cope with violence, poverty and death, but also with what Sitting Bull calls “historical trauma”—an ineffable weight inherited from more than a century of the systematic destruction of Native life.
It’s transformed the culture of his great-great-grandfather, Chief Sitting Bull, into something the famed Lakota medicine man and spiritual leader would not recognize.
“We’re like a Whiteclay culture,” he said. “Even though we’re Lakota, we’ve adapted to Whiteclay.”
Long before federal treaties dramatically reduced the Oglala Lakota ancestral homeland, the powerful warrior tribe roamed at will from the Rockies to the Missouri River, hunting buffalo, attacking enemy villages, gathering for the annual Sun Dance and seeking spiritual sustenance in their sacred Paha Sapa, the Black Hills.
That all changed in 1874, when Lt. Col. George Custer led an illegal expedition into the Black Hills. The discovery of gold eventually triggered an epic confrontation between the forces of Manifest Destiny and the skilled Lakota warriors.
On June 25, 1876, several thousand warriors under the leadership of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull wiped out Custer’s command to the last man along a little known river in southeast Montana. But, ironically, the Sioux victory at the Little Big Horn greatly accelerated the demise of the tribe and its way of life.
In short order, the military embarked on a massive onslaught against the victors, eventually starving them into submission. By 1879, the once robust, free-roaming people had been herded up and confined to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the goal was resolute: break the Lakota spirit, crush their way of life, destroy their culture and take their hunting grounds.
“The white man made us many promises, more than I can remember,” the powerful Lakota Chief Red Cloud said years later. “But they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.”
Once the government had corralled the feared Lakota into small, at times inhospitable, tracts of land, it began indoctrinating them into a white way of life. To that end, the government quickly adopted strategies to achieve its goal. Among them:
It was hoped that such stringent measures would quickly convert the Lakota into peaceful, sedentary, Christian farmers.
In 1884, Pine Ridge Indian Agent Valentine McGillycuddy noted progress toward that goal in a report after the first summer without a Sun Dance.
“The abandonment of such a barbarous and demoralizing ceremony, antagonistic to civilization and progress, as it has been proved, is a bright and promising event in the tribe’s struggle toward advancement of the white man’s ways…”
But with many Lakota now starving, broken and increasingly hopeless, conditions on Pine Ridge soon were ripe for a movement that swept across Native communities in the late 1880s.
The Ghost Dance inspired a desperate passion among the people who practiced it, but provoked fear among white settlers and the U.S. government. When interventions with tribal police failed, the Seventh Cavalry was sent to suppress the Lakota—the same military unit the Sioux had decimated more than 14 years earlier at the Little Big Horn.
On Dec. 29, 1890, soldiers tried to disarm a band of Lakota, mostly women and children. A struggle over a rifle ensued. When it discharged, the firing on both sides began.
Native men were killed at close range before they fired a shot. The soldiers then turned their mounted Hotchkiss guns—337-pound cannons capable of firing 50 shells a minute—on tipis full of women and children.
In less than an hour, an estimated 300 Lakota were slaughtered. After a three-day blizzard, a mass grave was dug on a hill overlooking Wounded Knee Creek and the frozen bodies thrown in.
Months later, the commanding officer’s actions were found justified and 20 soldiers received Medals of Honor. By comparison, only three of the more than 68,000 South Dakotans who fought in World War II received the same honor.
“I did not know then how much was ended,” the Lakota holy man Black Elk would later say. “When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...”
The Christian missionary struggles to get her friend off the street and into the backseat. Melissa Shields does not want to go.
“Just leave me here,” she says. “I want to die.”
Marsha BonFleur knows that’s not an option for her friend, still in the throes of a hangover caused by swapping her usual beer for vodka shots. Her friend later told BonFleur that a beer store supplied the vodka in exchange for trash bags filled with empty cans. Not an uncommon occurrence in Whiteclay.
It’s why BonFleur needs to get her friend to the only safe place she can think of—her home in Rushville, Nebraska, 22 miles south on highway 87.
That night, the two sleep in the living room, Shields on the floor and BonFleur in a chair.
When Shields awakes the next morning, the two talk about what happened, how much Shields remembers and where they should go from here: A hospital? A treatment center? A different friend’s home?
“No,” Shields says. “Take me back to Whiteclay.”
The battle between those who want to sell alcohol in Whiteclay and those who fight against it is as alive today as it was in the reservation’s infancy.
In 1882, President Chester Arthur established a 50-square-mile “buffer zone” between the Pine Ridge Reservation and Nebraska. The purpose was simple: To keep alcohol away from the Oglala.
However, as more whites began settling the area, local officials pressured the U.S. Department of the Interior to discard what became known as the “Whiteclay Extension.” Eventually their efforts prevailed. On Jan. 25, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt, without consulting the tribe or the reservation’s agent, signed away the buffer.
Within a year, “whiskey ranches” sprang up along the border and Whiteclay established a foothold it has never relinquished.
Throughout the 20th century, the relationship between the reservation and the skid row prairie village became intertwined. Bootleggers immediately began running booze from the back doors of Whiteclay businesses up into Pine Ridge.
Because of its isolation, Whiteclay had little, if any, law enforcement presence. Few were seriously reprimanded for violating liquor laws. It’s a problem that persists into the 21st century as three deputies and one sheriff now patrol all 2,470 square miles of rural Sheridan County.
On Oct. 11, Sheridan County Commissioner Jack Andersen told a panel of state legislators that’s not enough. Asked whether the county had sufficient resources to confront Whiteclay’s problems, he had a simple response: “We absolutely do not.”
Despite an historic inability to combat violence, alcoholism and the multitude of health problems pouring from Whiteclay, some continue to chip away at its effects.
Trash clean up, missionary work, meetings with Nebraska’s governor, youth development programs, marches through the streets, protests of the businesses and, in some cases, riots are all etched into the fabric of that small stretch of Nebraska highway. Bill Clinton even came to Pine Ridge in 1999, acknowledging some U.S. citizens still lived in Third World conditions. Those efforts had nominal impact.
But now, something seems different to those who’ve watched the drama unfold over the decades.
Olowan Martinez, 40, grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and witnessed family members die of cirrhosis, drunk-driving accidents, suicides and murders. Throughout her life she’s viewed Nebraska as an indifferent bystander to the problems caused by Whiteclay.
To her, it mirrors a situation 250 miles northeast. There, she and other protesters are trying to stop the construction of an oil pipeline under the Missouri River that provides drinking water for the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.
“It's liquid genocide, alcohol to oil,” Martinez said. “That's exactly what it is.”
That’s why she was shocked to hear in September that a group of Nebraska state senators were coming to see the streets of Whiteclay, talk to the people and show they’re not ignoring it any longer.
- Olowan Martinez
“It’s a place of filth and degradation and it is in our backyard of Nebraska, and it shouldn’t be there,” said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, of Lincoln.
Pansing Brooks is leading a legislative charge to change Whiteclay in five key strategies: install wireless cell service, establish better law enforcement, remove abandoned buildings, create a drug and alcohol detox center and build a job training center. This Fall, Pansing Brooks and the group of senators also traveled to the reservation, meeting people on both sides and holding a summit at Pine Ridge Hospital.
Charles Sitting Bull attended that meeting with more than 20 people crowded into a small conference room. He called the dialogue “almost unprecedented.”
In Whiteclay, part of Pansing Brooks’ plan already has taken hold. In September she helped unveil a finished cell tower outside Whiteclay, something she hopes will diminish the region’s isolation.
“It provides access to Telehealth, to distance learning and to greater law enforcement and public safety,” she said.
Back in Lincoln, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission voted in October to require the four beer stores in the far-off village to reapply for their licenses, a result of a hearing led by Pansing Brooks. This long-form application process provides an opportunity to raise possible health concerns and law violations occurring in Whiteclay.
“I’ve said from the beginning that we need to have an evidentiary process that follows the statutes, and there is no question that we need to look at the four stores,” she said.
But while activists and Pine Ridge residents say Pansing Brooks’ goals are laudable, they want to see more. They want the beer stores closed for good.
“There is lawlessness in Whiteclay that all of us can see,” said longtime activist Frank LaMere. “Unsolved murders, human trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, we all know and agree those issues exist. There’s one clear way to alleviate the problem today, and that’s to shut Whiteclay down tomorrow.”
LaMere, who grew up in Sioux City but spent time on the nearby Winnebago Reservation in northeast Nebraska, began crusading against the town in 1998. That year, after attending a Wiping Away the Tears ceremony at Wounded Knee for Little John Means, a man found beaten to death and frozen on the streets of Whiteclay, it became clear to him that there was only one solution: close down the beer stores.
- Frank Lamere
Anything less, he said, is a failure.
However, after 18 years of struggle, LaMere said passion for change has never been so widespread. For the first time, he’s comfortable saying his goal is within reach.
“It is on the horizon,” LaMere said. “Whiteclay will be shut down.”
Martinez also is hopeful. But she knows history is a good teacher. She said if change finally washes over Whiteclay, but leaves behind the beer stores, Nebraska will have failed. The century-old story of neglect and suffering will haunt another generation.
“We'll keep fighting it,” she said. “But it's about how every Nebraskan wants to feel about themselves when they go to bed at night, that their state is poisoning a nation.”
Marsha BonFleur doesn’t want to take her friend back to Whiteclay, the town that left her passed out and half-naked on the street.
But what choice does she have?
It’s Melissa’s life.
Back in Whiteclay, Melissa resumed drinking. During the next two years, her skin began turning yellow and her eyes to orange. Doctors said she had cirrhosis, that she didn’t have long to live. But BonFleur didn’t give up. Finally, she convinced her friend to move into a reservation ranch home where a no alcohol-policy was strictly enforced.
Two months later, she’s sober, looking like her old self, spending time with her kids.
But early on the morning of Jan. 31, 2016, Melissa’s daughter arrived home to see an ambulance outside the front door. Paramedics were lifting her 11-year-old brother onto a gurney.
Steve had been doing meth and had a seizure. Three days later, doctors told the family he was in coma.
“Everybody got scared,” the daughter said. “My mom started drinking even worse.”
The doctors wanted Melissa to sign the papers to remove her son from life support. He’s brain-dead, they said.
BonFleur came to visit her friend and saw she was drinking heavier than ever, that she looked worse than ever.
“Let me take you to the emergency room,” her friend begged.
“No,” Melissa said. “I’m not going to get well this time.”
At 6 a.m. the next morning, BonFleur got a call: Melissa was in Pine Ridge Hospital’s emergency room, unconscious. Doctors wanted to take her off life support. Her daughter was scared to sign the papers. But BonFleur told her it’s the best thing to do—let her mother go peacefully.
Two days later, Marsha BonFleur’s phone rang again: Her friend was dead.
At the hospital, she tried to comfort the distraught daughter. The daughter told her she had gotten a call within a few hours of her mother’s death.
Her brother had come out of his coma. He was awake and conscious. Nine months later, he’s still alive.
Back then, it was a hard truth for the daughter to make sense of.
But hard truth has been knocking at the door of the Pine Ridge Reservation for a long time, Charles Sitting Bull said. It’s been knocking for stolen lands, massacred people and a broken nation. And it’s knocking for someone to do something about Whiteclay.
Someday, he believes, that door will open.
“Justice will show up,” Sitting Bull said. “Truth will show up. And you can’t stop it. It will be like rain coming down, like the river flowing down the road. It will not be stopped.”