Update: Whieclay beer stores will remain closed after the Nebraska Supreme Court’s
decision announced September 29, 2017.
Whiteclay, Nebraska is an unincorporated town on the Nebraska-South Dakota border. The last official census says 12 people live in Whiteclay, but the current number of residents is down to just 8 I believe. This little town has been infamous for decades, known as the “Skid Row of the Plains,” it gained its notoriety because the four beer-only liquor stores that operate in Whiteclay sold millions of cans of beer every year, for many, many years. Annual sales averaging 3.5 million cans is equivalent to more than 10,000 cans of beer sold every day. Let that number sink in for a moment. 10,000 (or more) cans of beer sold every single day, in a town that has the population of less than 12 people. How could that be? Who buys all that beer?
As any business owner knows, what matters most is location, location and location! Whiteclay is located just a few hundred feet from the border of the Oglala Lakota Nation, more commonly known as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and originally known as Prisoner of War Camp #344. The Oglala Lakota Nation is a dry nation, meaning alcohol is prohibited there and has been since its creation. After encroaching on treaty lands, white pioneers in the 1800’s tried to set up predatory businesses in Whiteclay and the United States government put a stop to it. In 1882 President Chester A. Arthur issued an executive order establishing the White Clay Extension, a stretch of land that extended five miles south and ten miles east-west from the border of the Oglala Lakota Nation. This extension prevented white peddlers from engaging in the illegal sale of “knives, guns, and alcohol” to the Oglala Lakota people. But on January 25, 1904, an executive order signed by President Theodore Roosevelt returned the 50 square miles of the White Clay Extension to public domain. The town of Whiteclay was founded in the former extension zone and merchants began selling alcohol to the people of the Oglala Lakota Nation immediately.
After more than a century, the alcohol has finally stopped flowing. At least for now. On April 29, 2017 the four beer stores in Whiteclay closed their doors until a complicated and rather confusing case plays out in the Nebraska Supreme Court.
The problems in Whiteclay, and the problems that result from the existence of Whiteclay, began as soon as the white pioneers began selling alcohol to the Natives and will continue for many generations to come. For decades and decades people have been fighting to close the beer stores down. And for decades and decades those in power have turned a blind eye, mainly claiming there is lack of evidence of any criminal activity either by the beer store owners or because of the beer stores.
During a hearing in October of 2016, Sheridan County Commissioner Jack Andersen told members of the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee “we absolutely do not” have enough law enforcement resources for proper policing in Whiteclay. Finally, a person in authority was acknowledging the problem and addressing it publicly. Commissioner Andersen’s comment gave renewed hope to the opponents of the beer stores and some Sheridan County residents decided to protest the renewal of the four beer stores’ liquor licenses. Their official protest empowered the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to hold hearings to determine the conditions in Whiteclay and whether or not there was adequate law enforcement presence. Hearings were held in January and April of 2017, and on April 19th the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission issued their ruling to deny the renewal of the liquor licenses to the four Whiteclay beer stores. Longtime activists against the beer stores wept openly. It was a historical moment indeed. A sense of justice was felt by many, but it was short-lived. The following week, on April 27th, Lancaster County District Judge Andrew Jacobsen overturned the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s decision to deny the stores their license renewals. Later that same day the Nebraska Attorney General filed an appeal to Jacobsen’s ruling, which in effect sustained the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s decision and required the beer stores to close when their licenses expired, which all had the expiration date of April 30th. For still unknown reasons, all four beer stores closed one day early and locked their doors on April 29th.
The fate of the beer stores, the town of Whiteclay, and the lives of thousands of Oglala Lakota people rests in the hands of the Nebraska Supreme Court now. On August 29th they heard oral arguments from both sides and are expected to take up to six weeks to issue their ruling. I did not drive to Lincoln for the hearings but I watched the video of them and the case seems pretty clear-cut to me. Of course, I am hugely biased against the beer stores so I am unlikely to have an objective opinion. You can watch the arguments yourself here (it is the first case they discuss): https://supremecourt.nebraska.gov/video-arguments-08-29-2017
The oral arguments were very “legal” – with both sides referencing past cases, statute numbers and policies – but both sides’ main argument was jurisdiction. Andrew Snyder, the attorney representing the four beer store owners argued that the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission didn’t have the jurisdiction to deny the license renewals in the first place. Dave Domina, the attorney representing the four Sheridan County protestants, and the Attorney General argued that the Liquor Control Commission did have authority to deny the renewals and argued further that the District Court did not have the jurisdiction to overturn the Commission’s decision. One thing I am not writing about are the other cases the attorneys reference in their oral arguments (The Grand Island Casino case and the Pump & Pantry case) – I am not even bringing these up because it seems clear that they were not brought under the same precedence and had very different circumstances as the Kozal vs. Nebraska Liquor Control Commission case. It is also pretty clear from Dave Domina’s reply to a judge’s question about the differences in the Grand Island case that the two cases are very fundamentally different. You can read the details of each side’s argument in the article I wrote for the Native Sun News here: http://www.nativesunnews.today/news/2017-09-06/Top_News/The_Fight_for_Whiteclay.html
Despite all of the legal jargon, the statutes and policies, The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission has the authority and the jurisdiction to deny the renewal of a liquor license if any one of the following three criteria are not met:
1. The licensee must qualify to hold the license
2. The license must be maintained in the same place
3. The premise must be suitable for the sale of alcohol
Number One – On Feb. 27. the Nebraska Attorney General filed 22 citations against the four beer stores, including selling to minors and selling after hours. These citations were not yet adjuncted by the liquor board at the time of the April hearing so they could not be used as evidence.
Number Two – Ok, this one is the only one they get right, the four beer stores are in the same place as they always have been.
Number Three – Whiteclay, Nebraska is not a suitable premise for the sale of alcohol, as acknowledged by our own government more than 100 years ago. Since alcohol sales have been allowed, the problems and crimes in and because of Whiteclay have compounded exponentially. The beer stores in Whiteclay are not suitable premises for the sale of alcohol.
The failure of the beer stores to meet all three of these requirements, along with a Sheridan County Commissioner’s testimony on the lack of adequate law enforcement, combined with the Sheridan County residents who filed the official renewal protest and the hearings and testimonies that followed, all give the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission the authority and the jurisdiction to deny the liquor license renewals. I am hopeful the Nebraska Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion.
To truly grasp the impact that Whiteclay and alcohol has had on the Oglala Lakota Nation, one must first get educated on the history of this region, of this country, of the Oglala Lakota people and of the white people. When I say ‘history’ I am not referring to what you might have learned in History Class in school. When I was in school I was taught that Wounded Knee was a “battle” and the Natives were referred to as “savages” – that could not be further from the truth. Wounded Knee was a fucking massacre. Pardon my language. But it was. It was a disgusting, shameful massacre that to this day, in the history of the United States military, has garnered more medals of honor than any other “battle” or war.
This blog post is already quite lengthy so I can’t write out the history of genocide here, but that is basically what all of this boils down to. Past and present. We (white people) killed Natives “back then” with smallpox and massacres, and today we are killing them with alcohol and conditioned poverty. In 1492, the indigenous population in what we now call the United States is estimated to have been more than 12 million people (there are conflicting figures for this statistic, some estimating the population to have been around 8 million); by 1900 the population was down to less than 250,000 people. We even tried to make the bison extinct so the Natives would have no source for food, clothing or shelter. We almost succeeded. Before white people moved across the west, there were an estimated 50 million (or more by some accounts) wild bison roaming free. After authorized and unauthorized slaughters, and after the white people realized that bison were profitable, herd numbers dwindled drastically. In 1889 William Hornaday estimated total bison population to be just over 1000 animals – 85 free ranging, 200 in the federal herd (Yellowstone NP), 550 at Great Slave Lake (Canada) and 256 in zoos and private herds. Today there are an estimated 500,000 buffalo in America – but less than 30,000 are wild bison in conservation herds, and fewer than 5,000 are unfenced and disease-free. The buffalo in North America today are not the same as the creatures that roamed these lands not long ago, the wild bison, or Tatonka as the Lakota called them. Bison were cross-bred with cattle by white people and the result is what most people today know as a buffalo. Click this link to some of my photos of buffalo and to learn more history on how the bison sustained the Native people.
Once white people failed to forcibly dominate or extinguish the indigenous people, Prisoner of War camps were established and the Natives were forced onto what we call Reservations today. Treaties were made and promptly broken. Land that belonged to the Native tribes was taken over by the colonists.
It would be difficult to identify any tribes other than the Oglala Lakota who have been more mistreated and oppressed by white people and the United States government. The “Pine Ridge Indian Reservation” (POW camp #344) is the second-poorest nation in the entire western hemisphere, with Haiti being the poorest. Most people cannot even comprehend what that means, what that loos like.
Here are some facts/statistics about the Oglala Lakota Nation (Pine Ridge) to give you an idea of who the people are that the beer store owners in Whiteclay have been profiting off of for years:
- Pine Ridge Reservation is the poorest county in the United States.
- Rapid City, South Dakota, is the nearest town of size (population approximately 70,000) for those who can travel to find work. It is located 120 miles from the Reservation. The nearest large city to Pine Ridge is Denver, Colorado, located some 350 miles away.
- 97% of the population lives far below the U.S. federal poverty line with a median household income ranging between $2,600 and $3,500 per year.
- There is no industry, technology or commercial infrastructure to provide employment for its residents, contributing to its 80% – 90% unemployment rate.
- There is no public transportation available on the Reservation.
- There are no banks, motels, discount stores, or movie theaters, and the one grocery store of moderate size is tasked with providing for the entire community.
- There is a 70% high school dropout rate.
- The average life expectancy on the Reservation is 47 years for men and 52 years for women.
- Teenage suicide rate is 150% higher than the U.S. national average.
- Infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent, and about 300% higher than the U.S. national average.
- Over 33% of homes have no electricity or basic water and sewage systems, forcing many to carry (often contaminated) water from local rivers daily for their personal needs.
- At least 60% of homes on the Reservation need to be demolished and replaced due to infestation of potentially fatal black mold; however, there are no insurance or government programs to assist families in replacing their homes.
- Weather is extreme on the Reservation. Severe winds are always a factor. Summer temperatures reach well over 110 degrees and winters bring bitter cold and can reach -20 degrees below zero or colder.
Now that you have a little background on the Oglala Lakota Nation and its people, let’s introduce Whiteclay into the picture. Two miles from the town of Pine Ridge and just a few hundred feet from the Oglala Lakota Nation border, there is Whiteclay. Since white people came to the west we have tried to sell Oglala Lakota people alcohol, and in 1904 alcohol sales in Whiteclay legally began. I use the term “legally” very loosely, as white people should never have been allowed in that area in the first place due to treaties that were not honored. Fast-forward a little more than one hundred years to the 1990’s when Whiteclay started gaining attention again.
Known as the “Skid Row of the Plains,” the little unincorporated town was a haven for crime and lawlessness. With the four beer stores selling thousands and thousands of cans of beer every day but nowhere for the people to drink the beer, the streets and alleys were always filled with people in various stages of inebriation. During the colder months it was not uncommon for someone to pass out drunk in the streets of Whiteclay and freeze to death. (I’m not sure how often Google updates their satellite imagery, but the last time I went to Whiteclay on the Google maps and activated the “street view” feature I saw several people all along the streets of Whiteclay, sitting there drinking or already passed out.) Any crime imaginable happened in Whiteclay, from bribery to robbery to assault to rape to murder and everything in between. For decades this went on, the whole time the beer store owners maintaining a stance of ignorance to all the crime and denying any criminal activities themselves.
In 1998 Wally Black Elk and Ron Hard Heart were murdered in the streets of Whiteclay and their cases remain not just unsolved but also un-investigated. In 2016 Sherry Wounded Foot was brutally beaten in Whiteclay and died days later due to her injuries. Her case remains unsolved, and for the most part, un-investigated as well. It was Wounded Foot’s murder that sparked a chain reaction that started with outcry for justice and led to meetings and hearings with officials which led to the hearing where a Sheridan County Commissioner stated that there was insufficient law enforcement in Whiteclay to adequately police the area. That led to the protest of the liquor license renewals which led to the hearings the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission held.
I went to the hearing on January 5th in Rushville, Nebraska. I had been to Whiteclay a few times and had watched documentaries and read countless local, national and international news articles about the town. I also live in Rapid City, South Dakota which is close to the Oglala Lakota Nation, and I see the impacts of Whiteclay all the time. The Native homeless population in my town and the number of Native inmates in the jails and prisons is disproportionately large. And the racism is astounding. I lived in the South before I moved to South Dakota, and I never really understood racism until I saw how the Native people are treated in my town and this whole area in general.
So I wanted to go to the hearings mainly to hear the testimonies and witness what I believed to be the unfolding of a historical event. I walked into the Rushville VFW, through the bar area and into the large room where the hearings would be held. A few folding tables were set up on one end of the room with the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission members seated at one which faced rows of folding chairs where the hearing attendees were sitting. I took a seat at the back of the room and listened as the first of the four hearings (one hearing for each beer store) and people testified both in favor and against the beer stores. The testimonies for the beer stores were all the same – “they are legitimate business owners selling a legal product and deserve to make a living” and “closing the Whiteclay beer stores won’t solve the alcoholism problem on the Reservation and it will just cause more problems for the towns around Whiteclay.” The testimonies against the beer stores were heartbreaking and many were very difficult to listen to; stories of death, rape, murder, physical and sexual abuse, molestation, prostitution, and all the crime that has happened in the streets and darkened alleyways of Whiteclay. There were also countless stories of the effects that alcohol has had on families; I think it is a safe blanket-statement for me to say that there is not one single person living in the Oglala Lakota Nation who has not experienced a tragedy in some form at the hands of alcohol. And I don’t mean a “white person’s” tragedy like getting a DUI and losing your job. I’m talking about people who have immediate family members who have been killed by a drunk driver, or a drunk person, or Cirrhosis, of exposure from being passed out drunk, or being beaten or raped by a drunk person. Many people have experienced several of these tragedies in one family.
After listening to the testimonies at the first hearing, I had an overpowering urge to speak at the next hearing. Public speaking literally terrifies me and I nearly failed my oral interpretation class in high school because of that, but I just felt like I had to say something. So I signed up on the sheet of paper and waited for my turn. Even after I they called my name and I was walking to the table at the front of the room, I had no idea what I was going to say. The one thought that came into my head was a recurring thought I had pondered many times over the last few years, so I just said it. With a slightly shaky voice I asked, “If what was happening in Whiteclay was happening to white people, would you have let it go on for so many decades?” They, of course, had no answer, so I stood up and walked back to my seat. I also spoke at the third hearing that day, mainly to more eloquently make my point without so much emotion getting in my way. I talked briefly about what I see even in Rapid City as the after-effects of the alcohol that comes from Whiteclay. Then I turned around in my seat to face the audience, and I looked at each of the beer store owners, and I directed my last statement to them personally, “I can see why you are fighting for your stores. You have found pay-dirt. But what you’re doing is evil.” After the hearings were over several people came up to talk to me, including longtime activist Frank LaMere of Winnebago and John Maisch, the director of the documentary ‘Sober Indian – Dangerous Indian.’ After talking with them for awhile I headed out of the VFW. As I passed through the front bar area of the building, a few of the beer store owners were sitting at the bar drinking and laughing. One of them said to me in an icy tone, “We hope you have a safe drive home.” I remember feeling an energy rush through me and the hairs on my arms stood up, not because I was scared but because these people were so horrible, to the core of their souls. I felt their indifference to the suffering of thousands in that brief encounter. I am quite certain that if the Nebraska Supreme Court rules in favor of the Liquor Control Commission the beer store owners will appeal. How could they not? The profits they have “earned” have corrupted them to the point of having no moral compass. They want their money and that’s all they care about.
The hearings that day and the ones held in April were part of the case record. If you watched the video link of the oral arguments above, this is the case record that the attorney for the beer stores did not submit to the District Court when the stores asked for a review of the Commission’s decision to deny the liquor licenses. When asked by a judge why the record was not submitted for the District Court Judge to review, Snyder replied that he didn’t think it was necessary. What?!
The pictures in the slideshow below are photos I took in August of 2016, roughly eight months before the beer stores liquor licenses expired and they closed their doors. This is what I saw in one day, in about 10 minutes. This is what the four beer store owners and their employees saw every single day, for decades. And they argue there is no problem, legal or moral, with what they do.
One of the first things I watched in my quest to understand my own racism was an old Frontline episode about an Iowa teacher named Jane Elliot who taught her third graders, their town, a nation, and me about racism and how it breeds. Below you will find some videos and links that I found very enlightening, informative and helpful.