Whiteclay, Nebraska is a town with a population of just 12 people, and is located right across the SD/NE border, only 250 feet from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Pine Ridge is a dry reservation, meaning that for years alcohol has been banned. But the owners of the four liquor stores in Whiteclay have found pay-dirt, and have been reaping the benefits for years. As Newton’s third law states: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The equal and opposite reaction to this alcohol gold-mine for the liquor store owners has been decades of alcoholism, abuse, rape, birth defects, poverty, homelessness, prostitution, crime and even death for many of the residents of Pine Ridge.
I had read many news articles about Whiteclay and the events that have transpired there, and watched several documentaries and older TV news broadcasts about Whiteclay, so I knew pretty much what to expect when a friend and I went there one August day last year. I knew what I was going to likely see, but I still wasn’t fully prepared for what I saw and felt.
As you approach the unincorporated town of Whiteclay you can see litter along the roadsides, some in piles so deep and so entwined by the overgrown landscape that it’s clear it has been there for years. The trash is mostly beer cans and other alcohol containers, and a lot of clothing. Soiled clothes and tattered shoes are scattered randomly throughout the streets and sidewalks among all the other debris: plastic water bottles, flattened packs of cigarettes, and discarded food containers. At the edges of town, along the side streets, you can see dirty and ripped mattresses hidden among the bushes or behind trees; the trash from main street trickles over here with the addition of empty condom wrappers and used prophylactics. More than one of the documentaries I watched about Whiteclay touched on the prostitution that takes place there. One man in his sixties spoke about how he would have sex with anyone, male or female, for $5.00. If he got five dollars he said he would have enough to buy four of the 24 oz. malt liquor cans which only cost $1.25 each at that time. (I believe the 24 oz. malt liquor cans cost $1.50 each now.) These malt liquor drinks are a favorite among the customers in Whiteclay because they have a higher alcohol content than domestic beers and they can be sold individually. Drinking just one of these is equivalent to a six-pack of regular, domestic beer.
Another documentary from the early 1990’s I watched covered an AA meeting on Pine Ridge and they interviewed several of the group members after the meeting. They were all older Native American males. They all talked about how alcohol had impacted their lives and the lives around them. Most of them had lost their families to their addiction. One man talked about how he came home from Whiteclay one night and repeatedly raped his daughters, because he was so drunk he thought they were his wife. Another man talked about how his friend died from exposure passed out in the streets of Whiteclay. All of them talked about their own experiences of sexual abuse when they were children.
As we entered the main part of town (one street about three blocks long) I instantly felt uneasy. I had wanted to come to Whiteclay for so long but when we actually got there I immediately regretted it. We drove down the length of the main street and turned around in an abandoned building’s parking lot at the other end. We weren’t far from one of the four liquor stores and we saw men standing guard in front of the stores entrance. I noticed all of the liquor stores had a “guard” posted, but for what reason I don’t know. We drove slowly back down the main strip again and as we passed the few side streets there are I saw people congregated in the shadows along the buildings, drinking. Some were already passed out.
When we reached the end of the main street again we parked for a few minutes across from a group of people that was gathered in front of what looked like an old church. A few of the people were laying down, passed out, but most were talking to each other while they drank. At one point a few began singing a song in Lakota; I don’t know what it was or what it meant but it was beautiful in the saddest way possible.
When I think of Native Americans, I envision great warriors and protectors, passing down their traditions and beliefs to the younger generations. They say it is the Native American way to think 7 generations ahead; what you do today should be good for those that come in seven generations. What lies ahead for the children of Pine Ridge?
Many of my friends wonder why anybody would try to get the liquor stores in Whiteclay shut down:
“Nobody is forcing people to buy beer.”
“The liquor store owners aren’t breaking any laws.”
“If those stores close, people will just go to the next town to buy alcohol.”
All of those things are true. But that doesn’t mean what’s happening in Whiteclay is right. That doesn’t mean we have to or should let things continue as they are.
What is happening in Pine Ridge is a complicated cycle that has been going on for generations. The problem is much greater than any one thing, and closing the liquor stores in Whiteclay will not magically “fix” the reservation. It will take years of work on so many levels to restore hope to the people of Pine Ridge. But it starts here, with you reading this. It starts now, with the actions you can take. One by one, as you see injustices happening, speak up.
I believe that the problems in Pine Ridge stem from a combination of greed and racism.
Be conscious in how your actions impact others, and how your spending can speak for you – we live in a consumer based society, and where we choose to spend (or not spend) our money can have a huge impact on the business models and economic trends in our areas. Buy wisely. Don’t support companies that support greed and corruption. Don’t support companies that poison our earth. Don’t support companies that contribute to the problems of the world. When your dollar can’t speak for, speak for yourself and those that don’t have a voice. VOTE.
Understanding racism is more complicated than it sounds. The knee-jerk reaction from most white people (myself at one time included) is “I’m not racist. I’ve never owned slaves and I didn’t take anyone’s land.” “Some of my best friends are black/Native American/Hispanic/etc.” I have some bad news for you, white people of America – you are racist. I am racist. But there is some good news, too. It’s not necessarily your fault; racism has been ingrained into us and is so subtly woven into the fabric of our society that we don’t even notice it. Examples are everywhere, we see them daily, but because we see them daily, and have for years, we have become blind to the racial implications they convey. Here are just a few examples of what I’m talking about: The Washington Redskins, The Cleveland Indians, the Thanksgiving activities most of took part in when we were kids like making headdresses out of construction paper or school plays of the story of the first Thanksgiving (as it was taught to us).
Racism begins to be ingrained into us as very young children, and a lot of it is not done consciously. For example, did you know that the globes and maps we learned from in school aren’t right? Africa is much, much larger than it is depicted on most standardized maps in American schools. And I never noticed (until I noticed) that most maps are displayed to children in textbooks and on walls, etc. with the United States being central to the world. This is a very subtle visual manipulation that sends a powerful message. In fact, most of the humans on the planet originated from Africa. Another way we, as white Americans, are trained to be racist is the verbiage in our school textbooks. If Native American battles are taught at all, they are given a few paragraphs and the Native Americans are often referred to as “savages.” But what is more deceiving than the language used are the words that are left out. There is never mention of the atrocities our government perpetuated and many, many, many Native American massacres are never even discussed. We have been whitewashing history.
Americans like to think that we have come so far, that we are so evolved and smart, that we are accepting of others and that we are for the most part good, Christian folks. But I think the racial tensions in our country have boiled to the surface over the last few years in a way that is hard to ignore. It should not be ignored. Racism is still very alive in America. Some people are very vocal and proud in their bigotry while others don’t even realize they are racist. In fact many feel the exact opposite about themselves. It is very hard to acknowledge and admit that we as humans are less than what we want to be. That we may have racist tendencies. But until we can admit we have a problem, we can never begin to fix the problem.
If what is happening in Whiteclay was happening to white people, would it still be happening?
Recent News on Whitecaly:
Breaking News: Whiteclay Beer Stores Lose Their Liquor Licenses
Lincoln Star Journal | January 1, 2017: The Cost of a Can of Beer
Omaha World Herald | Dec. 14, 2016: 1 of Whiteclay’s 4 beer stores is fined for selling alcohol to a minor
Washington Times | Dec. 5, 2016: Whiteclay beer stores reapply for Nebraska liquor licenses
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.