Photo by Google Earth
Whiteclay main streetNebraska Highway 87
Cleaning up abandoned building in Whiteclay in mid-April.
Sen. Tom Brewer
When the liquor stores of Whiteclay locked their doors April 30 for the first time in more than 100 years, most of the alcoholics living on the streets went back to the Pine Ridge reservation, said Curtis Hoyt, who operates a ministerial treatment center just south of the tiny village.The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission declined to renew licenses for the Whiteclay stores, an unprecedented move in state history. The decision came after protracted reviews, during which store owners were required to file an unusually long renewal application.
The commissioners cited lackluster law enforcement, deplorable attention to public health and sexual abuse of young girls at Whiteclay for the denial.
A quick series of legal proceedings followed.
The store owner immediately appealed the commission’s denial. The court agreed, declaring the commission exceeded its authority. However, the next day, the Nebraska Attorney General appealed the court ruling to a higher court. In effect, that consigned the issue to a round of court proceedings that could last all year.
Meanwhile, the four stores closed.
Those four Whiteclay stores sold about 3.5 million cans of beer last year into the Pine Ridge Reservation, according to state liquor control records.
Whiteclay has a population of just seven people, but just across the state line is the reservation, where alcohol is illegal, but rampant.
After the Liquor Commission ruled, Chairman Robert Batt added that conditions on the reservation are deplorable. The rate of alcoholism is 80%. Average life expectancy is 47 years, he said.
Closing the liquor stores is just one small part of addressing the overriding challenge of improving life on the rez, he said in an interview with the Bulletin.
“This is an emergency,” Batt said. “I’ve traveled all over the world, and this (conditions on the rez) is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “For decade after decade it persists, and it has since the 1860s.”
At the Hands of Faith Ministries near the heart of the situation, Hoyt agreed the problem is much bigger than Whiteclay.
Hoyt said the residents of the Rez just go elsewhere to get beer and alcohol, and bootlegging is likely – buying booze elsewhere and selling it on the reservation
He said the solution is treatment for addiction, plus vocational training and family counseling.
That’s what Hands of Faith has been doing for 20 years, he said.
He said many residents on the Rez have been hurt as a child and are drowning their pain in alcohol.
“They won’t stop drinking until they get over the underlying pain,” he said. “We are Christian based. You have to forgive others, and you have to forgive yourself for the damage you’ve done. You can do that with God’s help.”
Hoyt said the treatment center accommodates about 16 men at a time, who stay for as long as a year. The center helps them obtain a GED (certificate equivalent to high school graduation) as well as a job and a vehicle to get the job.
After the men finish the first third of the program, they reconnect with their families.
Two hundred and fifty men have been treated in the last 20 years, Hoyt said.
That is not a huge number, but if each man improves the lives of five others, it is significant resistence to the tide of alcoholism and related crimes.
Hoyt said 40% of the children on the reservation suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum, in some form or another.
He said the ministry is just finishing construction of a new $400,000 facility, with most of the work done by the men there, and he hopes to expand in the next couple of years.
State Sen. Tom Brewer, a Lakota Sioux who grew up 10 miles from Whiteclay, believes Whiteclay and the reservation must be cleaned up. He and a task force from Lincoln will meet May 20 with tribal leaders and residents of the area.
Brewer said the state task force “wants to talk about the path ahead. We want to see good communications between the tribe, the legislature and state offices."
“When I started looking into this, I was shocked at the lack of communication,” he said. “We basically have abandoned the situation; I think because people were not conformable dealing with it. They weren’t comfortable with Indians, with alcohol sales and all the issues involved.”
Brewer expects criminal charges to be forthcoming in connection with crimes at Whiteclay.
“I personally feel the evidence was clear that the stores failed to meet the standards of required law enforcement and address the health issues,” Brewer said. “Suffice it to say, it was not just a case of selling to minors, or selling during off hours. It was much more severe than that.”
“I think it will be more obvious to people when more charges are filed,” he said. “We are a nation of laws. Rules and laws need to be followed, and in this case, they were not.”
Some abandoned buildings in Whiteclay were torn down in mid-April, funded through the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services -- to clean up the town and prepare sites for new development.
“We are clearing areas for other businesses, and we have some that are interested,” Brewer said.
“We are right in the middle of the fight,” he said. “We are not going to let go. We are in a position we can start doing positive things for Whiteclay. It’s been an ugly chapter in state history.”
On June 10, Brewer will take part in the fourth annual veterans’ pow-wow on the Pine Ridge reservation, honoring military veterans.
The annual pow-wow began in 2012. Brewer was one of the first honorees, as he was recovering from wounds he sustained in Afghanistan.
The South Dakota State Patrol will bring their helicopter to the pow-wow in June. The copter is named “Lakota.”
Hoyt said Tom Osborne brokered a reciprocity agreement years ago when he represented western Nebraska in the U.S. House of Representatives. reservation officers could go into White Clay, arrest criminals and put them in jail in Pine Ridge.
But the agreement feel by the wayside after Osborne retired from the House.
Hoyt said there is a relatively new prison on Pine Ridge, with 400 beds. And he said alcohol abuse is prosecuted on Pine Ridge upon complaint.
But there needs to be more treatment centers, he said, that can accept prisoners have they have detoxed in jail.