[guest post by Dana]
Recently, The New York Times had a story about four liquor stores in the unincorporated village of Whiteclay, Nebraska. Located just a few miles away from the officially dry Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the stores are where the local Native Americans go to purchase their beer. In Whiteclay, with a population of less than a dozen people, the four stores collectively sell a staggering 3.5 million cans of high-alcohol malt liquor annually:
This town is a rural skid row, with only a dozen residents, a street strewn with debris, four ramshackle liquor stores and little else. It seems to exist only to sell beer to people like Tyrell Ringing Shield, a grandmother with silver streaks in her hair.
On a recent morning, she had hitched a ride from her home in South Dakota, just steps across the state line. There, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, alcohol is forbidden. In Whiteclay, though, it reigns supreme.
“You visit, you talk, you laugh, you drink,” said Ms. Ringing Shield, 57, as she stood on the sidewalk with friends, chain-smoked Montclair cigarettes and recounted her struggles with alcoholism, diabetes and cirrhosis. “It makes you forget.”
The grim scene in Whiteclay has scarcely changed for decades. Particularly in the warmer months, Native Americans can be seen openly drinking beer in town, often passed out on the ground, disheveled and ill. Many who come to Whiteclay from the reservation spend the night sleeping on mattresses in vacant lots or fields.
Even under the chill of winter, people huddle outside the liquor stores, silver beer cans poking from coat pockets. The street, busy with traffic from customers, is littered with empty bottles and scraps of discarded clothing.
“It promotes so much misery, that little town,” said Andrea Two Bulls, 56, a Native American on Pine Ridge, who added that she hoped the state would revoke the licenses. “My brother used to go to Whiteclay all the time, and we’d have to go look for him. People sit and drink until they pass out. They just succumb.”
In a place where “unemployment exceeds 80 percent, poverty affects more than 90 percent of those living on the reservation,” and a staggering 25% of newborn babies on the reservation have fetal alcohol syndrome, there is now a concerted effort being made by the Nebraska legislature to find some sort of solution to the crisis:
[M]any residents of Nebraska and South Dakota are pushing for the liquor stores of Whiteclay to be shut, disgusted by the easy access to alcohol the stores provide to a people who have fought addiction for generations. The Nebraska authorities, in turn, have tightened scrutiny of the stores, which sell millions of cans of beer and malt liquor annually. Last year, for the first time, the state liquor commission ordered the stores’ six owners to reapply for their liquor licenses.
The fate of the stores could be decided next month, when the three-member commission holds hearings in Lincoln, the state capital.
While it appears that there is a general agreement that this is a public health emergency and must be solved, just how to do it remains a problem. There seem to be two schools of thought, neither of which are surprising.
First, there are those who believe that the government needs to step in:
[Sen. Pansing Brooks] introduced LB407 to examine the impact of alcohol sales in Whiteclay and its surrounding communities and make recommendations to the Legislature on how to solve the economic and social issues facing the area. Members of the task force would collect, examine and analyze data on fetal alcohol syndrome rates, access to treatment services and the risk of alcoholism for children raised in the area.
“Both our actions and inactions in Nebraska are having devastating effects on the people of Pine Ridge,” she said. “We have to help the people who are being harmed by this public health emergency and we must not continue turning a blind eye to this vulnerable population.”
Gordon Sen. Tom Brewer* supported the bill. He said many of the surrounding communities do not want to see the alcohol stores in Whiteclay shut down because it could cause the problem to spread to their area. An entire generation has been lost to alcoholism and another is in the process of being lost if the Legislature fails to act, Brewer said.
“We’re poisoning a group of people that we’ve forced onto a piece of land and we’re not taking action because the problem could spread to surrounding communities,” he said. “Ignoring the problem and ignoring the people and just accepting it as inevitable is not the right answer.”
Sen. John Lowe of Kearney also supported the bill, saying concern for the state’s people should outweigh any concerns for the rights of small business owners.
“It’s up to us to take a stand and make that decision that business is not more important than our people,” he said.
And then there are those who are against upsetting the status quo:
“If we would get rid of the stores, there would be an uproar,” said Allyssa Comer, 20.
Vance Blacksmith, 47, a Native American and teacher on the reservation, said he favored leaving the stores alone.
“They’re not hurting anyone,” he said. “Drinking is a personal choice. The people who drink are trying to accept life as it is. And it’s depressing, being here on Pine Ridge.”
In addition, local sheriff Terry Robbins noted that even if the four stores were closed down, people who wanted to drink would just be compelled to drive farther to buy their beer. This would result in other drivers being endangered. Sheriff Robbins also noted that ultimately, closing down the four stores would not end the crisis of Native American babies being born with fetal alcohol syndrome. And he’s right. This is not a simple problem involving just a few people. It is a multi-generational issue endemic to American Indians – the catastrophic results of which not only impact those exercising their freedom to drink (excessively), but also directly impacts the most innocent and vulnerable among us, as well as the taxpayers.
With that, in our nation a person with a plan and enough money can set up shop, provide a legal product to consumers, and make a living from their efforts. If compliant with the laws of the land, should business owners be denied their freedom to make a living because people of legal age choose to make unwise decisions? Given that these are a people that were horribly mistreated by the federal government, are they now in need, or in want of that same government to come to their rescue?
*This is rather significant: Sen. Tom Brewer grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation. That he found a way to avoid the tragic life of so many, evidences that one can work toward a different outcome, and that even in the cloistered confines of the reservation where desperation abounds, there are options. That Sen. Brewer did so with such honor, speaks volumes:
He grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation – where poverty and diabetes, fetal alcohol syndrome and suicides – run rampant, seizing too many Lakota lives each year. He’s walked the streets of Whiteclay, where some descendants of those who once wiped out Custer’s command now surrender to a can of Budweiser.
Back then, there were few choices for Indian youth like him, a direct descendant of the famed Sioux Chief Red Cloud. So when a military recruiter came calling, Brewer did the only thing he could think of: He signed up for a hitch, donning the uniform of the country that had destroyed his own.
“The Lakota spirit is a warrior spirit and that’s what drew me to the military,” Brewer says. “We’re a warrior culture, and if you’re going to be a warrior, you should do it in uniform.”
And so he did, serving 13 tours of duty. Six in Afghanistan. Countless battle wounds. Shot seven times. Blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade. Traumatic brain injury. Two purple hearts and a bronze medal.
A couple of items to consider: Disagreements about whether store owners are breaking the law by selling to individuals who are already intoxicated have been going on for some time in Whiteclay.
Additionally, some people believe that the lack of law enforcement officers contributes to the problems in Whiteclay as well:
The village does not have its own police force. It relies primarily on the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office, which is headquartered about 20 miles away in Rushville. Besides the sheriff, the department has four deputies to cover a county the size of Delaware.
At a public hearing last week, a street minister said it was almost pointless to call 911 because it took so long for the sheriff’s office to respond.
By state law, liquor licenses can only be issued in areas with sufficient law enforcement.