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Nebraska governor’s office on Whiteclay: No easy solution

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Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a clarification of the position of the governor’s office on the matter of jurisdiction over the town of Whiteclay. The governor’s office does not respond to nor speak on behalf of political parties.

LINCOLN, Neb. – Addressing crime in the town of Whiteclay, Neb., which sells some four million cans of beer and malt liquor annually, almost entirely to Oglala Sioux Tribe members from the dry Pine Ridge Reservation, is “complicated and complex,” according to the office of Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican. Said Ashley Cradduck, spokeswoman for the state’s governor, “The Indians are coming from Pine Ridge, and that’s in South Dakota.”

This follows a failed attempt at the state Republican Party’s July convention to pass a resolution to explore solutions to crime and other problems arising in the northwestern Nebraska hamlet. Offenses in Whiteclay reported by tribal members and advocates – but rarely investigated, much less adjudicated – have included sex trafficking of Indian women and children, trading of sex for alcohol, murder, rape, assault, drug dealing, soliciting, liquor sales to underage and intoxicated customers, illegal on-premises and public drinking, harassment by paid toughs, selling of stolen goods, and food stamp fraud, according to prominent social justice advocate Frank LaMere, Winnebago, who has long fought to stop the illegal flow of alcohol from Nebraska to nearby Pine Ridge.

Heineman’s spokesperson also noted Whiteclay has few residents. Some estimates put the permanent population as low as six, in a burg with four liquor stores but no schools, churches, or other evidence of civic life.

With Whiteclay crime having little impact on whites, residents of surrounding Sheridan County feel the town provides useful function. According to filmmaker Mark Vasina, many see it as a magnet for Indians that keeps them out of white towns.

“Residents, as well as a beverage industry lobbyist in the state capitol, make this point onscreen in the film I made about Whiteclay.” Vasina’s acclaimed – and devastating – movie, “The Battle for Whiteclay,” won Best Political Documentary at the 2009 New York International Independent Film Festival and has been shown widely in Native and non-Native communities – visit for more information.

Whiteclay is not a new source of alcohol and despair. The town is a successor to so-called whiskey ranches set up in the 1880s to move alcohol onto what was then Pine Ridge Agency, according to LaMere, who is also director of the Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City, Iowa. The bootleggers who first supplied the liquor were replaced during the second half of the 20th century by bars and then retail stores licensed by the state of Nebraska.

The bootleggers haven’t vanished, though. Individuals make bulk purchases they resell illegally on Pine Ridge, where virtually all crime is alcohol related. Over the last decade, rallies originating in Pine Ridge – and met in Nebraska by heavily armed police in riot gear – have demanded a shutdown of Whiteclay.

The price of politics

The resolution Nebraska Republicans declined to support was crafted jointly by Douglas County Republicans and Democrats, political clubs in the state’s most populous area, around Omaha. Douglas County Democratic Chairman Mike Leahy, called Whiteclay “a human rights disaster,” and the state Democratic party gave the resolution a thumbs-up at its July convention – no surprise, given that it had ratified a more strongly worded resolution in 2004.

LaMere said he was pleased to see the bipartisan county effort and the statewide Democratic support but was dismayed Republicans, Nebraska’s dominant party, didn’t follow suit. “Over the years, tens of thousands have died, and thousands of children have been orphaned, thanks to Whiteclay. How can Republicans say they have family values? Nebraska has blood on its hands. At some point, Nebraskans need to say, ‘We’re better than this.’”

In explaining the issue’s longevity, LaMere said some fear the prospect of healthy and strong Lakota people. He also noted that Whiteclay generates millions of dollars in annual profits for storeowners there, along with hundreds of thousands in taxes for the state and federal government. “If anything like Whiteclay occurred in Omaha or Lincoln, it would be fixed immediately. And if Whiteclay were brought under control, it would call into question every reservation border town like it nationwide, and that would change the face of Indian country.”

Whiteclay is at the nexus of racism and money, Vasina said. “What was slavery except a way for white people to become rich by declaring another group different, therefore to be exploited? This is similar. The state liquor commission and business community want Whiteclay as it is. They say controls there would be a slippery slope, meaning increased regulation throughout Nebraska, so they turn a blind eye to what’s happening to Indian people.”

Cleaning up Whiteclay could be good for business, Vasina said, pointing to a well-known government crackdown that created an economic boom. “In the mid to late ’90s, New York City’s Times Square was purged of porn shops and other seedy businesses and is now a top tourist destination.”

If Times Square could move so quickly from extremely violent and dangerous to family-friendly, so could Whiteclay, he said, envisioning legitimate businesses catering to visitors and reservation residents.

Moving forward

Leahy felt that even though the bipartisan resolution did not pass both party conventions, the discussions increased awareness, which was a step in the right direction. Vasina said efforts continue to catch the attention of the federal government, state elected officials and the population at large.

The filmmaker also pointed to the increasing numbers of people calling for a solution, including Nebraskans for Peace, members of both political parties, university students, and a group of high school students who visited the town and produced an affecting YouTube video, “The Hidden Massacre of Whiteclay, Nebraska.” These supporters have also taken to the streets; about half of those arrested during Whiteclay protests were non-Native.

What do these small steps bode for the future? LaMere called Whiteclay a tinderbox. “People are angry. I know I am.”