On Monday, May 1, 2017, nine hours after Whiteclay, Nebraska’s four beer and malt liquor outlets were outlawed at midnight, the century-long flow of alcohol was reversed. Two Anheuser Busch distributor trucks were parked in front of the now defunct Jumping Eagle’s Inn. Case by case, the beer was loaded into the truck. The truck then worked its way north to the three remaining outlets.
Due to chronic and severe unemployment on the Pine Ridge Reservation, estimated at upwards of 75 percent, Whiteclay’s economy has, at least since the early 60s, followed a monthly boom and bust cycle. South Dakota state and federal poverty assistance checks arrive in reservation post offices in the first week of the month. That morning would find the town empty and bereft well past noon. No cars, no small groups of men and women gathered in this or that shady corner. For decades, the first day of any month inevitably brought the acrid springing to life of the main function of the town: alcohol consumption on a devastating scale.
This week, the devastation failed to arrive. Instead, the barren streets, the empty lots and padlocked steel doors of the beer establishments had turned the town ghostly.
Crews of workers funded by the State of Nebraska recently razed three acres worth of abandoned shacks and dangerous basement foundations on the north end of Whiteclay. For decades, these hovels housed the misbegotten alcoholics who, until quite recently, sheltered there. The sight of the barren field jolts the memory of regular travelers to and through White Clay.
Following a meeting on Tuesday with former Oglala Sioux Tribe chairman Bryan Brewer, Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, committed to providing room for the former Whiteclay inhabitants at a detox facility in Rapid City, South Dakota. No news yet on how many have taken advantage of the opportunity.
Throughout the week, the negative impact on Whiteclay’s lone grocery store was even noticeable from the outside, its parking lot often as empty as the shuttered beer stores. The flow of customers slowed to a trickle, hard evidence that alcohol truly was the town’s economic mainstay.
By Wednesday, a delayed halo effect was observed. Here and there, in small pockets, some of the towns former streetwalkers had returned. In the main they were inebriated. When questioned, one of the men dispelled the mystery. “We hit the bootleggers in Pine Ridge and then head here where nobody bothers us.” The lack of law enforcement in Whiteclay remains a reliable constant.
Not going down without a fight, an earlier than expected possibility for reprieve came for the beer store proprietors on Tuesday when the Nebraska Supreme Court fast-tracked the owners’ appeal. This is expected to expedite a final ruling. The beer store owners attorney, Andy Snyder, said he is confident the state’s highest court will rule in favor of his clients.
Activist Sonny Skyhawk sees it differently. “I think we have the [Nebraska] Attorney General [Doug Peterson] and two state senators on our side. The Nebraska Liquor Commission ruled in our favor and it’s been my experience that when you have the top cop making a concerted effort well … the change is gonna happen.”