Last week, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission (NLCC) made history. After decades of turmoil over the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay, the NLCC voted unanimously to deny the renewal of four stores’ liquor licenses in Whiteclay.

This decision, from a visibly nervous liquor control commission, was years in the making. The commission provided a long list of reasons why the liquor licenses were denied, but the driving factor was the “woefully inadequate” law enforcement in the area.

Whiteclay is an unincorporated village of only 8 residents with no government and no police force, yet sells 3.5 million cans of beer a year from four liquor stores. This has transformed the area into a hub for violence, public drunkenness and bootlegging. The community of Whiteclay and the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation are plagued by epidemic rates of alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome, human trafficking, public intoxication, sexual assaults and multiple unsolved murders.

While the liquor stores will appeal this decision the evidence against the stores is overwhelming. For starters, this is not the “heavy hand of government” shutting down “legitimate businesses.” The four beer stores in Whiteclay have been operating outside of the law for years. The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office recently filed 22 allegations against the four stores including selling alcohol after hours and knowingly selling to bootleggers.

We are a nation of laws and it is clear that not only are Nebraska’s liquor laws not being enforced in Whiteclay, but the stores are openly violating the law as well.

A liquor license is a privilege, not a vested right. Nebraska statute (Neb.Rev.§53-101.01) clearly sets specific guidelines for the NLCC, which is also required by state statute (Neb.Rev.§53.132(3)) to consider the adequacy of existing law enforcement, sanitation conditions and public interest when distributing or renewing a liquor license. Whiteclay fails spectacularly in each of these areas.

If the absence of nearby medical care, grossly unsanitary conditions and clear lack of law enforcement for proper policing were not enough, the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay is costing Nebraska taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually. The true cost, however, is far greater than any dollar amount.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national average for fetal alcohol syndrome is less than 0.2%.  Just two hundred yards north of Whiteclay, this entirely preventable birth defect is diagnosed in more than 25% of children born on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Related: Capitol Connection Episode 5 – Trouble on Nebraska’s Northern Border

State Senator Tom Brewer, a strong conservative who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and now represents the district encompassing Whiteclay and neighboring villages, has been a leading voice for shutting down the beer stores in Whiteclay.

After the NLCC’s decision was announced, Senator Brewer said this isn’t going to end the problems, “but it’s a start.”

Senator Brewer is right. Whiteclay is, has been, and will remain a complicated issue. No, the problems will not go away overnight, but the NLCC”s decision to end the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay is a step in the right direction that brings with it a new opportunity for healing and change that would never be possible as long as the beer stores remained open.

It can be easy to forget the human side of issues when debating policy. We want facts and data to shape our laws, not emotion, but the facts on Whiteclay speak for themselves.

The efforts to fix Whiteclay must, and will, continue. This week the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill that will create a taskforce focused on finding solutions to address the social and economic ills that have plagued Whiteclay.

Choosing not to renew the liquor licenses in Whiteclay was the first, necessary step if there is any chance at fixing Whiteclay, cleaning up the area, promoting economic development and helping those suffering from alcoholism receive better treatment. Healing and change can now finally begin.


Nate Grasz

Nate Grasz

Policy Director
Nate is the Policy Director at Nebraska Family Alliance and host of the Capitol Report program.