On September 30th, the day after the Nebraska Supreme Court released their unanimous decision to permanently keep the liquor stores in Whiteclay closed, approximately 50 people- including two state senators, business leaders and medical experts – gathered at the Oglala Lakota Nursing Home just south of Whiteclay to discuss how to bring healing, change, and economic development to the area.

I was invited to attend the “Whiteclay Summit” and spoke on a panel about the importance of having involvement from the faith community. While in Whiteclay I also witnessed firsthand the change already taking place, and that positive momentum is growing as the focus remains on creating a better, safer region.

The Nebraska Legislature’s Whiteclay Task Force, created last session by LB407 and led by Sen. Tom Brewer and Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, hosted the Summit to explore economic development and public health issues. Although challenges remain, this gathering was further evidence that closing the beer stores not only provided hope to many who previously had none, but was merely the first step towards improving Whiteclay.

Senators Tom Brewer and Patty Pansing-Brooks, along with Judy gaiashkibos, Executive Director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, address the attendees of the Whiteclay Summit.

A common reaction I hear to the closing of the Whiteclay liquor stores goes something like this:  “This won’t solve anything. Closing the stores won’t stop people from drinking and alcohol related problems in the area will still exist.” While it’s true that court decisions don’t end addiction, this reaction assumes there weren’t lawful reasons to close the stores and that no other positive changes could occur in the community of Whiteclay if the stores were closed.

First, the stores’ liquor licenses were lawfully revoked. Whiteclay was a lawless place with clearly inadequate law enforcement in the area to properly handle the violence, assaults, and multiple unsolved murders – in a town of only 8 people.  In addition, the state attorney general’s office filed 22 violations of liquor statutes by the Whiteclay beer stores, including selling to bootleggers, selling after hours and failing to cooperate with investigators.

The fact that people will still buy alcohol and alcohol related problems will continue to exist does not absolve the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission from fulfilling their duty and certainly does not negate the rampant and blatant lawlessness, bloodshed and illegal activity taking place in Whiteclay.

Nate Grasz addresses attendees of the Whiteclay Summit.

Another often overlooked fact of this debate is that the 3.5 million cans of beer being sold every year were being sold to people with no legal place to drink it. Since Pine Ridge is a dry reservation and Nebraska has laws against open containers and public intoxication, those buying alcohol from Whiteclay were already needing to drive somewhere else in order to drink legally.

No liquor control commission could observe these facts and justify renewing liquor licenses in the area, which is precisely why they voted unanimously to deny them. While the four beer stores in Whiteclay undoubtedly fueled the epidemic rates of alcoholism and fetal alcoholism on the Pine Ridge Reservation by preying on and exploiting addiction, the stores were not closed to stop people from drinking. They were closed because of the lawlessness and violence continuing to go unattended.

And positive changes are already taking place. Nora Boesem, a social worker who has fostered over 100 children, many with FASD, from Pine Ridge Reservation said calls to pick up abandoned children have decreased signifiantly since the beer stores closed. In a recent interview, she also shared how closing the stores has brought hope to the youth of Whiteclay and Pine Ridge.

“It wasn’t just the drinking. It was the level of lawlessness and hopelessness that Whiteclay brought. There’s been such a change this summer because a lot of the youth who felt like there’s no hope, no one cares about what’s going on with us – the fact that people did something about Whiteclay has changed their minds. It will help that generation feel like maybe there’s more for me.”

Regarding the social ills that have plagued Whiteclay, Bruce and Marsha BonFleur, two of Whiteclay’s eight official residents who also run Lakota Hope Ministry, have seen it all. Violence, public drunkenness, people passed out in the street and defecating next to buildings. Marsha even testified earlier this year about finding a woman passed out in the street with her pants around her ankles and underwear below her knees, and responding to screams from a woman who had been gang raped. Now that the stores are closed, these problems have effectively disappeared.

The Omaha World Herald reported that “a traveling doctor who works at the Pine Ridge clinic, Dr. Drew Walker, said the number of patients seeking help has “calmed down” “since the closings.”

Other improvements happening already include a new Family Dollar store near completion, two buildings in town receiving a face-lift, and the University of Nebraska Medical Center offering psychiatric counseling at the nursing home and collaboration with Chadron State College to train more alcohol counselors in the area.

Over 20 Lakota men and women rode for miles from Pine Ridge Reservation on horseback to greet, sing, pray and shake hands with those in attendance at the Summit.

The Whiteclay Summit provided more opportunities for real discussions to take place on how to move forward, but it was the unplanned conclusion that showed the gravity of the change that is taking place.

Over 20 Lakota men and women rode for miles from Pine Ridge Reservation on horseback to greet, sing, pray and shake hands with those in attendance at the Summit. Tears streamed down the faces of the Lakota women as they made their way around, stopping to shake hands with each person. Each handshake was accompanied by a simple, yet painfully heartfelt, “thank you.”

The surreal moment of different groups of people coming together across cultural, racial, and political divides created a sense of humble solidarity, unity, peace and forgiveness that left a visible impression on all who were there.

Undoubtedly, substantial challenges remain and the past is not forgotten, but there is hope for the future and a new opportunity to create positive change both in Whiteclay and with our neighbors on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Nate Grasz

Nate Grasz

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