Righting a Century of Wrongs: Whiteclay, Nebraska

Whiteclay, Nebraska, population 14 (more or less) has been called the “skid row of the plains” for its four liquor stores, which all do brisk business — approximately 12,000 cans of beer a day. The visitors buying the beer are from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — less than 200 feet from the town line — where alcohol is illegal and alcoholism has ravaged the community.

In a New York Times op-ed, former South Dakota Democratic senator James Abourezk recently called for President Obama to restore the town land of Whiteclay to the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge, which would effectively render alcohol sales illegal. In the late 1800s, President Chester Arthur, issuing an executive order, created a 50-square-mile buffer zone on the reservation’s southern border, in Nebraska. Its intent was “to prevent renegade whites from selling guns, knives and alcohol to Indians living on the reservation.” Teddy Roosevelt, with the liquor industry in his ear, overturned the order in 1904.

Abourezk argues that Whiteclay’s liquor sales contribute to “murders, spouse beatings, child abuse, thefts and other undesirable consequences of the free flow of alcohol into the reservation.” His op-ed came a few months after the release of Battle for Whiteclay, a documentary that follows a group of activists as they try to abolish alcohol sales in the town. The film’s website states that the liquor stores regularly flout Nebraska laws by “selling beer to minors and intoxicated persons, knowingly selling to bootleggers who resell the beer on the reservation, permitting on-premise consumption of beer in violation of restrictions placed on off-sale-only licenses, and exchanging beer for sexual favors.”

Abourezk ended his column by writing that “President Obama could right a century of wrongs by re-establishing the buffer zone. It would alleviate the overwhelming social ills that result from easy access to alcohol, and help end the violence tribal members too often visit on each other and on their families.”

While it is indisputable that the liquor stores are preying on a vulnerable population, the problems at Pine Ridge go beyond drink. There are, for example, the reservation’s crushing poverty, sky-high unemployment rates, dismal health statistics, and treatment options (or lack of) for those suffering from addiction. Would presidential redress that restores the buffer zone be enough to “right a century of wrongs”? And while it may be a start, is it the right one?

Unemployment at Pine Ridge stood at 89% of the labor force in 2005. Located in Shannon County, one of the poorest counties in the nation, average family income on the reservation is $3,700. Just under 95% of the county’s citizens are American Indians, and 45% of families and 52% of individuals live under the poverty line. The director of Oglala Sioux Lakota Housing said a few months ago that the reservation needs 4,000 new homes for its 40,000 residents. And men on Pine Ridge have, after Haiti, the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere (48 years); for women, it’s 52. Half of Pine Ridge residents over 40 have diabetes.

Another challenge is that of providing access to culturally appropriate treatment and rehabilitation centers to help prevent the well-documented alcohol-related deaths among community members. This paper points out that the behavioral health care network for American Indians is both complex and fragmented. Pine Ridge, for example, doesn’t have a treatment center. And while over 90% of customers at the Whiteclay liquor stores are from Pine Ridge, if they are jailed in Nebraska for drinking-related offenses, they aren’t eligible for Nebraska’s subsidized treatment centers — those are for state residents.

Abourezk’s op-ed garnered a response from journalist Stew Magnuson, author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns. Magnuson wrote, “[T]hose with even a passing familiarity with the situation in Pine Ridge know that the president will not be able to wave a magic wand, create a buffer zone and alleviate the social ills there,” emphasizing that “what is really needed on Pine Ridge and in many other places in Indian Country [are] [b]etter schools, more jobs and alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers.”

Magnuson’s point is an important one: the problem must be attacked on all levels. Certainly re-establishing the buffer zone may be a significant and symbolic step. But attacking the root causes of the area’s widespread alcoholism — poverty, unemployment, lack of culturally appropriate treatment centers, and lack of positive opportunities — is just as crucial, if not more so.

For more information:

Youtube.com: Battle for Whiteclay

The Oregonian: Native American doctor focuses on problems of addiction

Associated Press/Nebraska.TV: Organizers of Whiteclay blockade encouraged

Nebraska Statepaper: A different perspective on Whiteclay

Lincoln Journal Star: A place called Dewing

USA Today: Battle over beer brews on border

OpenForum: A “historic failure”: American Indian health care suffers

American Journal of Public Health: The persistence of American Indian health disparities