Whiteclay: What's next?

View up Highway 87, the main street of Whiteclay (all photos by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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December 26, 2017 - 6:45am

The role of Whiteclay, Nebraska as a supplier of alcohol to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation may be over. But the future of the tiny village in northwest Nebraska is uncertain.

After a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling in late September determined that the beer stores in Whiteclay would remain closed, people gathered in the border town for a meeting to discuss its future. State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, himself a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, headquartered on the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, said this is a crucial time.

“We have a small window of opportunity with the momentum and some of the passion to do some good things and move Whiteclay forward. But that will soon fade if we’re not moving forward in a positive way where people are seeing some results,” Brewer said.

The next morning, a group of about 50 met at the tribal nursing home in Whiteclay to discuss future plans. Judi gaiashkibos, director of Nebraska’s Commission on Indian Affairs, says for any strategy to succeed, there has to be buy-in from local leaders and the people who would be affected.

“The solutions have to come from the tribe. And I don’t know -- they’re not here today,” gaishkibos said.

Judi gaishkibos

Although some tribal members were present, the leadership of the tribal government headquartered two miles away across the South Dakota border in Pine Ridge was not. Nebraska State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who co-chaired the meeting, later read a text in which Oglala Sioux Tribal President Scott Weston regretted having been called away to a meeting on hiring a new hospital administrator.

When discussion turned to economic development opportunities, Jon Ruybalid, an entrepreneur from Henderson in eastern Nebraska, showed a fundraising video he has posted to create a “makerspace” for crafters in Whiteclay.

“The Whiteclay makerspace will be a facility where Lakota creators will have access to equipment such as tools, a canvass stretcher, quilting machine, and worktables. They’ll have resources such as mentoring, classes, and supplies. They’ll have opportunities such as a gallery, warehousing of artwork and an online store to support the space and connect Whiteclay creators to the world,” Ruybalid said in the video.

Several audience members questioned how the money raised would be spent. Jacob Sheridan, city manager for Gordon, Nebraska, a town of about 1,500 people about 30 miles away, questioned the wisdom of building in Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of about 10 people.

“My concern is that we’ve got the cart miles ahead of the horse. Most of the people presenting today aren’t from the area. I’m not sure they’re completely attuned to the issues, or where we’re at, where we need to move forward,” Sheridan said.

That drew a sharp response from Joe Pulliam, an artist from the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“You’re saying, ‘Well those Indians can’t develop something like this. They don’t have the capacity or the talent to do it,’” Pulliam said.

Sheridan denied that was what he was saying. But the exchange led Pansing Brooks to make a plea for unity.

Patty Pansing Brooks

“I know that some of you have argued and fought with each other for years. I’m asking you to put down your swords. I’m asking you to put down your anger and your hurt. And we are working today to heal Whiteclay,” she said.

Pansing Brooks acknowledged plans could go awry, but she urged optimism.

“Yes, somebody may be in this to only profit themselves. To work and to continue to belittle and to thrive off the hurt and the injustice of the Oglala Lakota people -- our brothers and sisters. That is true, that could happen. But what else could happen today is that we move forward and we move in love, and in justice and in humanity. And that is my goal. And I believe in the hearts of the people here today,” she said..

Other said they saw progress. Seymour Young Dog, a board member of the tribal nursing home, told the largely white gathering the current moment stands in contrast to years of mistreatment of Indians.

Seymour Young Dog

“We welcome your input. We welcome you being here. And it sure feels good to see white folks out there doing something to help Lakota people,” Young Dog said.

Others, like tribal member Nadine Morrison, said improving Whiteclay alone would not solve deeper problems on the reservation.

“I think our people really need prayer because a lot of them still have an alcohol problem. And it’s not just going to go away because the bars are no longer open. If they’re an alcoholic, they’re still getting their alcohol from somewhere,” Morrison said.

There was discussion of those larger problems, including health care and fetal alcohol syndrome. But for Nebraska, the focus remains what to do now about Whiteclay.

Sen. Tom Brewer outside a Dollar General store under construction. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Brewer says he thinks there’s a positive energy, after decades of tribal resentment.

“That emotion never went away, of ‘them against us,’ and just bad blood and bad feelings. You’re seeing that fade away now,” he said. “I think with the liquor stores leaving and some attempts to try and help, I think they see it as just some people trying to get along and make this little town work again.”

A new Family Dollar store next to one of the closed-down beer stores opened this fall. There’s talk of building a memorial to lives that were lost in Whiteclay. A village-based online program to market crafts, grownebraskanative.org, has been started. And other ideas are being discussed, ranging from a movie theater to an alcohol treatment center to parks.

What results from all this will define the next chapter in the story of Whiteclay.

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2017" Signature Story report.  The story originally aired and was published in October.



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