Views of Whiteclay mixed, a year after the beer stores closed

Whiteclay, Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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May 18, 2018 - 6:45am

It has been a little over a year since the beer stores closed in Whiteclay, Nebraska, just across the state line from the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Reactions to the change are mixed, as the town looks to the future.


It’s a Monday morning outside the Whiteclay grocery store, and Walt Swan approaches a visiting reporter to give him a little bit of a hard time. “I thought we got rid of the street people and you’re standing here in the parking lot,” he says, laughing.

Lance Moss (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

 

Nearby sit four closed stores that until last year used to sell the equivalent of almost 4 million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In addition to a steady stream of drivers pulling in and loading up cases of beer, many people would walk the two miles from Pine Ridge village to drink, hang out, panhandle, and sometimes fight on the streets of Whiteclay..

Lance Moss, owner of the Whiteclay grocery store, says that has changed since the beer stores closed.

“Things are definitely quieter. The town stays a little cleaner, a little neater. No foot traffic,” Moss said.

However, he added, “My opinion still is that I don’t like how it all went down and I think them guys kind of got a raw deal.”

The “guys” Moss is referring to are the beer store owners, who lost their licenses after the Nebraska Liquor Commission determined there was inadequate law enforcement in the unincorporated village of about 10 people.

Cliff Water (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The stores appealed, but the Nebraska Supreme Court ultimately threw out their case on procedural grounds.

Up the road where a new Family Dollar store has opened, several people say things in Whiteclay have gotten better since the stores closed.

“To me, I think it’s a good thing, because people…stay sober," said Cliff Water, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who lives on the reservation.

But Water says there’s a downside to having the beer stores closed.

“It causes more bootleggers on the reservation now – (a) lot of bootleggers. Drinking water bottles...”

Water’s referring to what several others interviewed also mentioned: having to drive farther for alcohol to bring back to the reservation means it’s more efficient to buy hard liquor. And people who want to drink on the streets of the reservation can drink from bottles containing water spiked with vodka, for instance.

Abram Neumann (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Lance Moss says he sees some of the same people who used to hang out outside his grocery store now on the streets of Pine Ridge, and they seem to be in roughly the same shape they were before the beer stores closed.

But Abram Neumann, interim director of the Lakota Hope ministry in Whiteclay, says people seem better off to him.

“There were some people who were friends of mine who -- I was seeing the yellow in their skin, the yellow in their eyes -- and I’m convinced that had the beer stores not closed, they wouldn’t be alive today,” Neumann said.

“It is encouraging every time I get to see people who I knew from the streets in Whiteclay... some of them still drink. But their drinkings been cut back to such a point that they do look much healthier than they did when the beer stores were open,” he added.

Anna Dawn and her daughter, Eliana (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Another customer outside the Family Dollar store in Whiteclay, Anna Dawn, says she likes that the town is quieter, with less loitering. But she says reservation residents are still getting alcohol.

“I think they’re just going to Rushville, and Rushville’s probably making more money now,” Dawn said.

Rushville, Nebraska is 21 miles south of Whiteclay. Rushville Mayor Chris Heiser says the closing of the beer stores has changed things.

“Since the beer stores have closed, more people have died on the roads. That’s a fact,” Heiser said.

Between when the stores closed last April 30th  and the end of 2017, three people died in alcohol-related crashes on the roads of Sheridan and Dawes Counties, near Whiteclay.

That’s an increase over 2014 and 2015, when two people died each year, and 2016, which saw one death, says Nebraska Highway Safety Administrator Fred Zwonechek.

But Zwonechek cautions it’s generally advisable to have at least three years of crash data to determine if the trend is real, or if 2017 is just an anomaly.

Back in Whiteclay, questions remain about the future of the town beyond its past role as a trading post, largely for alcohol. Neumann predicts a bright future.

“I don’t really envision this town drying up and blowing away. I think there’s too much going for it. If people want housing, this is a place where you can get a mortgage... This is a place where you can start businesses. So I think the town has a lot going for it and I expect to see continuing growth in the future,” Neumann said.

Efforts continue to create a makerspace for Lakota craftspeople to create everything from quilts to furniture, with a goal of having something up and running by the beginning of next year.

By then, the future of Whiteclay after the closing of the beer stores may be becoming a little clearer.

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