Whiteclay beer truck

Beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska, sell the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year, mostly to the residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is across the state line in South Dakota. Some want the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to shut down those stores.

An out-of-the-way place called Whiteclay gives Nebraska a black eye. Some make a stronger analogy, calling it a plague, or even a cancer.

The equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer are sold there annually, mostly to residents of a nearby Indian reservation, where rates of alcoholism, teen suicide, spousal abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome are rampant.

Activists want the state to shut down sales, but the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission says beer is a legal product and stores can’t be shuttered without proof of multiple violations of liquor law.

At the commission’s meeting this month in Lincoln, the issue caused an angry exchange.

The misery of Whiteclay, Nebraska, and the Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Indian Reservation has existed for decades, and there’s no single solution. But interest in attacking the problem may be growing:

» An unofficial “working group” has been formed at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, calling the situation “a public health issue.”

» After a World-Herald article in October by my colleague Paul Hammel publicized the epidemic of fetal alcohol syndrome, Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed a committee to explore problems associated with beer sales in Whiteclay.

» State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, an attorney who visited Whiteclay last month, is leading an interim study for the Legislature on the effects of Whiteclay alcohol sales.

» A “Fix Whiteclay” Facebook page has been created.

» And a recent showing of the Whiteclay documentary “Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian” at UNO drew more than 100 attendees, including Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson.

Frank LaMere, a Native American who has fought the Whiteclay battle for 17 years, said all of those are indications that public attention may be reaching a “critical mass.”

Or maybe nothing will come of the efforts, which is what history suggests.

Pansing Brooks, who hopes to take other state senators to the unincorporated village in northwest Nebraska this summer, is determined to spread the word about the shameful situation in Whiteclay — and to lead change.

“When you see it face to face, it’s amazing that this is going on in our state,” she said. “It’s a despicable situation. People are lying in the street.”

She has outlined a multifaceted approach, some of which she said may require legislation, but some will not. The senator is exploring possible state and federal funding sources and hopes for:

» Establishment of a Nebraska State Patrol substation in Whiteclay to enforce laws.

» Condemnation of abandoned buildings where crime occurs.

» Creation of a drug and alcohol treatment center.

» Expansion of economic opportunities to surrounding areas, including broadband.

“We need to get that area connected to the rest of the world,” she said Wednesday. “When I was up there, I couldn’t get any connection to cellular services.”

Broadband, she said, would allow for distance-learning and tele-health improvements, and could help in law enforcement.

“We’re working with the Public Service Commission and carriers,” she said, noting that bringing in broadband won’t take a new state law. She has a close ally: “My husband is a telecom lawyer.”

Improving the situation around Whiteclay is a tall task. For most Nebraskans, the area is so isolated — it’s a six-hour drive from Omaha — that it’s out of sight, out of mind.

I viewed the “Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian” documentary on June 9 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Community Engagement Center. Watching it is sobering, indeed — and sad. It follows a handful of alcoholic Native Americans through ups and, mostly, downs.

Two days before it was shown at UNO, the documentary’s producer, attorney John Maisch, a Grand Island native and graduate of Midland University in Fremont, got into a heated exchange with Bob Batt of Omaha, liquor commission chairman.

Filmmaker Maisch, a former liquor prosecutor in Oklahoma, called the Nebraska commissioners “child killers” and said they have “blood on their hands.”

Batt admonished him and later accused Maisch and others of trying to “demonize” the three-member commission.

Activists complain that assaults, fires and other incidents in Whiteclay give the commission legal reasons to close the stores. The commission disagrees.

At the UNO screening, Maisch said that he was hopeful of positive steps and that he appreciated the attorney general attending.

“As soon as enough Nebraskans decide that the situation in Whiteclay is no longer tolerable,” Maisch said, “I’m optimistic that things will change.”

Peterson, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, stayed at UNO through much of a three-hour presentation but left before I could catch him for questions. Through his spokeswoman, he later declined to comment.

The documentary’s title comes from the hopeful notion that an Indian who overcomes addiction and gets sober becomes “dangerous” by asking pointed questions of beer sellers and public officials. That doesn’t actually happen in the film, but the producer says such questions are now being asked.

It’s not the first such documentary. A previous film, “The Battle for Whiteclay,” in 2008 was awarded Best Political Documentary at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

The attorney general has met with UNMC professionals. Shilpa Buch, a Ph.D. and director of the Nebraska Center for Substance Abuse Research, and Dr. Howard Liu, director of the Behavioral Health Education Network, said the committee is determining how to approach the matter from a public policy perspective.

Robert Bartee, vice chancellor for external affairs, said the group is an ad hoc committee of individuals, not an official UNMC function. But the members watched “Sober Indian,” and he said a discussion showed that they were moved.

“It really was emotional,” he said. “It hit you in the gut and brought home what you’ve heard and read about over the years.”

He said the committee wants to get input from tribal leaders “to get their blessing and understanding. We’re not sitting in an ivory tower acting like we know what’s best.”

Even if the committee is unofficial, Pansing Brooks said the involvement of an institution as important to the state as UNMC is important because “it helps reach a different level.”

It’s estimated that 1 in 4 children born on the Oglala Sioux Reservation at Pine Ridge suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, a birth defect that causes physical abnormalities as well as lifelong learning and emotional disabilities. By contrast, the national rate is 1 or 2 per thousand.

Dr. Bruce Buehler of UNMC, who has worked with fetal alcohol syndrome for 35 years, said one approach to solving the Whiteclay-Pine Ridge problem would be better health in general — ranging from much-improved nutrition on the reservation to daily multivitamins for all. The vitamins, he said, at least would allay some of the effects of the alcohol.

Some people, Buehler said, wrongly think of fetal alcohol syndrome as just a Native American problem.

“Fetal alcohol syndrome is epidemic,” he said, “but it’s not cultural, not socioeconomic and not ethnic. There are an awful lot of closet alcoholics.”

As for the activists urging the Liquor Control Commission to shut down the four beer sellers in Whiteclay, Buehler said Prohibition didn’t work in America, and shutting down those four places won’t either. People will get their beer elsewhere, he said, even if they have to drive.

The activists say closing them would be a good first step. Pansing Brooks lauded them for bringing attention to the “devastation” of Whiteclay, adding: “The efforts to close down the stores are important, but my goal, in addition to those efforts, is to take different approaches.”

Attending the “Sober Indian” presentation at UNO was Nora Boesem of Newell, South Dakota, who brought her 4-year-old adopted daughter, Ariana.

Boesem, whose work with fetal alcohol syndrome was featured in The World-Herald in October, said Ariana’s birth mother drank during pregnancy. The child has had numerous seizures and 20 surgeries, Boesem said, with medical costs covered by taxpayers.

Maisch, who spoke recently to teenagers at the Nebraska Boys’ State meeting in Lincoln, said that when Nebraska legislators voted to abolish the death penalty, many did so because of the financial cost. That same fiscal argument, he said, can be applied to the negative effects of Whiteclay.

There are surely human costs, too, as attendees were shown in the documentary at UNO. The event was hosted by the Omaha nonprofit Project Extra Mile, which works against alcohol abuse.

Ricketts said on June 13 when touring a manufacturing plant in Lincoln that the citizens committee he appointed will “get together and brainstorm what are some things that can make the situation at Whiteclay better.”

He told my colleague Steve Jordon that “there might be solutions that involve the liquor commission” but that they ultimately should come from local people around Whiteclay who come up with “the types of ideas that are going to make a difference.”

If that sounds vague, well, the governor is awaiting the committee’s specific ideas.

Lisa Spellman, a communications specialist at UNMC and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said that every time she sees the “Sober Indian” documentary, it brings her to tears.

“Every Native person I see in the film reminds me of my father and how he suffered from alcoholism,” Spellman said. “UNMC is looking at this issue from the aspect of public health.

“We want Nebraska to be the healthiest state in the union, but right now Nebraska has cancer. And that cancer is called Whiteclay.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

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