WHITECLAY, Neb. — A year ago, Wayne Swift Bird regularly ventured to this Nebraska border village to panhandle for spare change or cans of beer, and kick back and drink with friends along the highway.
But the party’s over in this dusty town.
Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the closing of the four beer-only liquor stores in Whiteclay. The one or two dozen street people who used to openly drink, urinate and pass out along the road are gone, and traffic from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the border in South Dakota, has been reduced from a stream to a trickle.
The “Skid Row of the Plains” is now a dry town, focused on business rather than booze. And on a recent sunny afternoon, Swift Bird, 51, and a buddy were looking to hitch a ride down Nebraska Highway 87 to Rushville, to buy alcohol there.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said of the 22-mile trek to the nearest liquor store.
If you ask him — and many other area residents — closing the Whiteclay stores has not put a dent in the decades-old alcohol-related problems on the reservation, where possession and sales of liquor are officially banned. It’s just moved the street people elsewhere and forced people to drive or hitchhike farther to get alcohol.
On the reservation, bootleggers report booming business, selling cans of beer for $3 or water bottles filled with vodka mixed with water or hand sanitizer for $10 and more.
“Whiteclay moved to Pine Ridge,” Swift Bird said. “It’s the same thing we did up here.”
Advocates, who had been pushing to close down the beer stores for decades, don’t exactly agree.
Sure, they say, there’s more to be done to address alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome rates on the reservation, the latter of which affects 1 in 4 newborns. Panhandlers, they say, may be more visible on the streets in Pine Ridge and Rapid City, in South Dakota. But the street people are now in communities with local police forces that can prevent assaults and open drinking. Making alcohol less accessible, they say, lowers the consumption of alcohol and reduces alcohol-related problems. Some families, they say, have said their relatives sobered up.
“A lot of good things have happened, but we’ve got a step or two to go,” said State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who represents the Whiteclay area and is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
John Maisch, a former Oklahoma liquor regulator whose documentary “Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian” helped intensify opposition to liquor sales in Whiteclay, said awareness has increased about fetal alcohol syndrome and said lawlessness has ended in Whiteclay, which has no local law enforcement.
Whiteclay, which sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year, is no longer the liquor store of the reservation, he added, forcing the tribe to confront its alcohol issues.
“The issue was Nebraska’s complicity with undermining tribal efforts to heal and make healthy their people. That’s over,” Maisch said.
What’s indisputable, after a walk through Whiteclay, is that the village has been cleaned up.
A new Family Dollar discount store opened late last year and draws a steady clientele. It had to add extra employees to keep the shelves stocked. Just down the road, the White Clay Grocery Store had its best year ever in 2017, and business was up at the Fireside Inn cafe. Without the panhandlers, business owners say they’re seeing new customers in town. The smell of urine on a hot day is gone.
The closing of Whiteclay’s beer stores came suddenly.
After years of automatic renewals of their liquor licenses, the beer stores lost that annual request on a 3-0 vote by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission on April 19, 2017. The commission cited a lack of adequate law enforcement in Whiteclay, which has no local police force and is down to six or seven residents.
There had been complaints about an increasing number of panhandlers and more aggressive behavior by them. A couple of residents also said that it would take 45 minutes for local sheriff’s deputies to respond to fights and other calls, if they responded at all. There were unsolved slayings and an alleged rape on the street.
The stores appealed the loss of their licenses to the Nebraska Supreme Court but lost on a technicality. Now they’re seeking to recover some funds via a malpractice claim against their former attorney, while defending themselves against charges that they failed to pay all the sales taxes they owed.
The beer stores are padlocked and empty, and the owners are working odd jobs, like mowing parks in Rushville or sweeping the halls at the local school.
There’s still anger over the closings, and a feeling in this remote corner of northwest Nebraska, more than 400 miles from Lincoln or Omaha, that outsiders meddled in an issue they don’t completely understand.
Kraig Peterson, whose neighbors in Rushville included a couple of the beer store owners, said that legal businesses were shuttered for no reason. Peterson, who manages the Sioux Nation supermarket and mall on the reservation in Pine Ridge, said that now the panhandlers harass his customers for spare change, and bootleggers on the reservation are drawing a lot of customers.
“We’ve got four (bootleggers) within a short walk of my front door,” Peterson said. “All they did was move the problem.”
The impact on law enforcement is unclear. Sheridan County Sheriff Homer Robbins said there has not been the big number of automobile crashes or fatalities expected when liquor store customers were forced to drive 20 to 30 miles farther to outlets in Rushville, Gordon and Chadron. Ambulance calls to Whiteclay are way down, he added. Methamphetamine seems to be the big problem now on the reservation, Robbins said.
Rushville Mayor Chris Heiser said his town has seen an increase in traffic and sales tax receipts. But now, Heiser said, customers from the reservation are buying vodka and other hard liquor rather than beer and are forced to drive farther up a narrow highway to get it. There’s an increase in beer cans and other trash along roads from the reservation to Rushville, he added.
“I don’t think it’s accomplished anything,” Heiser said.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe, which oversees one of the poorest reservations in the U.S., received a $500,000 federal grant last fall to combat alcohol-related deaths by helping people get treatment, but it’s unclear what other steps it has taken. Tribal President Scott Weston was traveling last week, and a spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. A clerk with the tribal police, which has battled staff shortages, said there has been no increase in alcohol-related crime there.
But Kevin Killer of Pine Ridge, a South Dakota state senator, said the closing has put a spotlight on healthy alternatives to drinking to relieve stress. The end to Whiteclay beer sales was not expected, so the tribe has had to scramble to establish “partnerships” to increase alcohol rehabilitation programs, he said.
“Now it’s up to us to advocate for that,” Killer said.
Frank LaMere, a Native American activist from South Sioux City who called for the closing of the beer stores 20 years ago, said that after decades of alcohol sales in Whiteclay, it may take more than a year or two to determine the impact of the closures. But the “hopelessness” that Whiteclay once represented has lifted, he said.
“It will be looked at one day as a great human rights and civil rights victory for everyone in Indian country,” LaMere said.