WHITECLAY, Neb. — It’s the first of the month and a steady stream of traffic rolls into this dusty village of fewer than a dozen residents.
Business is brisk at the town’s grocery store and clothing outlet, and its two cafes and four liquor stores.
The first of the month is when government assistance checks, pension checks and paychecks are issued on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the state line in South Dakota. People have money to spend.
More than a dozen men and a couple of women are huddled in groups in front of abandoned buildings on Highway 87. They openly drink from 25-ounce cans of Miller Lite Ice or Black Ice.
Most of the men smell of alcohol, some of urine. They sit or stand next to a scattering of trash, piles of feces and graffiti scrawled on walls.
But the street people, in recent years, have not been alone. For more than a decade, two former Florida residents have operated a street ministry in Whiteclay.
Now, Bruce and Marsha BonFleur are behind a new effort to rid the town of despair and drunkenness.
The BonFleurs, who say they were called by God to this “skid row of the Plains,” have proposed a buyout of Whiteclay’s four beer-only liquor stores. They hope to raise as much as $6.3 million from private and public sources to finally close down the stores after years of protests and other efforts have failed.
“We’re either going to look like the biggest fools in Nebraska, or God is going to be glorified,” Bruce BonFleur said during a recent interview at his Lakota Hope Ministry complex, just a couple of blocks from the beer stores and street people.
For years the BonFleurs have regularly walked the streets of Whiteclay to visit with the ragtag, intoxicated crew, checking on their physical and spiritual well-being.
“These (street) people are like family to us,” he said. “You want to do whatever you can do for them.”
The BonFleurs, in the past couple of years, have been assisted by Abram Neumann of Minnesota, who the street people have nicknamed “Curly Sioux,” for his bushy blond hair.
“He’s been around so long, we might just adopt him,” said Bryan D. Bluebird Jr., 57, as he stood along the highway with Neumann.
Neumann, 22, knows almost all of the street people by their first names, as do the BonFleurs.
A couple of blocks from the busy business district, the BonFleurs have turned a weedy lot into a complex of straw-bale gardens, Quonset huts and a teepee-like outdoor meeting space.
There they work with 15 to 20 Native American crafters to market their beadwork and artwork. During the summer they host dozens of church groups that are on mission trips, and hold weekly Lakota culture nights and a weekly spiritual gathering called Night of Another Hope with prayer, dance and supper.
Now they’re focused on the much more ambitious goal of raising millions to buy out the beer stores.
These are no ordinary businesses. They sell the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year. Almost all sales are to residents of the reservation, where the possession and sale of liquor is banned.
Critics call the sales predatory and blame Whiteclay’s stores for the epic rates of alcoholism, abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome that affect nearly every household on the reservation.
Last month, at a Methodist Church meeting in Lincoln, Bruce BonFleur announced the B.O.B.S. Whiteclay P.L.A.N. It stands for “Buy Out the Beer Stores” and “Promote Lakotas As a Nation.”
The idea: to buy out the stores and replace them with new businesses and social centers, ridding the town of the street vagrants and creating a new, cleaner, more prosperous Whiteclay.
The liquor stores face an April 7 hearing before the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to determine whether they can keep their licenses. Because of that, some say there’s an incentive for the owners to sell now, while their businesses still have significant value.
The idea of a buyout has been met with mixed reaction. Some say the plan is probably the only way, if the stores retain their licenses, to close them down. Others maintain it would be immoral to financially reward store owners whose businesses, for decades, have exacerbated the problems of a reservation regularly ranked as among the poorest in the country.
Around Whiteclay, opinions vary about the BonFleurs and how much they’ve accomplished during their 19 years serving the people.
Some cheer their dedication to bringing hope to a desperate place, but others say they’re better at starting projects than seeing them through. They doubt that the couple can raise the money.
Still others say that the BonFleurs exacerbate the problems with street people by offering them comfort and, occasionally, food. The BonFleurs respond that these are God’s people — they call them “Risen Warriors” — who deserve love and respect.
This sort of division isn’t new. Well-meaning evangelists, church groups, nonprofits and politicians regularly offer big plans to help. There’s publicity but, in the end, not much progress. “Poverty porn” is what one reservation resident called it.
Bruce BonFleur, 65, is undaunted. He said he didn’t come to Whiteclay to win a popularity contest, but to transform the town by creating jobs and restoring dignity to “his people.”
“When we came here, we had no money, but we had faith,” he said.
“It was the love of money that created Whiteclay in the beginning, and it’s going to be money that is going to end this travesty,” BonFleur said.
“Money and the love of people,” added his wife, Marsha.
The idea of buying out the beer stores, BonFleur said, was initiated by the liquor store owners.
Last year he served as a member of a task force of Whiteclay-area officials and beer store owners formed by Gov. Pete Ricketts. Members were tasked with finding local solutions to complaints of increasingly surly behavior by street people, either through panhandling or harassment.
During one meeting a liquor store owner suggested that someone just buy out the stores.
BonFleur said his response was, “If you’re serious, come to me.”
In late October that happened, and BonFleur said at least five more meetings have occurred since. There’s been some discussion about the purchase price, and he said the figure has dropped.
Right now his goal is to raise $6.3 million, a figure he computed by looking at the annual sales at the four stores and adding $300,000 for startup costs, including renovation or demolition of the buildings.
BonFleur does not see that figure as outrageous or unattainable.
Owners of the liquor stores in Whiteclay say they’re ready to sell.
“We’re getting worn down,” Jason Schwarting said from behind the counter at the Arrowhead Inn, a concrete structure with mesh wire over its windows.
“I’ve been here 20 years. If they want us gone, this is the easiest way,” Schwarting said. “I hope he gets something done.”
Jack Anderson, a Sheridan County Board member, said that now may be the time for the store owners to sell.
If the state liquor commission denies their licenses, the stores would face an expensive legal battle to overturn that decision. If they’re put out of business, their stores would be virtually worthless.
Anderson said he doubts the state would approve new liquor licenses in Whiteclay from any new applicants.
But Anderson, like many others in Sheridan County, has a quick answer when asked what would happen if the beer stores were shut down.
“Will it stop alcoholism on the reservation? I don’t think so,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the BonFleurs will stop trying.
God, Bruce BonFleur said, called him and his wife to the Pine Ridge Reservation from Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1998 “to help restore dignity to my people.”
At first BonFleur said he didn’t know exactly what God had in mind.
Initially the couple worked at the now-closed Pine Ridge Christian Academy on the reservation, he as the principal, Marsha as a teacher. Later they felt a call to put God’s “light” in Whiteclay.
So Bruce BonFleur launched a faith-based organization called the ABOUT Group and purchased a dilapidated building on Whiteclay’s main street, Nebraska Highway 87.
Out of the 555 Whiteclay Building they launched a thrift store in 2004. The structure also housed, for a time, a soup kitchen operated in conjunction with a nearby nonprofit, a crafters workshop and a machine quilting business. A grant from the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs helped with that.
“Whiteclay is a gold mine smothered in beer,” BonFleur once said.
In 2010 they received a $10,000 grant from the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office to clean up trash in town, and also a $30,000 federal stimulus grant to start a recycling business and a commercial greenhouse. A day-labor operation was also envisioned.
In 2013 they paid $45,000 for a pie-shaped piece of land on the south edge of Whiteclay that used to house a small log cabin and a bakery.
Lakota Hope Ministry is the name of the organization now, and signs around the complex state that its goal is “hope and healing” through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Skeptics point out the greenhouse plan never panned out, though the building has been used for meetings. The thrift store has been shuttered in recent years.
“He has a hard time staying with things to the finish,” said Curtis Hoyt, executive director of Hands of Faith Ministries in Whiteclay, a group that seeks to train Native American men in the building trades. “At the same time, he’s got a good heart for the people here.”
BonFleur grew irritated when he heard such assessments, saying that visions and missions change.
“The people here have no vision,” he said. “The fact is we came here with nothing, took nothing and developed quite a few things.”
One longtime advocate for closing the beer stores, Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe from South Sioux City, called the buyout plan “a ruse” that would give the state liquor board an easy excuse for not closing down the liquor outlets in Whiteclay — because the buyout plan would eventually close them.
LaMere also doubts that wealthy donors would shell out millions to buy out the businesses.
“I want to see these millionaires,” he said. “I won’t hold my breath.”
Yet Lakota Hope has many supporters, and there are those who believe that the sad story of the Pine Ridge Reservation resonates across the country, and that raising $6.3 million or thereabouts is possible.
BonFleur, who is not an ordained minister or Native American, is an effective speaker with a marketing background. He has an energetic and hopeful vision that has helped attract grants for cleanups and entrepreneurial efforts, grants that didn’t previously find their way to Whiteclay.
Darrell Hernandez, who runs a shelter for military veterans of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in Pine Ridge, said something needs to change to give the tribe a fighting chance to curb its alcohol problems.
“It’s a start,” Hernandez said. “(Whiteclay) is just a walk away over there. I’m in a losing battle every day.”
State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, a Lakota who represents the Whiteclay area, said that Lakota Hope has helped turn some people away from a life on the streets. Give the idea a chance, he said.
“It’s an option we should look at,” Brewer said.
Efforts to clean up Whiteclay and close down the liquor stores have come and gone, like the passing of the seasons, during the past two decades in this remote corner of northwest Nebraska.
Whiteclay first drew national attention in 1999, when two street people were found slain in a field just across the South Dakota border. Protests ensued over the deaths, which remain unsolved.
Activists such as American Indian Movement leader Russell Means came. There were confrontations and marches on Whiteclay. A grocery store was torched and vandalized.
In the wake of the deaths, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated. Governors and state senators visited, the Nebraska State Patrol conducted special enforcement efforts, and the Nebraska Legislature conducted more than one interim study. Authorizing another study was debated by state lawmakers last week.
But little has been accomplished.
The state liquor commission, back in 2004, canceled the license of one beer store, the Arrowhead Inn. That same year the commission rejected an application to open a fifth liquor outlet in Whiteclay.
But after a court appeal, the Arrowhead Inn was allowed to remain open. The store’s attorney argued that the denial was based more on politics than facts. The court’s ruling has been cited frequently by members of the liquor commission in arguing that they have limited powers to shut down the stores.
But several changes now are afoot in Whiteclay.
Never before has the liquor commission required the Whiteclay stores to go through the process of reapplying for their licenses, which, with legal fees and travel, can be expensive and time-consuming. It used to be an automatic process. Not this year.
The commission obtained court orders to search records of the four stores, a move officials have declined to discuss, saying it’s part of an ongoing investigation.
In Whiteclay, a sign says a new Family Dollar Store is planned, which would be the first new commercial building in the unincorporated town in decades.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has set aside $100,000 to tear down two abandoned buildings used by vagrants for overnight housing. The land also will be cleared of trees and trash, likely in April.
The Hands of Faith Ministries, which has been active south of Whiteclay for 28 years, is building a new barracks to expand its program to give troubled Lakota men a new life through religion and training for construction jobs.
A Bible-based national nonprofit, the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, has opened a “safe house” as part of its suicide-prevention work on the reservation, and is exploring opening a detox center in Whiteclay, and later, an alcohol rehab center. Both would fill voids in such services.
And down the road, a brick complex, the 60-bed Oglala Sioux Lakota Nursing Home, has been open since mid-2016. Occupancy and employment have grown slowly, and now stand at 16 residents and 29 workers.
Even before that, a 2014 documentary film on Whiteclay, “Sober Indian/Dangerous Indian,” put a new spotlight on the human cost of alcoholism fueled by the Whiteclay sales.
That has led to a new focus on victims of fetal alcohol syndrome, which has attracted the attention of the group Nebraska Family Alliance, as well as public health officials with the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
LaMere, who has been coming to Whiteclay for 18 years, said recently that he feels like this year, something will happen.
BonFleur said Thursday he has received only one small donation toward buying the liquor stores. But he said his Whiteclayredo.com website has been up for only about a week, and a new entity to take the money, Whiteclay Redevelopment, was just formed last month.
He said he plans a broad appeal for donations. That includes seeking money from “Hollywood” and the State of Nebraska.
Last week BonFleur sent an email to every Nebraska state senator, asking them to use their prayers, “influence” and “connections” to help find the money to buy out the beer stores. He said that “guesstimates” of the cost of closing the beer stores via a court battle have been much higher than the $6 million he needs to buy them out — perhaps $10 million or more.
BonFleur said he knows that closing the four beer stores wouldn’t end the alcohol-related problems of the area, and could increase traffic on area roads as people drove to other towns to buy liquor. But closing the stores should reduce the town’s problems and could send Whiteclay in a new direction, he said.
A YMCA, a movie theater, cultural center or maybe a motel could eventually replace the beer stores and the spectacle of open drinking and trash blowing on the streets of Whiteclay, BonFleur said.
“The ideal would be that we’d be working on the four stores this summer,” he said. “We’re going to see God turn things around.”