LINCOLN — As he worked the cash register Thursday at one of four liquor stores in Whiteclay, Neb., Lance Lintt pondered the future of his job.
A few yards up the road, in South Dakota, residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation voted this week to end decades of prohibition, legalizing alcohol sales and possession of alcohol.
That means new competition — and competition closer to most customers — for the beer-only outlets in Whiteclay. Stores there sold 3.9 million cans of beer last year, almost all to residents of the reservation.
“If that's what they want, that's their choice,” Lintt said about the vote. “It will definitely affect business here. I don't know how much. I'm not going to go out and look for a new job right away. We'll see what happens.”
The vote ushers in a new era on Pine Ridge, the only South Dakota reservation that did not allow sales or possession of alcohol.
Whether or not alcohol should be allowed has been a topic of debate for years. Alcoholism rates on the reservation and other alcohol-related problems, such as domestic abuse, suicide and infant mortality, are among the highest in Indian country.
But some saw allowing alcohol as a way to harness revenue and taxes now flowing across the border to Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of about 10 full-time residents.
The remote border town has the nickname “Skid Row of the Plains” and is said to have the highest per-capita beer sales of any place in the United States. At any given time, about 45 street people live in shanties and abandoned buildings in Whiteclay.
Many loiter on the graffiti-laced streets, panhandling for spare change and drinking fortified beer from cans wrapped in brown paper bags.
A Nebraska state senator who has tried to address complaints about Whiteclay said Thursday that the end of prohibition on the reservation should give the Oglala Sioux Tribe the money and the power to address its alcohol-related woes.
“Hopefully they can control it better now, and they can use that money for treatment, education, those sort of things,” said Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, the chairman of the Legislature's General Affairs Committee, which deals with alcohol issues.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman declined to comment Thursday, but his spokeswoman said the vote has not changed his stance: that the tribe is a sovereign nation that should handle its own problems.
Voters approved ending prohibition 1,871 to 1,679. The turnout in Tuesday's election was higher than for the tribe's general election in November, according to Francis Pumpkin Seed, the tribe's election commissioner, reflecting keen interest in the issue.
Under a proposed ordinance, the tribe will own and operate stores on the reservation. Profits will be used for education and for detoxification and treatment centers, for which there is currently little to no funding.
Tribal President Bryan Brewer said alcohol possession could be legalized as soon as the tribal council's next meeting, Aug. 27.
Allowing liquor sales on the reservation will take longer, perhaps a couple of months, Brewer said, because the tribe must obtain liquor licenses from both Shannon County and the state.
“I was against this, but if the people want it, then I have to respect their wishes,” he said.
Brewer questioned whether the tribe would address its alcohol problems. It hasn't in the past, he said.
Nor has the State of Nebraska, Brewer said. Allowing package liquor sales in Whiteclay to Pine Ridge residents, who could not legally possess it, demonstrated the state's disrespect for tribal laws, he said.
Alcohol was legalized on the reservation in the 1970s, but the experiment lasted only two months. An effort to lift the prohibition in 2004 also failed.
Though Brewer and other opponents of the change said allowing alcohol will increase violence on the impoverished reservation and exacerbate problems, supporters say proceeds from liquor sales will help finance alcohol treatment programs.
“Life will change now as we know it,” said Larry Eagle Bull, one of nine tribal council members who put the issue to a public vote. “We've got to remember now we lived dry for 100 years, and it was proven that prohibition didn't work. We're in new territory now.”
Brewer said the tribe should do everything it can to raise revenue with the new authority, including exploring manufacturing liquor on the reservation and distributing it. The tribe's now-dry casino will also be able to serve alcohol. “If this is going to be blood money, I want to get the most out of it that I can,” Brewer said.
Allowing liquor sales on the reservation is expected to cut heavily into sales in Whiteclay. But Brewer and others weren't sure whether it would completely close down the liquor outlets.
Whiteclay has two thriving grocery stores that do not sell alcohol, and the beer outlets sell other products, such as cigarettes, which are cheaper on the Nebraska side of the state line.
Bootleggers who haul alcohol onto the reservation will be hurt, Brewer predicted.
But if the tribal council decides to restrict the hours of alcohol sales or sell only low-alcohol beer, “it will chase people back to Whiteclay and the bootleggers,” he said.
The four beer stores in Whiteclay have sold alcohol to the Oglala Sioux for decades. Each week, as the weekend approaches, the stream of cars crossing the state line gets bigger and bigger.
Whiteclay burst into national headlines in 1999, after two Native American street people were found fatally beaten. The murders, still unsolved, sparked outrage and allegations that the beer outlets exploited Native Americans and invited violent crime.
Tensions have risen again in recent months after an anti-alcohol protest camp was set up just across the border from Whiteclay.
Twice this year, beer delivery trucks have been vandalized. Cases of beer were smashed and a truck driver was threatened with a knife. The region's Budweiser distributor temporarily quit making deliveries directly to the town.
Lintt said the advent of liquor sales on the reservation should help cool down the protests and take some pressure off state troopers and Sheridan County deputies who now conduct extra patrols.
Karpisek said it may also take some heat off the Cornhusker State.
Lintt, at the Jumping Eagle, said a lot of the customers doubt whether the tribe will make much money or be able to manage the alcohol business.
The vote still could be contested. Only nine of the tribe's 22 normal polling places were used Tuesday, forcing the tribe to open up five more polling places and send out buses for voters in remote villages. And the tribal council is not obliged to legalize alcohol, because Tuesday's vote was only advisory, tribal officials said.
One member of the council, Kevin Yellow Bird Steele of Manderson, said Thursday that he might change his mind on allowing alcohol, depending on the plan devised to sell it.
“It's a long ways from being settled,” Lintt said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.