A year after Supreme Court sealed fate of Whiteclay beer stores, reforms still needed, activists say

A year after Supreme Court sealed fate of Whiteclay beer stores, reforms still needed, activists say

A year after the Nebraska Supreme Court closed the door to further alcohol sales in Whiteclay, activists think reforms are still needed in and around the village in northwest Nebraska.

Among their concerns: the ongoing effects of alcoholism and fetal-alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD) on the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, several unexplained deaths in Whiteclay, and possible bootlegging in surrounding communities.

Last week, on the anniversary of the court's decision, activists gathered in Whiteclay to discuss their next steps.

John Maisch, a former liquor prosecutor and director of the documentary "Sober Indian Dangerous Indian," and Winnebago activist Frank LaMere led the summit. It was the third they have held together, but the first since Whiteclay's four beer stores were forced to close.

“Because of our work, 3.7 million cans of beer have not been sold to people who have no legal place to drink it in Whiteclay,” LaMere said. “And if that alcohol is still finding its way to Pine Ridge ... we’re going to hold people’s feet to the fire, and that includes the Nebraska State Patrol, the state of Nebraska, the state of South Dakota and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.”

The summit featured conversations with Deb Evensen, a FASD clinician from Homer, Alaska, and Nora Boesem, a foster mother to children who suffer from the disorder.

The activists plan to work with Boesem to create an FASD clinic for the Pine Ridge area to diagnose and treat those who have the disease.

“That’s going to require either the government or private parties to step up to help build and help support that sort of clinic,” Maisch said.

The activists said they also met with Capt. Kurt Von Minden and Lt. Brian Eads of the Nebraska State Patrol to discuss opening a cold-case unit for the mysterious deaths in Whiteclay. Maisch said at least six have occurred over the past two decades. He and Maisch believe they might have been murders. Patrol officials didn't respond to inquiries for this story.

LaMere said the activists had met with State Patrol representatives months ago, and he wishes to establish a strong connection with them in explaining the deaths.

Another topic discussed with the patrol: concerns about possible bootlegging in neighboring cities in Sheridan County, particularly Gordon and Rushville.

Activists hope to convince the Legislature to provide more funding to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to boost bootlegging enforcement.

While some off-sale liquor establishments in Sheridan County have seen significant upticks in alcohol sales since Whiteclay went dry, Maisch said he knows of no explicit proof that those businesses were knowingly engaged in bootlegging.

“Nebraska law enforcement needs to do what it has the power to do, to at least monitor, investigate and ensure that bootlegging is not occurring,” he said.

Lack of law enforcement in Whiteclay was a key reason state liquor regulators ended alcohol sales there last year. 

“So even if there’s been an uptick in alcohol sales in the neighboring communities of Rushville or Gordon, there’s law enforcement in both communities that have prevented the same sort of death and destruction that we witnessed in Whiteclay,” Maisch said.

Despite the continuing issues, Maisch said Whiteclay is ultimately safer than it was before the Supreme Court decision.

“There are no reports of men or women drinking unlawfully in the streets, passed out on the streets,” he said. “To my knowledge, there have been no reports of any assaults or rapes or murders on the streets of Whiteclay. So, it’s unequivocally better in Whiteclay now than it was when the stores were open.”

Last Wednesday, just a few days after the summit, a rural development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was secured, which would lead to a makerspace for local artists in Whiteclay.

The funding will be used to purchase property and construct the Whiteclay Makerspace. According to a news release, it's raising funds for equipment and is expected to launch in 2019.

Maisch said he was grateful for the opportunity to meet with those who had worked so hard to raise awareness about Whiteclay over the past several years.

“As Nebraskans, and in my case, former Nebraskan, our efforts aren’t done simply because the beer stores in Whiteclay are closed,” Maisch said. “I think that we have a continuing obligation to address the harm that was caused by the beer stores when they were open.”

LaMere said he’s optimistic about the future of Whiteclay and the Pine Ridge, and found the work done to be productive.

“Healing begins when the talk of healing begins,” LaMere said. “Healing begins when those who can provide that healing step up and those who need that help can respond.”

John Maisch