Activists hold prayer vigil outside beer distributor

Activists hold prayer vigil outside beer distributor

Robert Young Dog Sr. understands the pain, the fear and the ugliness the people who drink in Whiteclay experience every day.

Just four months ago, the 44-year-old Oglala Lakota man was one of the dozens of people who live and drink on the streets of Whiteclay every day and night. But over the past few months, he’s managed to pull himself away from that place and has found a new purpose: to educate others about the pain and suffering in Whiteclay.

“I know how it is and what that beer has done to my people,” he said. “If you don’t shut that place down, you’re going to always have blood on your hands.”

Young Dog, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, spoke to about 50 people gathered Friday night for a candlelight vigil outside a Budweiser distributing company, Double Eagle Distributing, at 70th Street and Cornhusker Highway.

The company doesn't serve Whiteclay beer stores, according to company officials.

Winnebago activist Frank LaMere and the producer of a recently released documentary about Whiteclay, John Maisch, organized the vigil to raise awareness about the impact of beer sales in Whiteclay on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and to encourage beer distributors to stop providing beer to Whiteclay.

“We’re demanding accountability of the brewers and the distributors,” said Maisch, a Nebraska native and former Oklahoma alcohol regulator.

Whiteclay, population 10, has long been the source of divisiveness between activists who would like to see the beer stores shut down and those who support their right to operate. The town sits on the Nebraska-South Dakota border just a stone’s throw from the seat of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned. A decision by the tribal council in 2013 to allow alcohol sales on the reservation has been held up in court.

Four beer stores in Whiteclay sell nearly 4 million cans of beer a year and generate significant tax revenue, with $114,000 going to Nebraska last year and $213,000 to the federal government by way of excise taxes.

Margarita Flores, vice president for community affairs at Anheuser-Busch, which sells Budweiser beer, said the company understands concerns about alcohol abuse on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

“Existing laws that were established to reduce alcohol abuse and illegal activity are comprehensive, but must be enforced to be effective,” she said. “We strongly support efforts by the Liquor Control Commission and others to help address this situation in Nebraska.”

On Friday morning, LaMere and seven other activists walked into Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office to request an impromptu meeting with Ricketts. The group met privately with a staff member for 45 minutes, asking that Ricketts take steps to increase the number of state inspections at the beer stores and investigate the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

LaMere, who has fought since 1998 to close Whiteclay, emerged and said he was optimistic for the first time in years that state officials will look seriously at the problem.

“I feel more encouraged now than I have felt since 1998,” he said.

John Maisch