Vodka the new liquor of choice in Whiteclay area as tribe cracks down on bootlegging

Vodka the new liquor of choice in Whiteclay area as tribe cracks down on bootlegging

LINCOLN — Bootlegging appears to be on the increase on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation now that the notorious beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska, have closed. And vodka is the new drink of choice.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe is responding by beefing up law enforcement and working to turn an abandoned school into an alcohol/drug treatment and detox center on the impoverished South Dakota reservation.

Ever since the beer stores were shuttered 19 months ago, Whiteclay activists have been waiting to see the reaction, especially on the reservation, where alcoholism is rampant and where Whiteclay, within walking distance from the reservation, had been the main liquor supplier.

State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who represents the Whiteclay area, said he’s encouraged that it’s not just Nebraska but also the tribe that is taking action.

“I think there are much better days ahead,” said Brewer, who is an enrolled member of the tribe. “It isn’t ‘them against us’ like in bygone days. The relationship is bound to get better.”

New leaders have been elected to head the Oglala tribe and the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office. Brewer’s brother, Jeff Brewer, was recently elected sheriff.

Some progress is also being made toward opening a “makerspace” in Whiteclay where Lakota artisans can use quilting machines and other equipment.

There’s also continued discussion of establishing a trauma center to address the epidemic levels of fetal alcohol syndrome on the reservation.

The developments come as activists are seeking a crackdown on bootleggers on the Nebraska side of the border.

Mary Tobacco, a district president on the reservation, said the closing of the Whiteclay stores was a “moral victory” that presents an opportunity to address the tribe’s long-running problems with alcohol and the lack of treatment options on the reservation.

A $500,000 federal grant, awarded in the wake of the Whiteclay closings, is being used to convert the old Bennett County School into a 45- to 65-bed facility for residential treatment and detoxification.

Currently, the tribe’s Anpetu Luta Otipi treatment program has only seven treatment beds for men, plus 20 beds at the tribe’s jail that can be used for women. Consolidating the program at one facility will let staff help more people, officials said.

“We have a vision,” Tobacco said. “We need to build our economy and build a workforce that doesn’t have to worry about alcohol and drug addictions. Now we’re going to be able to help people.”

After taking office six months ago, the tribe’s new police chief, Robert Ecoffey, has increased the number of officers from 24 to 54 and has three more in training. Ecoffey, whose résumé includes serving as a U.S. marshal in South Dakota and as a Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement administrator in Washington, D.C., has also dedicated three officers to full-time alcohol and drug enforcement on the officially dry reservation.

Bootlegging appears to be on the increase, he said, though overall consumption of alcohol on the reservation is probably down a bit because it is less accessible.

Halting bootleggers, Ecoffey said, is a top priority, and a month ago, his officers busted a bootlegging operation in Kyle, South Dakota.

They confiscated several cases of vodka, which he said were likely purchased in Nebraska.

Bootleggers add the liquor to water bottles and sell them for $10 each on the reservation.

“It is creating some real issues for our tribal members,” Ecoffey said of the harder liquor.

At Whiteclay, the liquor stores were only allowed to sell beer, including some brands that were fortified to have a higher alcohol content.

Wholesale sales figures obtained by The World-Herald indicate that since Whiteclay’s stores closed down, sales of spirits like vodka have almost tripled at the liquor store in Rushville, Nebraska, which is now the closest alcohol outlet to the reservation. Spirit sales have almost doubled at one liquor store in Gordon, Nebraska, which has built a large addition.

In addition, new liquor licenses have been sought in both Rushville and Gordon to tap into the increase in business since Whiteclay’s stores were shut down.

Rushville Mayor Chris Heiser said his community of 890 has seen a significant increase in sales tax revenue because of the rise in liquor sales, and no negative impacts. He said the new liquor store, which has not yet opened, received unanimous approval.

“It’s exciting to have one more enterprise in town,” Heiser said.

John Maisch, an Oklahoma attorney whose documentary about Whiteclay helped shine a spotlight on the millions of cans of beer sold there every year, said both Rushville and Gordon have adequate law enforcement to ward off the vagrancy and open drinking that used to be common on the streets of Whiteclay.

Maisch, who used to enforce liquor laws in Oklahoma, and other advocates met with Nebraska State Patrol officials in recent weeks seeking increased vigilance for bootleggers. State law requires store owners to log whenever a customer buys more than 20 gallons of alcohol and share those logs with law enforcement to identify possible sales for resale.

The Barnmack Inc.’s Highway Express is a gas station that, thanks to increased liquor sales, is expanding on the corner of Highway 20 and Main Street in Gordon, Nebraska.

But even with such information, it’s difficult to catch bootleggers, according to Hobie Rupe, executive director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, because it must be proven that the liquor store owner knew that the products were being sold for resale by a bootlegger.

Officials with the Barrel House Liquor Store in Rushville and the Highway Express convenience store in Gordon declined to comment, but a former owner of a Gordon liquor store who spoke on the condition that he not be identified said he thinks that it’s easy to spot a bootlegger.

Maisch and Brewer said they expect that the election of Brewer’s brother as the new sheriff of Sheridan County will increase cooperation between officials on the Nebraska and South Dakota sides of the border, leading to more arrests for bootlegging.

Maisch said that even if hard liquor sales have risen, the alcohol problem is no different than when beer was king. What’s changed is that sales are now conducted in communities with law enforcement that can take action to thwart bootlegging and open drinking.

“It will take time to recover from literally decades of harms from Whiteclay,” Maisch said, “but these are incremental, and promising, steps forward.”

John Maisch