KEVIN ABOUREZK and ZACH PLUHACEK Lincoln Journal Star
Aug 13, 2017
They sit on this stoop beneath a piercing sun, just like they did most summer days two miles to the south.
Alcohol is banned here, but that doesn't stop them. A half-dozen men and women pass around a jug of vodka, and it seems the scenes painted by beer sales in Whiteclay have simply moved to a different canvas, this one on a busy corner of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Their new perch is just outside Billy Mills Hall community center, a prominent building on Pine Ridge's main drag. They watch as children and parents prepare for a social dance inside. Across the parking lot, shoppers shuffle in and out of the Sioux Trading Post grocery store.
One drinker slides the vodka bottle into her purse, trying to hide it from reporters.
Three months after Nebraska liquor regulators shut down four beer stores in Whiteclay, the crowds of drinkers that once gathered there have moved along. And the struggles of Whiteclay — which were so visible in that tiny village — have dispersed across the surrounding area in unknowable volumes.
Liquor store owners in neighboring communities say their business has skyrocketed. Sales figures from the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission support that claim.
People arrive at Barrel House Liquor to find lines out the door.
In Oelrichs, South Dakota, just west of the reservation, owner Eric "Doc" Forney reports "brisk trade" at the Black Hills Saloon Company.
"Three-and-a-half million cans of beer has to go someplace," Forney says.
By all accounts, at least some of it has gone to reservation bootleggers — with $10 jugs of vodka divided into empty water bottles, then sold for a tenfold profit.
"If they're going to drink, they're going to do it anyway," said Kevin Yellow Bird Steele, a spokesman for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
You'll find little support on the reservation for reopening the Whiteclay stores.
Despite decades of disagreement over whether Pine Ridge should legalize alcohol, many of its people resented Nebraska for allowing four white families to profit off Native drinkers. Reservation voters approved a referendum in 2013 to legalize alcohol, but the results were either destroyed or lost, said Yellow Bird Steele.
He opposes the tribe's ban on alcohol sales, but spoke positively about Nebraska's decision in April to close Arrowhead Inn, State Line Liquor, D&S Pioneer Service and Jumping Eagle Inn in Whiteclay.
Alcohol sales in Whiteclay are headed for a historic halt.
"Nebraska's finally stepping up," he said. And while it didn't end the drinking, "It probably did sober some of them up."
Many drinkers walked back to Pine Ridge after beer sales stopped in Whiteclay.
“It’s closed, can’t do nothing about it,” said a visibly intoxicated Stacy Stewart, outside Billy Mills Hall.
The 39-year-old spent nearly three years drinking in Whiteclay before April, and he said he stayed sober for nearly two months after coming home. But then came Father’s Day, when he started drinking again.
He wants the Whiteclay stores to reopen, so he won’t have to ask for rides to Rushville 24 miles away and the closest place to legally buy beer. An uncle typically drives him to buy beer about every other day.
George Mesteth, 39, who once drank in Whiteclay, said people who don’t want to pay extra for beer from bootleggers still drive to nearby Nebraska towns like Rushville and Chadron.
“Nebraska’s still making their money,” he said.
Beer sales in Rushville more than tripled from April to June, according to Nebraska Liquor Control Commission statistics.
In Whiteclay, a place long known as an eyesore and source of shame is slowly becoming something else.
Bruce Bonfleur, who runs a ministry in Whiteclay, has noticed a lot of new faces in town since the closing of the beer stores. People seem less inclined to avoid Whiteclay now that most of the drinkers have left, he said.
He also credits cleaning the streets of beer cans and broken glass and the removal of two abandoned buildings, as well as recent improvements made to the facades of several businesses.
“We know that there are new people coming into Whiteclay that didn’t come previously."
Some of those new faces are bringing new businesses and efforts to improve the town.
Construction began in July on a Family Dollar discount store, and a new nonprofit known as Whiteclay Redo has begun work on opening a creative space where residents can borrow construction tools and other machinery.
On the road
John Maisch, a documentary filmmaker and opponent of Whiteclay beer sales, has long argued the unincorporated village simply lacked the law enforcement and other resources to handle the annual sale of 330,000 gallons of alcohol.
He pointed to the Aug. 17 death of Sherry Wounded Foot as an example of the inability of authorities to protect those in Whiteclay.
The 50-year-old was found severely beaten in Whiteclay 12 days before she died, but Sheridan County authorities didn't initially inform the public about her injuries or her death, now suspected to be a homicide.
Only when activists told members of the Liquor Control Commission on Sept. 7 did county authorities begin seeking public help in finding Wounded Foot’s killer, Maisch said.
No one has been arrested in connection with Wounded Foot's death.
“Sheridan County didn’t appear to have the ability or the will to adequately investigate this murder,” he said.
Sheridan County Attorney Jamian Simmons disagreed, saying she spoke to several public officials and reporters before the Sept. 7 commission hearing and informed them county officials were investigating a death connected to Whiteclay.
She conceded Wounded Foot’s death wasn’t widely reported until after the hearing.
The Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office, Simmons’ office and a Nebraska State Patrol investigator have worked to conduct interviews and collect evidence, Simmons said, adding much of that work occurred between the time Wounded Foot was found and when she died.
“That investigation has continued since last fall and is still ongoing,” she said.
Rushville, the county seat, seems shielded from the ways of Whiteclay, despite nearly 13,000 gallons of beers being sold there in June compared to 3,700 gallons in April.
We have not seen really any sort of street people," said Rushville Mayor Chris Heiser. "We really haven't seen that like what some people thought we might see. ... I honestly don't know why."
Whiteclay is a quick walk from the reservation. Rushville is almost a marathon away, with the Sheridan County Sheriff's Office headquartered on the main road through town.
Still, town leaders prepared for the worst.
Two weeks after the Whiteclay stores closed, the Rushville City Council adopted ordinances banning vagrancy, aggressive panhandling and public indecency, and restricting after-hours access to city parks. A month later, it prohibited disorderly gatherings.
Because Whiteclay is unincorporated and has no local government, similar rules can't be passed there.
Rushville's move was pre-emptive, Heiser said, not in reaction to an incident.
"It was an important thing to have on the books."
The town's quiet streets don't always lead to silent highways beyond Rushville's borders.
Since April, two alcohol-related car crashes -- one of which led to the death of a 49-year-old reservation woman -- have lit up the night sky on Nebraska Highway 87 between Whiteclay and Rushville.
Answering the call
Daniel Hudspeth knows the feel of flying down a reservation highway, the red and blue lights of his police cruiser illuminating the cool night, never knowing what he might find at the end of the road.
The 45-year-old spent 13 years patrolling Pine Ridge and 10 years policing other reservations. About a year ago, he left to start a security company with John Mousseau, a 47-year-old who spent 21 years on the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s police force, most recently as deputy chief.
An especially violent 2016 on the reservation — 17 homicides, up from nine the year before — led the tribal council in April to take the unprecedented move of assuming control of the tribe’s police force and calling for the removal of Police Chief Harry Martinez.
His subsequent resignation made him the seventh police chief forced out in nine years.
High turnover isn’t just a problem at the administrative level. The tribe’s police force has shrunk from as many as 80 officers, sergeants and captains in recent years to about 34 today, Hudspeth said.
Mousseau said it’s difficult to retain officers who don’t know what to expect from the shifting political winds.
“Nobody knows exactly what’s going on, who’s going to keep their jobs,” he said.
The tribe’s demoralized and understaffed police force simply can’t cover 4,400 square miles and respond in a timely manner, or at all, to every call for service, Mousseau said.
He said it recently took tribal police three hours to respond to his call when someone broke into his truck and stole equipment. Hudspeth said no tribal police ever talked to him after someone shot at his home a year ago.
Bootlegging -- a problem for years -- has become rampant since the closing of the Whiteclay beer stores, Hudspeth said, and he estimated as many as 10 to 20 bootleggers in the town of Pine Ridge alone. Drug dealers also seem to have been emboldened by disarray within the tribe’s public safety department, he said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing tribal police, Hudspeth said, is enforcing prohibition in a land soaked in alcohol. Instead of fighting bootlegging and drug distribution, police are forced to arrest tribal members drunk in their own homes.
“Shutting Whiteclay down wasn’t the answer,” he said. “Alcohol’s going to happen.”