LINCOLN–For 113 years, the booze has flowed freely in the notorious village of Whiteclay, but the end is near: On May 1, the four beer stores in the ramshackle village of seven people will cease to exist.
So decreed a unanimous vote of the Nebraska State Liquor Control Commission at 11:14 a.m. Wednesday–a decision that triggered cheers and tears in a standing-room-only hearing room on the fifth floor of the Nebraska State Office Building. Citing lackluster law enforcement, a deplorable attention to public health and sexual abuse of young girls, the three commissioners voted not to renew the beer store licenses after their April 30 expiration date.
When the decision was announced, Frank LaMere, a Winnebago activist who has fought for 22 years to shut down the four beer stores, began to weep.
“We acted on behalf of those who have no voice,” he said. “And for one day in the history of Nebraska, we gave voice for those who have none.”
The decision was a dream come true for Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, the first Native state senator in Nebraska history whose district encompasses Whiteclay. After the vote, the Oglala Lakota U.S. Army war veteran-turned-politician gave a jubilant fist pump and broke into a wide smile.
“To hear those words come out of their mouth, you just felt this relief,” he said. “It’s almost like you’ve been sick for a long time and now the fever’s broken and you can see some hope for the future.”
For Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, the decision will have a ripple effect. And, she said, it won’t be contained to Native people or Nebraska or the United States. It’s international in scope.
“It means that my life matters,” said gaiashkibos, a member of the Ponca tribe. “It means that we don’t have to be invisible. It means that we are being afforded due process. It means that our voice is heard.”
And it was a day Bryan Brewer, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, thought would never happen. Before he left Pine Ridge on Monday for the hearing, he heard rumors that the beer stores had already won.
Now that the rumors have ceased and the truth prevails, he said, it’s a happy day. But it’s also not the end.
“We have to start the healing process,” Brewer said. “We don’t have the resources to help our people. Our children go to school every day. Many of them are abused mentally, physically, sexually abused. And they get to school and we have no resources to really help them.”
Omaha attorney Dave Domina, who brought the case against the beer store owners, was emotional after the vote.
“I don’t think you can be a human being and not be moved by it,” he said breaking into tears.
Meanwhile, Scottsbluff attorney Andrew Snyder, who represented the beer store owners, said he and his clients will appeal the case as soon as they receive a written decision from the liquor commission.
“We believe the decision is wrong and contrary to law,” he said.
Snyder said it’s clear there were forces in play beyond the commission that were aligned against them. His clients, he said, felt railroaded.
“It’s pretty clear it’s not a random occurrence,” Snyder said. “This was coordinated above their heads on a political level. By political, I mean the governor’s office.”
The case must be appealed within 30 days to the Lancaster District Court. After hearing the case, the court could reverse, modify, overrule or sustain the liquor commission’s decision. The court could also send the case back to the commission for further hearings.
The district court could also hold the decision and restore the beer stores’ licenses throughout the appeals process, which Snyder said they will request. The appellate process could take weeks, months or even years depending on how far the case is appealed.
But as of Wednesday morning, the four beer stores–which sold 3.6 million cans of beer last year largely to the Oglala Lakota’s nearby dry reservation–will be out of business in 11 days.
The hearing on whether to renew the four beer stores’ licenses–those of Arrowhead Inn, Jumping Eagle Inn, Stateline Liquor and D & S Pioneer Service–was the result of an Oct. 11 hearing when a county commissioner who oversees Whiteclay said there is not enough law enforcement to address the crime-ridden unincorporated village.
On April 6, the liquor commission heard from complainants and the beer store owners in a hearing room inside the Capitol to decide whether Whiteclay had enough law enforcement presence. During the 12-hour hearing, testimony from Whiteclay residents and Pine Ridge officials affirmed that. It also spilled over into issues like bootlegging, human trafficking and public health hazards.
Although the beer stores and their attorney argued that the commission had no legal right to question the license renewals, the commissioners indicated they felt it was not only a right–but a duty.
“I believe these activities of Whiteclay have gone on way too long and my vote is to not renew the licenses,” said Commissioner Bruce Bailey.
He cited the Nebraska Liquor Control Act at length, pointing to seven specific provisions of the statute as reasons for making the decision.
He also noted that several witnesses had provided critical testimonies–witnesses who work for the Christian-based Lakota Hope Ministry in Whiteclay.
“I’ll be out of a job, which is gonna be good,” said Abram Neumann, a 22-year-old missionary who’s tended to Whiteclay’s street people for the last two years.
Bruce BonFleur, who founded the ministry 13 years ago, said this could be a transformative decision for Whiteclay.
“We look at this decision as an initial and vital early step in what will be a transformed Whiteclay, one that promotes life, healing and hope.”
Commission Chairman Robert Batt said he hopes not renewing the licenses can be the first step in addressing change in Whiteclay. However, he said this isn’t the end of addressing the problems that bring Oglala Lakota there. To fix that, he said, will require federal institutions to own up to their mismanagement.
“I call for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of the Interior and eventually the president of the United States to take action,” Batt said. “If we can fix countries all over the world, we need to fix the poorest county in North America.”
Many others echoed similar sentiments–that although Wednesday’s decision was good news, it was only the first step in a longer journey.
Nora Boesem, a former nurse from Newell, South Dakota, has taken on Whiteclay-related issues by adopting several Pine Ridge children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Upon hearing the news, she laughed and cried, but above all she felt a sense of duty.
“Now we need to really hit the ground running,” Boesem said. “Today is an emotional day, and I’m gonna let it be an emotional day, but tomorrow is ‘Where do we go from here?'”
John Maisch, an attorney from Oklahoma who directed a Whiteclay documentary, said the sun is finally shining through a long history of overcast, but it can’t end here.
“It’s a time for rebuilding to begin,” Maisch said. “A dark cloud has been lifted over the state of Nebraska.”
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, whom many credited with jump-starting political will around Whiteclay, said Wednesday’s decision is a continuation in an ongoing spiritual journey.
Pansing Brooks said she felt it when LaMere first spoke to her. She felt it the first time she spoke to human trafficking victims. She hopes this–as well as her bill to promote detox, job creation and economic development in the town–will change the parasitic relationship to something much different.
“I envision it as a tourist destination, I really do,” she said. “To help make money for the Native people, to promote their culture and to be able to help bolster and let that community thrive.”
A year ago, Olowan Martinez, a Pine Ridge resident and Whiteclay activist, might have scoffed at that. She had a grandpa who died in Whiteclay, a mother who died of cirrhosis, cousins who died in drunk driving accidents and knows many more with similar stories. All the while, she said, Nebraska did nothing.
But the narrative seems to be changing.
Wednesday morning she and several others gathered on the South Dakota-Nebraska state line on the edge of Whiteclay to await the decision. When it was announced, the group celebrated and smiled at each other because for some it was the first sign that Nebraska cares about the Oglala Lakota.
“Just that alone is mending relationships that have been twisted and poisoned by alcohol for generations,” Martinez said. “Over 100, years Whiteclay has destroyed our people, and now their time is up.”
Editor’s note: Chris Bowling is a member of a College of Journalism and Mass Communications depth reporting class that has been covering Whiteclay since last fall. Other students who contributed to this story include Vanessa Daves, Lauren Brown-Hulme and Matt Hanson.