In Whiteclay, Nebraska, A Sigh of Relief as Beer Stores Close

May 2, 2017
Entering Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Whiteclay, Nebraska lies right on the border of South Dakota and on the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as well. There are only 14 residents of this tiny town but there are four liquor stores selling the alcohol that’s banned on the reservation. Residents of the reservation who really want a drink just have to step across the state line to Whiteclay. There, they can get their hands on as many beers as they have money for. The aftermath for them and the town of Whiteclay is rampant public drunkenness and all the other wreckage of alcoholism.

But for the moment, there’s at least a brief sigh of relief. All four liquor stores have lost their licenses and are closed. Beverage business trucks show up daily to cart away all the unsold beer.

A measure of the outrageous social problem that has existed for many years in Whiteclay is this statistic:

14 million beers graphic

By and large, they have been sold to problem drinkers and alcoholics from across the state line – the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The Effects of Whiteclay-Induced Alcoholism

There’s the obvious signs of the alcoholism of Whiteclay customers – passing out on the street, public urination, panhandling, petty crime. But then there’s also less obvious signs – domestic violence, unemployment, and widespread fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or FASD. This birth defect resulting from in utero exposure to alcohol can be -disabling due to psychological and physical disorders. Or it can simply make learning, being employed and having normal relationships difficult.

South Dakota landscape
South Dakota landscape

A heartbreaking story in the Lincoln Journal-Star from 2016 chronicles the job of Nora Boesem, a former nurse living in Newell, South Dakota, who has adopted nine children from the reservation. All her children manifest varying degrees of FASD. The one that’s the most disabled was exposed to continuous high levels of alcohol and methamphetamine while in the womb. She’s been through nine surgeries and must be fed through a tube leading to her stomach. A 14-year-old child who was born with a blood alcohol concentration of .195 – more than three times the legal limit for driving – has as many as 30 seizures a day if he’s not medicated.

These signs of Whiteclay-Induced alcoholism are not as obvious as passed-out drunks on street corners. They will last as long as these children are alive.

Of Course, It’s Not a Complete Solution

Closing these stores is neither a permanent solution nor a complete one. Here’s why:

  • The nearest alcohol is now sold 20 miles away in Rushville. Those who have cars or who have friends with cars will make the drive to get their alcohol.
  • These liquor stores closed because their liquor licenses were revoked by the state liquor commission in April 2017. This ruling was overturned by a county judge but then the Nebraska Attorney General filed an appeal. If the appeal is rejected when it is heard by the state’s Supreme Court, the stores could regain their liquor licenses. Until then, they remain closed.
  • Making alcohol harder to get does not cure alcoholism by any stretch of the imagination.

For the moment, things will be quieter in Whiteclay and maybe on the reservation as well. Maybe fewer women or children will be beaten, maybe fewer fights will break out. Maybe some people will have a few moments of sobriety to think about recovery.

This change is just one small sign of support for the Oglala Sioux living on the reservation by community activists and the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. Even this small sign of support has been very long coming but is a good sign of care and concern for the men, women and children both on and off the reservation.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.