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Lakota Store Owners Hope To Change Face Of Whiteclay

Photo by Jim Kent

The village of Whiteclay, Nebraska has long had a reputation as being the primary location for alcohol purchases by members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The image of vehicles driving from the Pine Ridge Reservation across the Nebraska border and returning to the dry Native American land has appeared in media outlets around the world. It’s an image that has fueled controversy over the indiscriminate sale of alcohol to residents of a neighboring community where alcohol abuse and addiction run rampant.

But efforts are being made to change how people see Whiteclay…most recently with the purchase of a grocery store in the heart of the village by a Lakota couple from Pine Ridge.

It’s a short drive from the village of Pine Ridge to Whiteclay…just over the Nebraska state line. The border town was originally part of the “Whiteclay Extension” – established by a presidential executive order as a buffer zone to prevent the sale of alcohol to residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation. But an establishment to sell alcohol has been present in Whiteclay since at least the 1940s. And the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s latest figures show close to 4 million cans of beer being sold annually by the 4 businesses licensed to sell alcohol in the town.

Credit Photo by Jim Kent
Martin and Rhiannon Pilcher are the Lakota co-owners of Arrowhead Foods, in Whiteclay, Nebraska.

As I pull up to the Arrowhead Foods grocery store, I see a group of men and women standing across the street. Two have brown paper bags in their hands. All appear to be intoxicated. Such a sight isn’t uncommon along the several blocks that are the main road through the small town.

In a country where 9 out of 10 startups fail, deciding to go into business for yourself anywhere can be a risky proposition. But for Martin and Rhiannon Pilcher, purchasing a grocery store in the heart of Whiteclay, Nebraska seemed like the perfect opportunity for their family…and…for their people. And they don’t sell alcohol.

“Well, see...most people in main media…they think of Whiteclay and the beer sales and the bars,” Martin observes. “ But there’s more to Whiteclay. There’s another grocery store. You’ve got Abe’s…right over here…who’s a second-hand store. Kind of has a nice little store. You’ve got two cafes. Then you’ve got a State Line Auto Dealership and they repair a lot of the tribe’s cars. And you’ve got a church group…and another church group.”

And that’s not even counting the nursing home being built on the south end of the village. Martin’s not denying the 4 million cans of beer sold here each year or the homeless alcoholics who roam the streets every day. He’s just pointing out that there’s more to Whiteclay than what’s reported in the media and he hopes that his store…Arrowhead Foods…will help change the general perception of this reservation border town.

“Just kind of give it a facelift,” explains Martin. “You know…run the store. Run it good. Hopefully we can get better products for our people too. And also…there’s other successful businesses on the reservation and…hopefully…all these young guys see all of us…give them hope.”

Martin’s not new to the area, to being a business owner or even to this store. Originally from the Pine Ridge Reservation, Martin worked at this store years ago before leaving to start his own businesses as an insurance broker and later as the owner of a small construction company.

Credit Photo by Jim Kent
Rhiannon Pilcher (right) handles the day-to-day operations of Arrowhead Foods 0- including cashier work.

But he and his wife, Rhiannon, were drawn to the idea of not only owning a small business close to their homeland but being the first Lakota-owned business in the controversial town.

While Martin handles the big picture business side of the store, Rhiannon is the hands-on, day-to-day operations person – when she’s not a cashier.

The Lakota businesswoman sees their store…which doesn’t sell alcohol…as a step in the right direction for the small Nebraska town.

“You know. it can be a positive place and Native Americans can succeed here,” comments Rhiannon. “If you have a dream and you work hard for it. That’s what we’re trying to let people know…that it can be done. It doesn’t matter if it’s Whiteclay or where. But…just us being here. You know…we’re 2 miles from the reservation. I think we should have Native people up here.”

Touring Arrowhead’s neat, organized and fully-stocked aisles, Rhiannon notes that the store’s primary draw is its deli counter…especially the chicken.

“Yeah…our chicken orders…they…they’ll order them by the hundreds,” Rhiannon explains. “One day they had a ride. And so they…came to us for that. They also got the sides from us.”

“What’s your secret to your chicken?” I ask.

Rhiannon laughs and replies, “Then it wouldn’t be a secret.” 

Credit Photo by Jim Kent
The deli counter at Arrowhead Foods has already become well known for its chicken.

Wandering down to the increasingly famous Arrowhead deli counter, I encounter a woman with a smile on her face and food in her hands.

“Danelle Bagola,” ?she initroduces herself. “”And I live in Pine Ridge. I come after lunch. It’s always good. Always fresh. It’s fast.”

“How do you feel about a Lakota family owning this?” I ask.

“I think it’s positive,” Danelle replies. “It shows that…you know…there is a positive outlook for the reservation. That you can come up and own your own a business…when you really put your heart to it. And with dedication. It’s a positive for our people.”

And it’s the Pilchers’ dedication to the community of Whiteclay as much as to their store that has captured people’s attention.

As Lakota Funds executive director Tawney Brunsch points out, the couple are in the process of selling their home in Chadron, Nebraska in order to live in a house behind Arrowhead Foods.

“He is so excited about owning that business,” Brunsch observes. “And I love that it’s about the bigger picture. You know, it’s not just about him being a successful business owner in that business…Arrowhead Foods being a success in Whiteclay. It’s about him giving other tribal members the opportunity to support a tribally owned business.”

It was Lakota Funds that made it possible for Martin and Rhiannon to buy their store. First National Bank of Gordon, Nebraska provided the line of credit for the loan and the mortgage.

Tawney Brunsch sees the purchase of Arrowhead Foods not only as a benefit to the Pilchers, but to the tribe as a whole. The transaction, she says, once again negates the image of Native Americans as an “entitlement based” culture and shows that when given the opportunity Lakota people will take charge of their lives, their families and their people.

As a Lakota businesswoman Tawney Brunsch sees the Pilchers’ purchase of Arrowhead Foods and the anticipated completion of the nursing home there as a growing momentum around the village of Whiteclay toward being a so-called business expansion of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

It’s a mindset that could only benefit the Pine Ridge Reservation, adds Brunsch, which just happens to be Whiteclay’s largest neighbor. She says the more Lakota-owned businesses that are established in Whiteclay, the more the town’s economy could personally help the Lakota people and improve the image of this controversial border town. 

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