Whiteclay Heats Up As Tribe Reconsiders Prohibition

Jun 7, 2013

Activists and liquor store owners are clashing in the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska on the boarder of the Pine Ridge Reservation.   Beer delivery trucks are being stopped and vandalized as men wielding baseball bats are accused of threatening protesters.

Alcohol is banned on Pine Ridge.   But the town of Whiteclay sells the equivalent of up to 5-million cans of beer annually–mostly to impoverished tribal residents.   As the conflict escalates the tribal nation is grappling with the idea of lifting its prohibition of alcohol.   

SDPB’s Charles Michael Ray has today’s Dakota Digest.  

Olowan Martinez is among those leading the protest camp named "Zero Tolerance."

Just outside the town of Whiteclay an upside down American flag flies on a wooden pole next to a tipi.  A camouflage net provides shade for two young men using a carpet knife to sharpen some long sticks.  They say they’re say they’re making spears.    15-year old John Dreamer-Richards insists that the crude weapons are for self-defense.  He’s among those camped here to protest of the liquor sales in Whiteclay.  

 “Me and my mom used to stand in Whiteclay. And, I just don’t like drinking because it broke my family apart,” says Dreamer-Richards.   

Alcoholism in Pine Ridge is rampant.  The unemployment rate here can top 80-percent.   Whiteclay has one paved street and four liquor stores.   Homeless Lakota who come to drink can outnumber town residents.  Activists aiming to curb beer sales with blockades and marches accuse a store owner of arming local thugs with baseball bats to intimidate them.   Protests here are a nearly annual event, but the violence is relatively new.   Olowan Martinez is among the leaders at this camp. She has a message for those selling alcohol in Whiteclay.

“You and the alcohol industry are banking off the misery of the Oglala and that will stop. So, our main goal is to always keep a presence of resistance against alcohol here,” says Martinez.  

But protestors like Martinez are also accused of violence.  Nebraska officials have issued a warrant for her arrest and another protester was arrested in Lincoln last month while trying to file a complaint against liquor store owners.  Some protesters are accused of attacking beer delivery trucks.    Jamian Simmons is a Sheridan County Prosecutor.  

“They used axes and sledge hammers to smash up the trucks. There were threats made to the drivers that if they came back to Whiteclay they would be killed.  Individuals were flashing knives at the drivers. They were shoved out of the way so the protesters could have access to the vehicles.  I mean that is the evidence that we have,” says Simmons.  

Protesters say vandalizing a beer truck is not an act of violence.  They deny making threats.   Liquor store owners and beer distributors won’t comment.  Just across the state line are the offices of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Government where President Brian Brewer is sitting in a busy office.  Brewer supports protesters but advocates for peaceful resistance.  He accuses Nebraska officials of ignoring the real problem. 

Camp "Zero Tolerance" on the Pine Ridge Reservation boarder just outside Whiteclay.

“My concern is that as soon as the tires are slashed the governor of Nebraska is calling for a press conference.   They’re not worried about our people who are dying up there.  They’re not worried about our little kids getting killed here on the reservation, because of the use of alcohol.  They don’t consider that, they’re worried about a beer truck.  And I’m sorry. I don’t care about that beer truck,” says Brewer.   
As the protest on the border continues–the tribal council is considering a resolution putting the prohibition itself up to a tribal vote in 2014. Council member Larry Eagle Bull reluctantly backs the idea of legalizing alcohol here.   While he recognizes the perils of alcohol use, he says the tribe could benefit from taxing sales to pay for treatment programs.

“It’s a very, very serious issue this alcohol.  We’ve been dry for so long.  But you have to look at reality, it’s here.  It’s not going anywhere,” says Eagle Bull.  

Back in the protest camp near Whiteclay those like Olowan Martinez are criticizing tribal council members who want to allow alcohol.  

“They’re cannibals, because they want to profit. They want to gain something off the misery of their own. To me that’s a form of cannibalism,” says Martinez.  

A protester sharpens a stick into a spear.

Strong words, and as Martinez speaks, the sticks the young men are carving into spears nearby are taking shape.    Protesters here fear an attack but hope they won’t need these weapons.  As the beer trucks continue to roll into Whiteclay, resolution to this standoff doesn’t appear any closer.