Whiteclay Liquor Stores Shut For Good

Whiteclay closedIn a Victory for Pine Ridge, Oglala Lakota Have Chance to Reclaim the Town that Caused Much Pain

Sometimes sunlight shines through the smallest opening. Such was the case on September 30th, when an error in legal paperwork shut down four liquor stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska for good. The stores bootlegged 11,000 cans of beer per day, mostly to residents of the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Sioux reservation just over the border in South Dakota, perpetuating cycles of physical and social harm to the residents there. The Nebraska Supreme Court Decision ends the store owners’ appeals, allowing the reservation to start healing and the town to recast itself from a source of pain to a site of hope.

“[The] Nebraska Supreme Court decision means that the shame of Whiteclay is over,” said Dave Domina, the who fought to keep the shut-down order in place, to the Omaha World-Herald.

“When Alcohol Justice joined this fight five years ago, there were already Oglala Lakota activists engaged in direct non-violent actions who’d been at it for decades.” said Jorge Castillo, advocacy director at Alcohol Justice. “All of us knew that if we were persistent, we would see the stores shut.”

The stores first closed in early May as the result of a Nebraska Liquor Control Commission decision. That decision refused to automatically renew the stores’ licenses on the grounds that law enforcement in the area was insufficient to deal with the crime, sex trafficking, injury, and poverty in the area. The assumption was that the stores would have to re-apply, and would be denied in the face of the ongoing public health disaster in the town.

The decision did not sit happily with a few Nebraskans. Loren Paul, a Sheridan County Commissioner who had advocated for keeping the stores open, told the Guardian, “It’s market forces … [Whiteclay] is there because there’s a need and somebody is going to supply that need.” Unsurprisingly, the store owners launched a court challenge at the district court, arguing that the liquor stores did not have the authority to order the re-application.

“The arguments made by the liquor stores were unbelievable,” Castillo said. “How can you argue that a liquor commission only exists to rubber-stamp alcohol outlets? A liquor commission’s job is to make sure that alcohol is sold in a way that is both legal and it doesn’t hurt the community."

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson concurred, and appealed the decision to the Nebraska Supreme Court. Yet instead of ruling on the validity of the liquor commission's ruling denying the renewal of the licenses, the court found fault with the legal process of the beer store owners. Citing the owners’ legal team’s failure to notify citizen protestors of the appeal, the Supreme Court threw out their entire case--leaving the Liquor Control Commission’s ruling in place.

In an October 2 editorial, the Lincoln Journal Star editorial board hailed this “rare victory to the tribes residing on the Pine Ridge Reservation.” However, they caution, the economic and social forces that enabled the liquor stores to gain their foothold are still in place. The decision, they chastise, “by no means absolves [Nebraska] of responsibility in the community and family problems caused by Whiteclay.”

Indeed, Whiteclay faces a number of challenges as it climbs free from the torrent of alcohol sales. As the Guardian notes, the area is still wracked by unsolved murders. Neighboring Pine Ridge experiences an ongoing plague of suicides and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Meanwhile, federal grants and assistance have been drying up.

“I’ve lost cousins and other relatives on the streets of Whiteclay,” Seymour Young Dog, a retired engineer living in Pine Ridge, told the World-Herald. “We’ve got to make this a better place.”

Nebraska State Senators Patty Pansing Brooks and Tom Brewer, the most prominent critics of the Whiteclay beer stores in the State Legislature, co-hosted a summit on Saturday, September 30, in Whiteclay to look for new directions for the town. A Family Dollar is slated to open and the Oglala Lakota are building out social services and counseling resources, suggesting new directions for the town and the Pine Ridge residents.

"From the beginning we held to a simple premise, namely that anything that can be legally opened can be legally closed," Castillo said. "The end of the illegal activities associated with the Whiteclay liquor stores will now change the trajectory of the Oglala people for the rest of time. The people of Pine Ridge have a new future ahead of them."

UPDATE: Whiteclay Redevelopment has launched a crowdfunding campaign for Whiteclay Makerspace, a facility for Lakota artisans to practice their crafts and revitalize their community.

READ MORE about the history of the fight to close the Whiteclay stores.