Whiteclay, Nebraska. Population 14, exists only to sell alcohol to Native Americans already reeling from its damage. / Photo by Stephanie Woodard

In Nebraska, some liquor stores sell booze to minors and manage to hang onto their licenses, according to Nebraska Liquor Control Commission data. That’s as long as the stores are doing business in Whiteclay, Nebraska, located about 250 feet south of the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The reservation, almost all of which lies just over the border in South Dakota, is officially dry, with consumption, possession and sales of alcohol banned. Meanwhile, tribal members, including youngsters caught in a recent police sting, make up almost the entire customer base of Whiteclay’s four liquor stores, which sell the equivalent of 4.9 million cans of beer annually out of ramshackle buildings lining a two-lane prairie road. With no white settlements for miles around, and a population of 14, not counting the drunks passed out in the streets, the town appears to exist primarily to get liquor onto the dry reservation.

Business is brisk in Whiteclay. But some nights are special. “Every year on prom night, you can watch reservation high-school kids in tuxedos and prom dresses pulling up and buying cases of beer,” said a tribal member, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “They’re obviously under 21. I did it myself when I was in high school.” He  bought his first beer in Whiteclay at 14, he said.

Whiteclay’s beer stores also trade alcohol for sex and sell to bootleggers, intoxicated customers and people who have no legal place, such as a licensed bar or café, in which to consume their purchases. That’s according to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, which has filed a federal lawsuit against the stores and the breweries and distributors that supply them, for knowingly contributing to the epidemic of alcoholism on their impoverished reservation.

While plying their trade, the beer stores create wealth locally and throughout the state, taking in millions of dollars in revenue and generating income, business and sales taxes. In 2010, just the federal and state excise taxes (included in liquor’s sale price) amounted to $413,932, according to the state liquor commission.

More alcohol-derived dollars flow into and around the state, thanks to campaign contributions from local liquor distributors and trade groups and international manufacturers like Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser and other brands: they gave candidates for in-state offices $135,000 in 2010, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics.

The beer storeowners in Whiteclay declined to comment for this article, but Vic Clark, manager of the Arrowhead Foods grocery and a town resident since 1993, called all of its businesses “gold mines in hell.”

“Hell” is a good description of what the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s lawsuit says liquor has done to its community. The complaint claims alcohol’s “devastating injuries” have overwhelmed the tribe’s health-care, social-services, education and justice systems for generations. According to the tribal government, alcoholism has a severe impact on 85 percent of reservation families. About 90 percent of crime on Pine Ridge is alcohol-related, says its police department–which has no jurisdiction over Whiteclay.

Policing comes from a town 20 miles away that relies on occasional patrols and a camera mounted in Whiteclay to see if anything’s going on. A year ago, store owners beat a Native American man in front of their establishment, landing him in the hospital, according to filmmaker Mark Vasina, director of the award-winning 2008 documentary, Battle for Whiteclay. The camera did not pick up the assault. “It doesn’t pick up bootleggers filling their trunks behind the stores either,” Vasina said.

“Whiteclay is a unique situation,” said the tribe’s attorney, Tom White, of White and Jorgenson, in Omaha. “When a liquor store elsewhere sells its goods, it can assume they will be used lawfully. In contrast, in Whiteclay, there’s no publicly accessible place to consume alcohol legally, so the stores sell it knowing that, without a doubt, it will be used unlawfully.” The beer must be either consumed in public in violation of Nebraska law or carried onto the dry reservation in violation of Oglala Sioux Tribe law, White said.

The tribe’s lawsuit also claims that years of media coverage of Whiteclay–from newspaper and magazine articles to a feature-length documentary movie and YouTube videos–means everyone in the supply chain, from the breweries to the retail stories, is well aware of problems associated with the town’s liquor trade.

It's all about the brew. / Photo by citizen journalist*

“They all know they’ve unleashed a flood of alcohol onto a vulnerable population,” said White.

“Supply and demand,” Clark said. “That’s why businesses pop up.” He scoffed at the idea of ongoing criminality in Whiteclay, as opposed to occasional mishaps–misreading the date on an ID and selling to a minor by mistake, for example. “These [beer-store owners] are family guys,” he said. “Why would they jeopardize their businesses for a few extra dollars?” He dismissed the Oglala lawsuit as “politics” and “blatant lies,” adding, “No one wants to make the tribe accountable. The beer stores are not the police of Native American people.”

Clark addressed the allegations of sex-for-beer exchanges. “There’s not sex happening. If it is, it’s no different than Scottsbluff, Omaha or Lincoln. Someone says, ‘I’ll flash you some boob if you buy me a beer’–that’s how society works,” he explained. “Whiteclay is no different from any town by any reservation in the United States.”

James (Toby) Big Boy, chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Judiciary Committee, said that the tribe has been trying for years to shut down liquor sales over the border in Nebraska, to no avail. Tribal leaders have pleaded with Nebraska state officeholders to crack down on Whiteclay, set up tribal-police blockades of the road to the town and held annual protest marches focusing on unsolved murders and unexplained deaths of Native Americans in the Whiteclay area.

“Alcohol is depleting our people and our culture,” Big Boy said, adding that the tribe is turning to the courts out of desperation. “We’ve tried talking to Nebraska and gotten nowhere. The federal government doesn’t care either; it never even pushed for justice in the case of the murders.”

Where the money goes. / Photo by citizen journalist*

Of all the startling statistics associated with Pine Ridge–85% unemployment, an infant mortality rate 300% higher than the country as a whole, teen suicide 150% higher and life expectancy at least 25 years shorter–the one that most affected White, he said, was the proportion of Pine Ridge children diagnosed with fetal-alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

“One in four children on the reservation has fetal-alcohol effects,” the lawyer said. “That condemns a baby to a life of misery before it takes its first breath.”

The power of alcohol on the reservation may be hard for outsiders to understand, said the tribal member who bought his first Whiteclay beer at 14 and is now sober: “It affects us like crack cocaine affects other people. Our children are exposed to alcohol before they’re born. They’re born into damaged families. With no jobs to be found, there’s nothing to do when they grow up, and alcohol offers a way to blot out reality.”

Several major breweries supply the beer on Whiteclay shelves, including Miller, Molson Coors and Pabst, according to the state liquor commission. The bulk of Whiteclay sales, though–about 75%–comes from Anheuser-Busch. Leading up to the 2010 election, the giant firm donated to many Nebraska candidates, including the current governor, Republican Dave Heineman, who received $11,000. All told, beer, liquor and wine companies made up Heineman’s top-contributing industry sector, at more than $96,000. Candidates for other offices that year received amounts ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Neither Anheuser Busch nor the governor’s office replied to requests for a comment.

Even impoverished reservations–including Pine Ridge, one of the poorest places in the nation, according to the U.S. Census–can be economic drivers in their regions. That’s because they have minimal economies of their own, with few stores or service businesses where people can spend their money. As a result, little money changes hands on the reservation itself. Funds that do arrive (generally federal dollars, including Social Security, welfare and veterans’ benefits) flow off the reservation almost immediately, typically landing in non-Indian enterprises.

“The federal government sends some $80 million annually to Pine Ridge, and that money is spent in Nebraska, including towns like Chadron, where Walmart built a superstore,” said Nebraska state senator LeRoy J. Louden, who represents the area around Whiteclay and is non-partisan (not affiliated with either major party). “That store was built because of the reservation.”

Whiteclay’s Arrowhead Foods did more than a million dollars in business last year, with an entirely Native American clientele, according to Clark. “I love what I do. It’s kind of a blessing,” he said.

This year, Louden has introduced a bill to create alcohol-impact zones. If it is enacted, local governments–such as Sheridan County, surrounding Whiteclay–would be able ask the state liquor commission to set up special controls in areas where public drunkenness and other alcohol-related problems occur. For example, liquor-store hours might be shortened. “Perhaps you couldn’t start selling till noon,” Loudon said, adding that Whiteclay stores are now open from 8 am until 11 pm.

“I testified in favor of the measure, though it does just a little in terms of solving the problem,” said Vasina. “What Whiteclay needs is 24-hour patrols and comprehensive police investigations of wrongdoing.”

What about personal responsibility, asked Nebraska state senator Tyson Larson, a Republican, who called the lawsuit a product of attorney White “chasing the big pay day.” White is a trial attorney, said Larson, “and they’re always looking for something.” In any case, Larson said, it’s not government’s responsibility to protect you from yourself: “Maybe from other people, such as in laws against drinking and driving. But if you want to drink, you have to live with the consequences.”

Vasina disagreed, calling alcoholism a public health issue. “It’s a disease,” he said. “If we have diseases in the mainstream community–whether infectious diseases like swine flu or drug addictions–we mobilize, producing vaccines, laws, police investigations or whatever is necessary. If we had meth labs in our neighborhoods, would we leave the problem up to individual addicts to resolve? That’s a fairy tale. We are applying rules to the reservation we don’t apply to ourselves.”

“Over the years, thousands have died, and thousands of children have been orphaned, thanks to Whiteclay,” said Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, who has fought for 15 years to close down the town’s liquor trade. “If something like this were to happen in Omaha, Lincoln or any other city or town not associated with a reservation, it would be fixed immediately.”


*Photo note: Photos by citizen journalist provided on condition of anonymity, for fear of retribution.

Diana Jean Schemo
Diana Jean Schemo is co-founding executive editor of 100Reporters and an award-winning former foreign, national and cultural correspondent for The New York Times and the Baltimore Sun.


  1. unsolicited advice to the OGLALA. Get you HSAMAN to send up a prayer that ‘GOD’ WILL, very soon, IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT, STRIKE the liquor stores, all four of them, with FIRE and BOLTS OF LIGHTNING.  TOSSED from on high- toBURN the dammned liquor stores.

    After GOD has BURNT the stores three or four times the insurance companies will get tired of the payouts and stop offering coverage.

    I hope you have a vbery active season of NIGH LIGHTNINg in the not too distant future.  Security guards  with shot guns and dogs cant shoo GOD.

    Clive Ocnacuwenga

  2. CORRECTION!!!Unsolicited advice to the OGLALA. Get your SHAMAN to send up a prayer that ‘GOD’ WILL, very soon, IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT, STRIKE the liquor stores, all four of them, with FIRE and BOLTS OF LIGHTNING.  TOSSED from on high- to BURN the dammned liquor stores.After GOD has BURNT the stores three or four times the insurance companies will get tired of the payouts and stop offering coverage.I hope you have a very active season of NIGHT LIGHTNING in the not too distant future.  Security guards  with shot guns and dogs cant shoot GOD.Clive Ocnacuwenga

    A Like Reply

  3. Alcohol policy all across America is kind of curious, not
    just adjacent to reservations.  Just about every rehab place in America
    has a bar within walking distance too.  In fact, there has been more than
    one bar where AA medals can be traded for a first drink.  Our inner cities
    also support an above-average number of liquor stores that serve a population
    which all too often also suffers the unfortunate side-effects of high
    unemployment, discrimination, desperation, and intoxication too.

    There are numerous liquor stores which will sell to minors too.  America
    is not alone in that respect either, after all, when was the last time that you
    saw anyone get carded in Mexico?  And in most of the world, the legal
    drinking age is less than 21 too.  In most of Canada the legal age is 18,
    and in Germany it is 16, where the average German adult drinks 4-5 times what
    his American counterpart does.  At least Germany has a strong economy, so
    the average German is drinking in celebration rather than out of self-hatred.

    Even if the lawsuit was successful in shutting-down Whiteclay, it will not
    shut-down many other towns and cities near the reservation which sell alcohol
    to native Americans too.  I am afraid that the profit motive is too
    great.  Even if alcohol sales were banned within 25 miles of every
    reservation in America that action would not stop reservation alcoholism
    either, as the demand is far too high to let a little distance separate the
    customers from their drug of choice. 

    No, the only way to gradually lessen the reason for reservation, and indeed
    inner-city alcoholism too, would be Federal and State policies that target the
    reasons behind the low self-esteem and the need to abuse alcohol or other drugs
    to salve a lifetime of getting walked all over just because of race or national
    origin.  There needs to be increased funding for higher education, and
    there needs to be targeted investment in business and industrial opportunity,
    as well as in bringing the condition of reservation housing stock up to a
    more-modern standard too.

    Instead of forcing reservation residents to drive to Chadron where the local
    Walmart provides little or no reservation employment, perhaps Walmart might
    consider a reservation store?  I’ll agree that such a venture wouldn’t be
    profitable more than a few days per month at first, and it might be that such a
    store would have to be partially subsidized, at least until progress is made on
    other fronts.  But if we don’t take a chance and start somewhere in trying
    to build communities that their residents can be proud of, nothing short of
    outright prohibition will ever put a stop to the desire to drown lives that
    hardly seem worth living, no matter where the situation arises.

    I have always thought that central South Dakota would make an excellent meeting
    spot for western coal and Minnesota iron ore, and while any such venture might
    have to run their own in-house alcohol treatment at first, over time that issue
    would become less of a problem too.  Central South Dakota would also make
    a good place for a wind power investment too.  The issues faced by the
    Sioux are not insurmountable, especially if responsible corporations and
    average Americans alike are willing to take the necessary chances and provide
    opportunities to end oppression, help build self-esteem, and instill the pride in
    community necessary to greatly reduce the need to repeatedly bludgeon oneself
    into a drunken stupor to kill the pain of a lifetime of misery.

    No, the overabundance of abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs on our reservations
    and in many of our inner cities is really just a symptom of a greater problem,
    a problem which we as Americans need to take the necessary steps to put behind
    us.  At one time this country rose up to defeat both Nazi Germany and the
    Japanese empire simultaneously, and more-recently we built over 40,000 miles of
    Interstate highway and even put a man on the Moon too, so we certainly have the
    ability to end the despair, desperation, and injustice faced everyday on our
    reservations and within our inner-cities.  We don’t need a bunch of
    unfortunate people at the bottom just to prove how great some of us are. 
    A little bit of humility and a little bit of empathy would go a long way to
    resolving these issues.

    Even though I am someone of middle-income means, I feel that helping to provide
    access to higher education is one of the best ways that my limited
    contributions can have the greatest long-term positive effect.  Even
    today, living semi-retired on a limited income, I have continued to provide
    what I can to the Oglala Lakota College with the hope that my contributions
    will in some small way build enough self-esteem and confidence to lead even one
    life to a brighter and more-hopeful future, and thereby lead to lasting improvement
    in the greater community too.  I would also recommend the Thurgood
    Marshall College Fund to anyone hoping to improve the lives of our inner-city
    residents too. 

    Sometimes it takes a village to raise a child.  Working together we can
    easily end these issues in our lifetimes.  To not be willing to take a
    chance and try to do so would indeed be a tragedy for all of us.  

    • TruckerMark, Very eloquently stated.
      To my Oglala brothers and sisters, the Great Spirit gave you what you need to survive.  Use it wisely.  Stand with your head held high.  Let the world see your strength and pride.  You were once a great nation.  You can be again.  The Ancestors will assist if you ask.  You can take back what is and has been yours all along.  Take back your strength and pride.  Do not give it over to anyone or anything else.  Teach your children the old ways.  Give them the language and the skills that the Ancestors’ possessed.  They came through many hard times.  You can too.  Stand up for yourselves and your children.  Turn your lives around.

  4. Wow, how well this was written.  Very interesting.  I find I agree with Attorney White that there
    should be some patroling and more legal issues tackled about the liquor store policies.

  5. Due to this article, I’ve written letters to Annheuser, Coors, and the Governor of Nebraska.  I am mortifies at the statistics here.  While I can understand that people should be responsible for themselves, it is difficult to do when the alcohol is being forced on you.  How is it okay for a person to walk into a liquor store, (or anywhere), and offer themselves in exchange for a beer?  Where is the responsible party here?  Why isn’t SOMEONE saying No?  Why are babies allowed to die?  or live with the results of fetal alcohol syndrome?  It is an abomination.  And the fact that the politicians – not just the Governor – have all received money from the alcohol companies and still let this go on is beyond me. 

    • Why dont you write a letter to god while your at it and ask him why all this bad stuff happens. Its called free will. The bottom line is… you are responsible for yourself whether its booze, drugs or just being a freaking moron. People like you make me laugh. You want to outlaw everything. Its just like the gun issue… if you outlaw guns only criminals will have them. Thanks for spending more of my money for someone having to read your idiotic letters of concern.

      • Are you truely responsible for yourself?  When exactly did that happen? At birth? No human has ever lived more than a few hours without someone else taking responibility for nurturing and careing for them. Even now how long would you survive without the help of others. Even your food was grown by someone else. Did you make your own gun? could you? Likely your car, gas, shoes, shirt and most everything else,including your talk, was provided by someone else. Yet you feel superior. Whats wrong with that picture?   

  6. use some of that federal money to build your own stores, casinos, recreation areas, and tourist traps. that way your people will have something else to do. jobs, increased self-esteem, and just being plain ol