White Clay: The Other Side of the Story  

  - by Jesse Clarke

     White Clay, Nebraska, a town of twenty or so people, has been making headlines around the country for the past few years, in part because of the four beer stores that sell an estimated four million cans of beer every year. When people hear of the town of White Clay, instantly, they think of beer, poverty, and the cause of many of the problems in and around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The beer stores are just one aspect of White Clay. What about all the good that come from this little town on the Nebraska/South Dakota border? What about the two grocery stores and two restaurants that provide food for the over four million meals the residents of Pine Ridge eat every year? What about the two automotive stations in White Clay that service the cars the people from Pine Ridge drive every day? What about the bakery/flower shop? None of that is ever mentioned in any article published on White Clay because it doesn't sell. If White Clay was such a bad place and the cause of the many problems on the Pine Ridge Reservation, don't you think it would have disappeared long ago? Why are the grocery stores, the automotive stores, the gas station (that also sells beer), and the food establishments still in business? White Clay is still around and prospering because it is not as bad as people say!! White Clay delivers friendly service and competitive prices. Residents of Pine Ridge and the surrounding communities come here because in many aspects, it beats the similar stores in Pine Ridge. For example, lets say your town has two stores, whether it be grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, service stations, whatever. One of the stores is only a couple blocks away, while the other is across town. Lets say the store closest to your home has high prices and treats you poorly. The other store across town has lower prices and is friendly and courteous. Which store will you go to? This is the scenario with White Clay. People come to White Clay daily because of the what this town has to offer, and because they will be treated with respect and courtesy. You could reverse the situation too. If people are treated poorly in White Clay, they will remain in Pine Ridge and shop and receive services there. Either way, people will go where they are treated better and can get the better deal.

     As everyone knows, there are four establishments in White Clay that sell beer. Many articles report these establishments sell liquor of all sorts. However, the only thing that is sold in these four stores is beer. I can see where reporters could get the impression that other forms of alcohol are sold in White Clay, due to the various bottles that at times litter the streets of White Clay and are along the ditches of the many roads that extend from Pine Ridge and White Clay. ALL of the hard liquor that is consumed in and around White Clay is brought in from towns such as Rushville, Gordon, Chadron, Rapid City, and Hermosa. Bootlegging is very profitable on the Reservation. People will drive the twenty, thirty, or forty miles to load up their vehicles and come back to the Reservation and make a huge profit. When White Clay was "shut down" during the summer of 1999 after the "peaceful" march that damaged much of my parent's grocery store (that doesn't, nor has ever sold alcohol) and a few of the other businesses, the liquor stores in the nearby towns in Nebraska, as well as South Dakota, had some of the busiest weeks ever. I know on a few occasions, these stores would double their stock, and then run out! If people want to drink, nothing is going to stop them. Does prohibition ring a bell? Didn't some country, wait, I think it was the United States; yes the United States tried to ban the sale of and consumption of liquor during the 1920's. The same principle applies to the alcohol ban on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. If people want to consume alcohol, nothing is going to stop them. Why would it work in today's society where people can go wherever they like, whenever they like? Personally, I would much rather have people driving the two miles to get alcohol, rather than the 24 to Rushville, the 38 to Gordon, the 36 to Hay Springs, or the 57 miles to Chadron. How safe would the roads be if people had to travel greater distances to get alcohol? Not only would people be buying beer, but they would be purchasing hard liquor as well. I am not saying the beer stores should be left open just because of the risks that would result in closing them. I say leave them open because they are legal businesses and the owners have the right to make a living. Along with that, they should be put under the same speculations and regulations as every other alcohol establishment in the state of Nebraska. In the article "Legal opinion: State can't do much to stop beer sales in Whiteclay" by Kevin O'Hanlon of the AP (read the whole article here) that was published on February 15, 2001, it says in 1882, President Chester Arthur created a fifty mile buffer zone around the reservation. In 1904, Presedent Teddy Roosevelt removed the buffer zone. Some argue President Roosevelt's action was not legal and the buffer should be put in place. But, in the unlikely event this would occur, where would the buffer end? Would all these groups who have to intrude in the lives of people who don't want their "help" get involved again and want the buffer expanded? Would they eventually call for the revocation of the liquor licenses in Rushville, Gordon, Hay Springs, and Chadron? What about Oelrichs, Martin, or the even smaller town of Swett? Why would it just stop with White Clay? It wouldn't, and you can't just single out White Clay, because it is the closest. White Clay will be around as long as the reservation is around because White Clay serves the residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation with a multitude of services ranging from food, to automotive supplies, to yes, even beer.

     Another issue that gets some media attention is the "street" people of White Clay. A common misconception is that they are homeless. This is not the case. They all have homes on the Reservation, and receive money every month. It is their choice to remain in White Clay, day after day and drink. Why should people from outside groups step in and try to tell these "street" people that they can't continue to do this. Isn't this the U.S.A., where people can choose what they want to do with their lives? Who are some of these people who have never even been to White Clay think they are? You read something in the paper and take it as fact. When I read some of the articles that have been published these last couple of years, I laugh, because so much of it is simply made up. It has been reported that my parent's grocery store, V.J.'s Market, sells liquor. As I stated before, we never have and never will. It has also been reported that my father, my two brothers, and myself are skin heads, simply because we have shaved our heads in the past or cut our hair really short. It infuriates me to read stuff like that because I am not a racist and find groups that promote racism appalling. I have several friends that are Native American. I have relatives that are Native American. None of that gets printed. When Ron Hard Heart and Wallly Black Elk were killed, rumors were circulating that my father, a few of the other merchants in White Clay, and a Sheridan County Sherrif's deputy were to blame. I knew Ron personally, not very well, but I knew him, and he knew me. The media portrays White Clay as nothing but hate and evil. If you think this is the case, come up to White Clay. The people who live here are just the opposite. We are no different than the people who live in any other town in America.

     Finally, I want to make it known that this town is my home, and I love it here. I have lived here since September, 1993. When I go off to college this fall, I will have lived here just shy of eight years. Yes, White Clay, just like every city and town that dots this country, has its problems. If there was a "perfect" city, everyone would be living in it. Nobody has listened to the residents of White Clay, or the people who rely on White Clay to survive. It seems like groups that have nothing better to do, people who don't depend on White Clay, people who have never even been here, and people who are too narrow minded to see the big picture get more publicity and say in what happens to White Clay than the people who make White Clay run, the people who call White Clay their home, or the people who rely on White Clay. What about us. Close down White Clay, you do more than just close down the beer stores, you make many families relocate. Some people can't just start over again. Their livelihoods are here in White Clay. You would also be affecting the people of the Reservation that depend on White Clay every day. Until your lives and towns are perfect, don't mettle with ours'. You are causing more trouble and creating more problems than you are solving. The increased presence of Nebraska State Patrol here in White Clay the past month or so is not as "great" as some make it out to be. The Native Americans who make several trips to White Clay every day are being cited for various offenses. Every business in White Clay, as well as those in Rushville have been affected greatly by the increased law enforcement in White Clay. It is not solving anything. It is hurting people. Too many people here don't want White Clay to vanish. Those of you who do not rely on White Clay either can't understand that, or don't want to understand. You feel someone has to be blamed for all the problems on the Reservation and it might as well be White Clay. There are more inner problems on the Reservation than a person could count. Why not try and staighten that out before you get involved with White Clay. Go for the root of the problem, not White Clay! White Clay is here for a reason. People need White Clay, and as a result, it will not simply disappear!!

          Please send responses to jrc@jesseclarke.com

-August 2001
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