Some Want Whiteclay to Be a Healing Place

Dec. 28, 2021, 6 a.m. ·

John Maisch stands in Whiteclay, Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
John Maisch stands in Whiteclay, Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Whiteclay, in northwest Nebraska along the border with South Dakota, used to be known for alcohol sales to residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation next door. But now, some people are hoping to make it a place of healing.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” John Maisch remembers, the first time he saw Whiteclay, driving on Highway 87, the main street through the town whose official population in the 2010 Census was 10.

“There had to be 50 to 60 men and women, primarily men, drinking on the streets, some passed out, not just on this main street but behind Highway 87 as well, drinking. I could not imagine that this was the state I’d grown up in,” he said.

Maisch, who grew up in Grand Island, first heard about Whiteclay after moving to Oklahoma and helping enforce liquor laws there. He then made a documentary and used his legal training to support the decades-long fight to close the beer stores here.

Those stores sold millions of cans of beer each year, mostly to residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the South Dakota border. They were finally closed in 2017, after the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission decided there was not enough local law enforcement.

Nowadays, Whiteclay looks like many other small towns. There’s a grocery store, a café, a dollar store, and a new Makerspace in one of the old beer stores. And there was no one lying around on a recent weekday morning

Bryan Brewer
Bryan Brewer (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

But Bryan Brewer, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said the old Whiteclay left a legacy of destruction among tribal members who hung out and drank there.

“Whiteclay was a – it was a evil place. So many people have died up there…people have moved back to the reservation and died,” Brewer said.

Closing the beer stores in Whiteclay has hardly ended problems with alcohol on the reservation. But Favian Kennedy, director of Anpetu Luta, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s alcohol treatment program, said closing the stores only two miles from the main population center of Pine Ridge has had an impact by cutting down on access.

Favian Kennedy
Favian Kennedy (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

“People who are hell-bent on getting alcohol are surely going to get the alcohol. And so it’s going to impact people like youth, for example, as well as people who might be ‘fair weather’ drinkers. I think it’s up to us to try to implement as strong public health policies as possible that’s going to reduce access to alcohol,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said that’s important, considering the problems alcohol causes for some tribal members.

“We actually have a very high alcohol abstinence rate. But among those individuals who drink, there is a higher rate of alcohol use disorder,” he said.

Maisch said the effort to close the beer stores was about ending what he calls Nebraska’s “complicity” in alcohol problems on the reservation. And he said it’s not his place to judge the tribe’s alcohol policy.

“I’m not a believer in prohibition. But Pine Ridge is a sovereign entity. The Oglala Lakotas are a sovereign entity. And so if their tribal elders and their members believe alcohol has no place on the reservation, I have to respect that,” he said.

Tatewin Means
Tatewin Means (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Tatewin Means, formerly the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s attorney general, said prohibition is more than just a law.

“Obviously people still buy alcohol and bring it on the reservation and we have bootleggers here that we prosecute tribally. You know, there’s always going to be that. You can make anything illegal and there’ll always be people breaking the law. That’s just the nature of it. But I think that more importantly it’s the statement that it makes – a value-based statement – that we’re saying collectively as a people that it’s not a part of who we are,” Means said.

Voting in 2020, tribal voters decided to continue to prohibit alcohol on the reservation, while approving the legalization of marijuana.

Back in Whiteclay, Maisch bought the 5-acre former Lakota Hope missionary property two years ago. Anpetu Luta now has an office there, and there’s a house where an alcohol treatment and behavioral health specialist could live.

And there are other possibilities for Whiteclay. Means, now executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation on the reservation, said it can be a place for people affected by alcohol problems to heal.

“That’s the potential that we see for Whiteclay. Really changing the narrative and rewriting that community’s healing story through the development of a healing community,” she said.

Maisch has purchased another 16 acres across the road on the outskirts of Whiteclay, and has an option to buy 29 acres more by the end of the year, which he says he could turn over to Thunder Valley. Means said it could be used to house tribal members recovering from alcohol addiction.

“Providing those specific places to a really vulnerable population – those that need the transitional housing, maybe just for a short time – they might not have a stable, safe place to live – and those that may need more long-term, permanent supportive housing,” she said.

Means was asked if she anticipates a “not-in-my-backyard” reaction against such a development from other residents and business owners in Whiteclay.

“I would think that would be kind of ironic if it was, because it wasn’t that reaction when there was liquor stores there and there was pervasive homelessness and violence,” she said.

But she says it will be important to discuss the ideas with local people.

“Just opening those conversations and bringing them along in the process so they don’t feel like it’s being imposed or dumped on them, I think that’s really important, too,” she said.

One other project Maisch hopes to see on the property he’s bought in Whiteclay is a museum and memorial to the people who suffered there. Former tribal president Brewer supports the idea.

“I think that’s part of our history. I see ‘em all over the country tearing down statues and everything and sometimes I go ‘Oh, that’s good,’ you know, whoever it was. But no, that’s part of our history. This is the way it was. This is the way it really was…. we can’t let our people forget what it was,” he said.

And Maisch said changing the town is important.

“I think transforming Whiteclay from a place of death and destruction to a place of hope and healing is really the best insurance policy that we, as Nebraskans and former Nebraskans, have to ensuring that alcohol never returns to that community,” he said.

Editor's note: Maisch says Thunder Valley bought land he had purchased or had an option on -- 48 acres -- on December 22, 2021.