The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation sits at the southwest corner of South Dakota and is the ancestral home to the Oglala Sioux Indians. Established in 1868 by the Laramie Treaty, the reservation is a sprawling locale that covers beautiful and formidable country. But for decades, the reservation has been plagued by rates of social ills far surpassing those found in the general U.S. population.
One of the biggest problems the reservation has faced is rampant alcoholism. Nearly since its establishment, the reservation has been completely dry. But this law against alcohol sale to the reservation’s residents has always been easily circumvented. The closest town to the reservation’s border, Whiteclay, Nebraska, was founded in the late 1800s specifically to provide spirits to the Native Americans who call Pine Ridge home. This has made the town a lightning rod for activists and politicians for nearly the whole of its existence. But recently, the spotlight has been focused on the small town like never before.
Whiteclay has an official population of just 14. On any given afternoon, that population can easily double or triple, just based on liquor store patrons, many of whom don’t leave after buying beer. Instead, the patrons can often be seen lying drunk in parking lots or fighting with each other on the side of the liquor stores. There is no other industry in the town of Whiteclay and it has no police force. The responsibility for maintaining law and order lies with the store owners themselves and the Sheridan County Sheriffs Department, located tens of miles away.
These factors have caused the Nebraska Liquor Board to consider not renewing the stores’ licenses when they come up for renewal in May. This would effectively put all of the stores out of business immediately. But many feel that permanently shuttering the stores, which are located just five miles from the edge of the Pine Ridge reservation, will create more problems than it will solve. Sheriff Terry Robbins echos many Native observers when he points out that closing the nearby stores will just cause those seeking liquor to drive much further while intoxicated, putting the county’s motorists at unnecessary risk.