Terry Robbins is the sheriff of Sheridan County, Nebraska. He faces a challenging job. With just a skeletal staff of deputies, he is responsible for an area of nearly 2,500 square miles, an area twice the size of Rhode Island. That vast landscape is filled with just 5,500 residents, making it one of the least populated counties in the entire country. By comparison, most of West Texas, one of the most desolate regions in the U.S. is typically two to four times more densely populated than Sheridan County.
This means that the sheriff and his men often need to drive hundreds of miles per day responding to emergencies. Hunting down fugitives within the county can be next to impossible. But the most challenging aspect of the sheriff’s job has often been the trouble cause by one town, a tiny enclave of just 14 residents at the furthest northwest corner of his county. Whiteclay abuts the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located just five miles north, into South Dakota. The town’s raison d’être is selling alcohol to the Natives. For its entire existence, the town has been an exhibit of public drunkenness, mendicancy, loitering and fighting. But the town’s extreme remoteness and complete lack of any other industry has meant that no citizenry has ever been mustered to shut down the lawlessness and public blight brought on by the round-the-clock intemperance of the town’s guests.
This has made things difficult, at times, for Sheriff Robbins. His office has expended more resources enforcing order in the nearly vacant town than anywhere else in the county. Still, the sheriff is highly skeptical of efforts by Nebraska lawmakers and politicians to shut the town’s sole livelihood down for good. Sheriff Robbins believes that, should the four liquor stores of Whiteclay be shuttered, the Natives will simply drive further, much further in the case of Northern Nebraska, up the road to get what they crave. This, says the sheriff, will lead to a dramatic increase in the number of miles driven while intoxicated in Northern Nebraska, certainly leading to a spike in traffic fatalities. The sheriff believes shutting down Whiteclay would have no measurable effect on Native alcoholism.