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With Alcoholism Rampant On Nearby Reservation, Nebraska Shuts Town's Liquor Stores

The battle over alcohol stores in tiny Whiteclay, Neb., has been going on for decades. Home to roughly about a dozen people, the town has been called a "rural skid row." Images of Lakota people openly drinking in town or staggering drunk on its streets are commonplace.

But now, that easy access to alcohol is gone.

The state liquor board has shut down Whiteclay's four controversial liquor stores. Together, the stores sold 4 million cans of beer every year — mostly to residents of the adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which bans alcohol. The store owners are appealing the action by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, but that could take months.

Andrew Iron Shell sees the closures as a huge step forward for residents of the bordering reservation, where it's estimated that 50 percent of the adult population struggles with alcohol abuse.

"It's a victory for the community," says Iron Shell, who has several years of sobriety under his belt. He works for a Lakota non-profit focusing on reconnecting tribal members with their culture.

"It's been a hard-fought battle on many fronts," he says. "But, I also think it's an opportunity to bring communities together. To bring people with the same value system about life and about wellness and creating economic opportunity that benefits the region as a whole."

The bulk of this town's revenue came from liquor store sales. What's left here now is a thrift shop, a small grocery store, an auto parts business and lots of vacant buildings. That's why members of the Whiteclay Task Force will gather here next week to discuss economic development.

But Loren Paul, a county commissioner here, labels them "do-gooders" who he says are missing two key points: small-business owners' rights to operate their establishments and personal responsibility.

"No one wants to say that alcoholism is the problem and the addict is the problem and we need to start there," Paul says. "And it doesn't matter where we move the supply to. If you're an addict, you're going to access that. So in my opinion, what we had before was a problem that no one liked, but it has to be addressed form the addict's side. But we had a controlled environment — we knew where the problem was."

Now, Paul argues that the alcohol problem has been spread to the four winds and those in need will travel south to Rushville, Neb., north to Rapid City, S.D., or wherever they need to in order to get alcohol. He says that puts more people at risk.

Two miles north of Whiteclay, Talea Merrival is gassing up at Big Bat's Service Station in the village of Pine Ridge. She thinks closing the liquor stores is good for the reservation but calls it a band-aide solution.

"I honestly don't think closing the town of Whiteclay, as far as alcohol, is going to change on the reservation. There's going to be probably more bootleggers on the reservation. It made it more convenient when it was in Whiteclay, but it won't stop them from getting the alcohol itself."

Merrival says Whiteclay has served as a convenient target for those concerned about the reservation's high rate of alcoholism. But if real change is expected, she says the Oglala Sioux tribe will have to not only try to shut down local bootleggers, but also work harder to set up rehab programs.

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Jim Kent