The Slow Work of Whiteclay

by Paul Olson, President Emeritus

Recently, the Liquor Commission and Attorney General, under pressure from the Nebraska Legislature, churches and a variety of groups voted to close Whiteclay liquor stores—the culmination of a 40-year battle by Nebraskans for Peace and a century-long battle by the Native Americans at the Pine Ridge.

In the 1970s, I was heading an institute designed to help Native American teachers and aides, particularly those from the Northwest Nebraska area having numerous Lakota students. My wife Betty and I and our three kids went during spring break on Highway 20 across northern Nebraska, visiting the schools. If we could not visit the school, we visited Native American agencies. No Indian teachers existed, but the civil rights movement had produced a few Indian aides.

We stopped in Rushville to talk to teachers, aides and a superintendent named Jones, good on Indian issues. At the end of the day, we discovered no motel rooms available in Rushville. We asked around and were told that a rancher named Harris (I believe) had a turkey-hunting ranch nearby with a couple of cabins where we could stay. In the morning we had breakfast with Mr. Harris, a rather typical roughshod rancher. I recall his saying to me something like this, “Olson, you want to do some good in Indian territory; well this teacher stuff is fine, but you got to work on the real issues. The real issue is Whiteclay. There is rampant drunkenness there, illegal liquor, murder, theft, prostitution, all the crimes you can think of and nothing is being done.” This was the 1970s. We drove up to Whiteclay. Mr. Harris knew what he was talking about.

Back in Lincoln, I made a few speeches about Whiteclay and Pine Ridge, and Betty Stevens wrote about them for a Lincoln daily newspaper. NFP State Board member Byron Peterson remembers one of the speeches, but nothing came of it. After a while I gave up.

Later, I did an evaluation of the Loneman School near Oglala on the Pine Ridge. Parents, teachers, school board members, bus drivers, everyone told me that children were addicted to alcohol and glue sniffing by the middle grades, and that the community could not defend itself against the bootleggers from Whiteclay. Furthermore, the police—whether federal, state or local—were all in the pockets of the bootleggers. The reservation was a community that could not defend its own children against those who would poison them.

That impotence has a history. In the late 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration sent Gordon Macgregor to the Pine Ridge to research why so many difficulties arose there. He discovered that the federal government had systematically destroyed the livelihood of the Pine Ridge Lakota by forcing them to raise wheat where it could not be raised; forcing them to sell off their cattle herds, the successors of the buffalo herds; dividing the children from their parents and sending them off to Indian schools where they lost all their traditional culture; dividing up family groups so that the governance of the reservation was in chaos; and forcing the people to abandon their religion and give up everything that was holy to them. McGregor published his findings in a book entitled Warriors without Weapons.

Part of this process was setting up the liquor stores at Whiteclay and destroying the buffer zones that surrounded the reservation. The poisoning of the Pine Ridge peoples was not an accident; it was done systematically, with malice aforethought, and across decades. The payment for Little Big Horn did not end with the killing of Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson. It continues to this day.

Now the Census Bureau says that more than 52 percent of Pine Ridge residents live below the poverty line; hardly anyone has a job; tuberculosis and diabetes are eight times the national average; 80 percent of residents suffer from alcoholism and a quarter of children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Men live 48 years on average; women 52—between 20 and 30 years less than U.S. citizens as a whole.

Perhaps this more than century-long history of genocide on the borders of Nebraska is beginning to be reversed by the actions of Frank LaMere, Tom Poor Bear, Vernon Bellecourt, Tim Rinne, Mark Vasina, John Maisch, Patty Pansing Brooks, William Laird, the leadership of the Oglala Lakota people, and many others.

I meet people who say, “Shutting down Whiteclay is only going to lead to more bootlegging and more wrecks on the road.” Such people do not recognize that the process of healing a culture does not happen overnight. It is not a matter of Marxist instant revolution making everything new. Constructing a decent society is slow: so is controlling the agencies that would destroy that society and learning to act with goodwill, love and decency to produce some visible effect.

The Winnebago have made an effort at social reconstruction by controlling their own police force and their own schools, developing employment opportunities and starting businesses, developing alcohol treatment centers and rehabilitation, and generally creating a degree of hope. That kind of social reconstruction can also happen on the Pine Ridge. However, it will take as long for it to occur as it has taken to destroy one of the great branches of The Great Sioux Nation.

The people that created the Sun Dance and Black Elk can, as Black Elk predicted, have their tree root and grow again and see the circle of their nation come to be unbroken or at least less broken. But it will take a long time. Peace-loving people in Nebraska, including the members of Nebraskans for Peace, will have to work for at least a century—in the Legislature, before the Liquor Commission, in collaboration with the State Department of Education, with our federal legislators, and with the leadership and people of the Pine Ridge themselves.

The fact that we have gotten as far as we have is due to the patient and long efforts of people like Frank LaMere who, unlike me, saw the problem and did not give up. He is our model. We should also hope to form alliances with people who are not politically fashionable such as that gruff rancher “Harris” who first awakened my conscience on Whiteclay.

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