Pine Ridge

Stores that sold 3.5 million beers a year forced to close near South Dakota reservation

For years, four stores in tiny Whiteclay, Nebraska, have sold a combined 3.5 million or so cans of beer and malt liquor every year. Now they’re selling zero.

After an intervention by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission and the state’s attorney general, the stores — which cater to customers from the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned — were forced to close. The businesses saw their liquor licenses expire on Monday, May 1, but all four shut down a day early, making Sunday Whiteclay’s first dry day in recent memory.

Activists and Ogalala Sioux tribal leaders cheered the move, but locals are worried the pivot to prohibition will have unintended consequences as alcoholics face potentially fatal withdrawals and travel farther afield in search of drinks.

Alcoholism is rampant on the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation, a community of about 28,000 where one out of every four children is born with fetal alcohol syndrome. For years, drinkers have made the short trip from the South Dakota reservation just across the state line to Whiteclay. The free-flowing beer made public drunkenness, brawling, and vagrancy a persistent problem in the town, which officially has a population of just 14 people.

Citing concerns about lack of adequate law enforcement in Whiteclay, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ordered the stores to reapply for their liquor licenses last year. The commission later voted unanimously to revoke the licenses. The beer store owners won an appeal, but Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, who has final say over liquor control issues in the state, stepped in and revoked the licenses.

Andrew Snyder, a lawyer for the stores, told the New York Times the move was “politically motivated with pressure directly from the governor’s office.”

Tribal leaders celebrated the abrupt store closures on Sunday but warned that the situation won’t improve without additional measures.

“Today is a red-letter day in Nebraska history and in the day of the Ogalala Lakota people, and it’s a good day,” activist Frank Lamere told Omaha’s KETV on Sunday.

Already, there have been reports that alcohol retailers in Rushville, Nebraska, about 20 miles down the road from Whiteclay, have seen business boom in the wake of the closures. A clerk at Rushville’s Pump & Pantry convenience store declined to comment and hung up the phone when asked Monday by VICE News if more customers were coming from Pine Ridge. Locals have expressed concern over the potential for drunk driving as people drive from the reservation.

“We know that anyone with money and transportation will find a place to get alcohol,” Bryan Brewer, a former Oglala Sioux tribal president, told the Omaha World-Herald. “We just hope that the law enforcement in Nebraska will step up to help keep everyone safe.”

Volunteers from local rehab centers planned to visit Whiteclay and the Pine Ridge Reservation to provide detox services, but it’s unclear whether there will be enough staffing to meet the needs of the community.

For now, the Whiteclay beer merchants will remain closed indefinitely. Snyder, the attorney for the store owners, told Nebraska’s Journal Star the fight to reopen isn’t over. He also said he plans to file a motion Monday to have the state dismiss a separate case in which the beer stores are accused of several violations of state liquor laws, including selling to bootleggers.

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