J.L. Schmidt (copy)

J.L. Schmidt, Nebraska Press Association

The national disgrace of beer sales in Whiteclay, Neb. appears to be over, at least for now.

The four stores -- which sold millions of cans of beer every year to residents of the alcohol-free Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located just a couple miles across the South Dakota border – were shut down in April when the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission denied their licenses. The Nebraska Supreme Court recently denied the storeowners’ bid to reopen, based on a technical flaw in their appeal.

That decision ensured the stores, the only businesses in the village of 14 people, will remain closed for now. The storeowners could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or file suit against the state in federal court. It remains unclear what’s next.

But for now: business and retail people are debating the merits of free enterprise; Native American activists are celebrating an end to the 20-year struggle to get the stores closed; and lawmakers and social activists are looking for ways to help people lead healthy and productive lives again.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson framed it best. He said the Supreme Court decision “affords an opportunity to write a hopeful chapter in the story of Whiteclay."

Winnebago activist Frank LaMere said the court decision ranks with the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn as one of the most significant wins ever for the Lakota people. He said it marks a red-letter day in Oglala Lakota history.

The court's 17-page opinion did not weigh in on the issues of rampant alcoholism on Pine Ridge or lawlessness in Whiteclay. Instead, the justices determined that a fatal legal flaw (jurisdictional grounds) had doomed the beer store owners' appeal of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission's decision to deny their liquor licenses earlier this year.

David Domina, attorney for Sheridan County residents opposing the stores, argued the storeowners hadn't correctly appealed to the court because they didn't include his clients in the case. The high court agreed and said a Lincoln judge's order reversing the Liquor Commission's decision was void.

He said the decision means that the shame of Whiteclay is over and obstacles have been removed from the road to recovery for the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation and the Pine Ridge Reservation.”

Now it’s up to a legislative task force led by state Senators Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln and Tom Brewer of Gordon to draw up plans for new business development and human services in Whiteclay. The group has already completed one visit to the area and more are planned. Brewer, a Native American, said the healing of a town once called “The Skid Row of the Plains” has begun.

LaMere called for a day of healing and reconciliation on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to allow people to give thanks and seek forgiveness for allowing Whiteclay to devastate people for so long. He encouraged Native Americans to pray for themselves.

The Whiteclay Task Force recently heard testimony about the challenges facing the village. And they heard about the problems dealing with some of the worst victims – children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Nora Boesem said she and her husband have adopted 12 children with FASD after learning that assistance for such children is very limited.

When the family had some of them as foster children, Boesem said she was told they were lucky they hadn’t adopted them and could send them back. She told the committee a lot of her adopted children are products of Whiteclay, and their parents are products of Whiteclay.

Let the work on the hopeful chapter begin.

J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.

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