BREAKING: Four Nebraska liquor stores selling alcohol to dry Pine Ridge Reservation lose licenses

The Nebraska Liquor Control Board on Wednesday voted unanimously on the fate of four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska. Advocates say those stores made their money selling to residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is illegal.

There have been new developments in this story as of August 31, 2017. Read our most recent update here.

The Nebraska Liquor Control Board on Wednesday voted unanimously to deny the renewal of liquor licenses for the four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska, which has a population of seven but lies within walking distance of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol has been banned since the 1970s. 

This ruling will effectively close the stores when their licenses expire at the end of the month. A standing-room-only crowd responded to the vote with applause.

Advocates and tribal leaders have been trying to close these liquor stores for decades. An estimated two-thirds of adults suffer from alcoholism on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and one in four infants is born with fetal alcohol syndrome. These four stores sell millions of cans of beer per year, and Pine Ridge activists refer to Whiteclay as “our Skid Row.” Olowan Martinez, an activist from Porcupine in Pine Ridge, was pleased with today’s decision. “The liquid genocide that has been coming out of Whiteclay has been over a hundred years too long,” she says, adding that stores’ closure means hope for Pine Ridge children. “This has nothing to do with the adult drinkers. This has everything to do with those five- to ten-year-olds that have no choice.”

The Liquor Control Board’s decision follows a hearing earlier this month to determine whether the town of Whiteclay has adequate law enforcement to support the four liquor stores. That hearing lasted for ten hours—we covered the main arguments for both sides in detail here. All three commissioners said Wednesday that they believe law enforcement in Sheridan County, which includes Whiteclay, does not have the resources to keep the peace in the unincorporated village. 

Commissioner Bruce Bailey explained his decision by citing a statistic that 30 percent of Sheridan County’s ambulance calls come from Whiteclay, adding that the population of the community has fallen to seven from twelve since the 2010 census and that none of the liquor store owners reside in Whiteclay. He also referenced “moving” testimony on conditions in the village from Whiteclay residents Marsha and Bruce BonFleur, who run the local ministry, as well as reports of “public intoxication and sexual acts to young girls.” “The conditions and the situations, had there been law enforcement, probably would not have taken place. That is my main concern and that is why I feel that the four establishments need to be closed,” he said.

“I’ve been doing this nine years now, and we’ve had a lot of complicated problems come before us. None more complicated than this,” Bailey admitted, adding that he felt nervous. Batt agreed. “This is one segment of it,” he said, referring to the larger problem of alcoholism on the reservation. But for him, the decision was clear. “The lack of … law enforcement places the health, safety, and welfare of the public at risk.”

Alcohol Justice advocacy director Jorge Castillo was pleased with the decision. His organization has been involved in campaign against the stores for several years. “I hope that future generations of Lakota youth can forgive us for taking so long to stop the illegal alcohol activity that brought so much harm into their lives,” he said in a text message. “Nebraskans with kind hearts working along with Pine Ridge activists made the outcome possible. Its time to start healing and make sure the liquor stores never open up again in Whiteclay.”

Attorney Andrew Snyder, who represents the four liquor stores, has already told reporter Paul Hammel of the Omaha World-Herald that he is working to appeal the vote. But the Liquor Control Board seemed prepared to defend its decision. The commissioners reiterated that they used due process and followed the rule of law, adding that they fully expect their ruling to withstand an appeal.

“I’m really happy. I’m a little surprised, a little shocked,” Martinez says. “I never thought I would be seeing this. Thank you to the citizens to Nebraska, on behalf of the Oglala matriarchs of this reservation. We thank you for thinking of our childrens’ future.”

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.