The Whiteclay dilemma

WHITECLAY, Neb. — It's only 9 a.m. and a Monday, and inebriated Indians are already lying on the dusty curb here in Whiteclay. This speck of a town has 16 people and three beer stores. Its main business is selling alcohol to the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just over the state line in South Dakota.

The situation in Whiteclay has become an obsession for both Nebraskans and the Oglala Sioux. Alcohol is a curse for many Native Americans, and the reservation bans its sale or possession. Good people see the Whiteclay business as despicable exploitation.

Now, what to do about it? As H.L. Mencken said, "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong." There is no shortage of simple solutions for Whiteclay: Close the beer sellers. Regulate them to the eyeballs. Have Indians patrol the town.

But the simple solution to this complex dilemma is problematic. That's because it centers on special restrictions based on race or ethnicity.

These troubling issues are not unique to Indians or this part of the country. For example, African-American leaders have long tried to ban billboards advertising alcohol in their neighborhoods. Whether curtailing liquor ads cuts the use of alcohol remains unclear. It undeniably cuts advertising revenue in poor black areas.

Here in the Nebraska panhandle, every cowboy saloon has its share of Euro-Americans slumped face-down on the bar. Yet no one is telling habitual white drunks that, come tomorrow, they can't order their first five beers.

Proponents of shutting Whiteclay's $4 million-a-year business say that Indians are a special group known to have more problems with alcohol than others. The temperance ladies of the 19th and early 20th centuries had likewise labeled Irish and German immigrants. Try this on for size: a law that outlaws bars within 300 feet of predominantly Irish- or German-American neighborhoods.

Some argue that Nebraska law forbids the sale of alcohol near churches and schools, and so why not near Indian reservations? Again, the first two restrictions are based on the nature of the institutions, not the ethnicity of the people in them.

Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., and Rep. Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D., have put forth a pragmatic-sounding solution: Deputize members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe to keep order in Whiteclay.

Given the tragic history of this region, it is thought best that Indians deal with their own. The reservation was the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, when white soldiers butchered hundreds of Sioux men, women and children.

Osborne and Herseth have requested $100,000 in federal money to pay for the tribal patrols. In a letter to a House subcommittee, they noted that the Indians would do a better job of enforcing state laws on public inebriation, drunken driving and other alcohol-related offenses. And they would uphold the tribal ban on bringing alcohol onto the reservation.

But wait a minute. Aren't states supposed to be enforcing their own laws with their own money? Why must the U.S. taxpayer get involved? And if people are illegally transporting alcohol onto the reservation, why stop at Whiteclay? How about Rushville, 22 miles to the south, or Hot Springs, S.D., which is even closer?

The simple solution, unfortunately, ignores the reality of alcoholism. Anyone who has spent much time in Alcoholics Anonymous understands that the problem is not Mike's Pioneer Beer/Ice in Whiteclay or the cans it sells. It is the drinker. Alcoholics will find their poison one way or another.

At least people can safely walk the two miles from the town of Pine Ridge into Whiteclay. The road has sidewalks and bright sodium lights. Level Whiteclay (a bulldozer could do it in an hour), and the alcohol sales would move to places requiring the inebriated to drive.

The only thing approximating a real solution is to treat the alcoholics themselves. And programs run by the tribes report recent progress. Some Indians want to legalize the sale of alcohol on the reservation and use the revenues for treatment programs.

But closing beer joints in Whiteclay would not do much. The federal government first outlawed selling alcohol to Indians 171 years ago. The events in Whiteclay, sadly, are but a footnote in history.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is