Nebraska Town Shutters All Liquor Stores—To Mixed Reactions

By Victoria Kim 05/17/17
The four liquor stores were the main source of alcohol for a nearby Native American reservation.
booze-filled aisle of a liquor store

Local authorities shut down every liquor store in Whiteclay, Nebraska in April, but the debate over whether this will solve the area’s alcohol abuse problem is far from over.

The town of Whiteclay is also known as a “rural skid row,” according to NPR. Only about a dozen people live there, but the town’s four liquor stores made up the bulk of Whiteclay’s revenue, selling millions of cans of beer and malt liquor every year, according to the New York Times.

For the people living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—a short drive across the border in South Dakota—Whiteclay was an easy destination for imbibing. On the reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota, alcohol is prohibited.

With Whiteclay’s lack of law enforcement and abundance of booze—paired with over 80% unemployment on the reservation and more than 90% of the Lakota living in poverty—alcoholism is widespread.

People concerned about the area’s alcohol problem had their eye on Whiteclay’s liquor stores for a while. Last year, the four businesses in town were ordered, for the first time, to reapply for their liquor licenses

The final decision came this past April—the state liquor board voted to revoke all licenses, citing a lack of law enforcement available to service the area. It didn’t help that Nebraska authorities claimed to have evidence that the stores were violating the law by selling alcohol after hours and dealing with bootleggers.

The stores plan to appeal the decision, according to NPR. All that remains in Whiteclay are vacant buildings, a thrift shop, small grocery store, and an auto parts business.

While some praise the state liquor board’s decision to shutter the shops, others aren’t convinced that it’s a meaningful solution.

"I honestly don’t think closing the town of Whiteclay, as far as alcohol, is going to change on the reservation," a local, Talea Merrival, told NPR. "There’s going to be probably more bootleggers on the reservation. It made it more convenient when it was in Whiteclay, but it won’t stop them from getting the alcohol itself."

The fact that more Lakota will have to resort to driving farther away to buy alcohol is another worry for locals. 

But people like Andrew Iron Shell, who is several years sober, says it’s nonetheless a “victory for the community.” 

“I think it’s an opportunity to bring communities together. To bring people with the same value system about life and about wellness and creating economic opportunity that benefits the region as a whole.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr