Liquor Commissioners Vote to Deny Licenses for Whiteclay Beer Stores

Liquor Commissioners Vote to Deny Licenses for Whiteclay Beer Stores
Frank LaMere, a Winnebago Indian activist, reacts to commissioners' comments on denying liquor licenses to Whiteclay beer stores PHOTO: World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — A state liquor board took the unprecedented step Wednesday of voting to deny the renewal of the liquor licenses of four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska.

The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission voted 3-0 to deny the licenses of the stores. One commissioner said that law enforcement was “woefully inadequate” to allow liquor sales there.

“We were appalled by some of the attitudes of Sheridan County officials that they don’t have a problem there. We found that to be bogus,” said Bob Batt of Omaha, the chairman of the liquor board.

People in the standing-room-only audience in a tiny meeting room at the State Office Building applauded and hugged after the vote was taken.

“A dark cloud has been lifted over the State of Nebraska,” said John Maisch, an Oklahoma attorney whose documentary film about Whiteclay reignited a movement to shut down the stores.

The lawyer for the beer stores, Andy Snyder of Scottsbluff, said he was already working on an appeal of Wednesday’s decision.

The four stores’ liquor licenses expire April 30. A court appeal would suspend the closing of the stores by several months pending a final ruling.

The Whiteclay beer stores have been criticized for years for contributing to alcohol-related problems on the adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol possession and sales are legally prohibited.

Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of fewer than 10 residents near the Nebraska state line, has been called the “Skid Row of the Plains” because the stores sell the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year.

Almost all sales are to residents of the impoverished reservation, where alcoholism is rampant and an estimated one in four children suffer from some form of fetal alcohol syndrome. In Whiteclay, vagrants openly drink, urinate and pass out on the streets.

Whiteclay has had four liquor stores for many years, and some families have held the licenses going as far back as 1982. The current holders are the Arrowhead Inn, the Jumping Eagle Inn, D&S Pioneer Service and State Line Liquor.

The liquor store owners have argued that they run legal businesses, and that, if anything, law enforcement has improved in recent years.

They also maintain that closing down the stores will not solve liquor woes on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Liquor purchases, they say, will just be transferred to bootleggers or to other communities farther away, thus increasing the risks of deadly drunk-driving accidents.