A Nebraska village blamed for fueling alcohol-related problems on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation remained a virtual ghost town Monday as mental health and substance abuse advocates arrived to help people at risk of suffering from withdrawal.
The advocates found empty streets in Whiteclay, a sharp contrast from the usual scenes of public drunkenness, loitering and violence in a town that sells millions of cans of beer each year near the home of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. As of Monday afternoon, no one had requested their services.
“We honestly didn’t know what to expect,” said Matt Walz, a representative for the Keystone Treatment Center based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “We’re just trying to be helpful and complement the efforts of people here within the tribe. But it’s looking right now that Whiteclay is probably not where the needs are at this point in time.”
The push to offer services comes amid a major shakeup in the town, which has nine full-time residents. All four of Whiteclay’s beer stores closed on Sunday after state regulators refused to renew their licenses, citing concerns about inadequate law enforcement. A district court judge overturned the decision not to renew their licenses, but that ruling was put on hold while the case is appealed.
In a separate case, the Nebraska attorney general’s office has filed a combined 22 charges against the stores, including bootlegging and selling alcohol after hours. An attorney for the beer stores filed a motion Monday to dismiss the charges.
Scottsbluff attorney Andrew Snyder argued that because state regulators hadn’t renewed the licenses, the liquor-law charges against his clients were moot.
Walz said he was concerned that some regulars in Whiteclay may try to detox by themselves, which can be dangerous. People who are in severe withdrawal can suffer from heart or breathing problems, he said, and in extreme cases they can die.
On Monday, trucks arrived in town to take back unsold beer from the stores. On a sunny day that would typically draw 18 to 20 people to Whiteclay at a time, the streets were empty, said Bruce BonFleur, a faith ministry leader who lives and works in town.
“It’s kind of surreal for people who are familiar with the way it normally looks,” BonFleur said. “There’s going to be a period of adjustment, visually, psychologically, emotionally.”
BonFleur’s group, Lakota Hope Ministry, is co-hosting an event on May 19-20 with a newly formed legislative task force that is looking to address public health problems in Whiteclay. The gathering will include property and business owners in the area who are looking to spruce up storefronts.
State officials have also demolished several old, abandoned homes where drunken people were known to pass out. BonFleur said he’d like to see the town get a detoxification center, a hub for business and art projects and a YMCA facility to offer services not available on the reservation.