Just south of Pine Ridge village on prom night for Pine Ridge High School, the blue and red swirling lights of Oglala Lakota tribal cop cars lit up the two-lane road, blocking the way to Whiteclay and its four liquor stores for any dancegoers who thought they’d swing by and pick up some booze for parties later in the evening. Sergeant Ken Franks, who was commanding the safety check, said there was a chance high school kids might try to buy some celebration libations and bring them back illegally onto the dry reservation.
“There’s a long history of prom night drunkenness,” agreed an elder, who asked not to be named. “When my kids were in school, they’d rent a limo for the prom and ask it to drive down to Whiteclay so they could stock up on beer.” Isn’t selling to anyone under 21 illegal in Nebraska? Sure thing, said a 30-something tribal member, who also asked to remain anonymous, but he’d bought beer in Whiteclay since he was a young teen and never heard of other kids having problems doing so. He described his prom nights: “We’d stay at the dance for just a short time, then me and my buddies would gather all our money, load up the truck with as much alcohol as we could and drive around all night getting drunk.”
To put a crimp in just these kinds of dangerous plans, at about 5:30 p.m. Franks and his team of highway-patrol officers set up their orange cones on the short stretch of road separating Pine Ridge village and Whiteclay. Drivers slowed down to pass through the checkpoint and answer officers’ questions. “If we suspect anyone has been drinking, we ask for permission to search their car,” said Franks, who called the liquor store owners “immoral” for playing fast and loose with laws restricting sales of alcohol.
Did the safety check work? “On the 25 to 30 occasions per year that we do them, calls go down in Pine Ridge village, according to officers on patrol there,” Franks said.
Mark Vasina, maker of the 2008 documentary, The Battle for Whiteclay, and a longtime advocate of closing down the town’s liquor sellers, showed up to observe the officers in action. “Franks’s statement contradicts those who claim there’s no relationship between Whiteclay and problems on the reservation,” Vasina said. “This proves Whiteclay is the source of a lot of misery.”
While watching out for high-school partygoers, the officers made sure everyone was using seat belts and inspected children’s car seats, looking for those that were broken or didn’t fit the child using it. Did the parents then receive a ticket? Not at all. Franks and his team installed brand-new, free car seats in one of several programs the tribe’s police chief, Richard Greenwald, Oglala Lakota, has instituted to successfully cut the reservation’s vehicle-related deaths by 75 percent and serious injuries by about 50 percent in just one year, according to a recent statement by Greenwald to the House Appropriations Committee.
At the safety check, tiny tykes were tucked into their new seats by young officers, while a few hundred yards to the south, the gloomy streets and run-down stores of Whiteclay were empty, thanks to the checkpoint. What Franks called “saturation patrols”—for the layperson, that means lots of police officers patrolling and pulling over anyone they suspect of driving while intoxicated or other criminal behavior—continued into the night in Pine Ridge village.