On October 11 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Sonny Skyhawk stood before a committee of the Nebraska Legislature with a clear message: “Whiteclay is the equivalent of the killing fields of our people,” said the Rosebud Reservation native.
“Our people are dying on a daily basis, and our children are suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. It’s been going on far too long, and this legislature just continues to stick its head in the sand.”
Skyhawk and fellow Native activist, Frank LaMere, told the committee they believe there are solutions that remain untried.
Nearly a year ago, an advisory committee composed of Whiteclay business owners was set up to seek answers to the problems in Whiteclay. The group focused on inadequate law enforcement. This was taken up at the Lincoln hearing by Sheridan County commissioner, Jack Anderson, who said law enforcement in Whiteclay is severely inadequate. “We absolutely do not” have the money or manpower to provide for reasonable policing of Whiteclay. Sheridan County, Nebraska shares its northern border with the southern border of the Pine Ridge Reservation and South Dakota, and Whiteclay abuts the county’s northern border.
“We really need help with law enforcement,” Anderson told the legislature.
After the hearing, perhaps in response to Anderson, Hobert Rupe, executive director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, said if Sheridan County officials deem law enforcement is inadequate in Whiteclay they could shut down their beer stores in January, when all four liquor licenses come up for renewal. It’s a solution both Skyhawk and LaMere say they could support. Still, LaMere, Winnebago and a long-time activist in this cause, held out little hope this would happen. He said the state of Nebraska works to “protect the flow of alcohol” into Pine Ridge. “We would bulldoze the town tomorrow if non-Native people were dying. If white people were dying similarly in Lincoln, we would act.”
Just prior to the hearing, a small contingent of legislators visited White Clay on a “fact finding” tour. Accompanied by a TV camera and local Nebraska reporter with a live feed, the legislators walked from building to building and stopped to talk to persons on the street, most in various states of inebriation. The news reporter was received with visible resentment by the local populace, and was accosted twice.
Nebraska State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, who introduced the resolution that led to the fact-finding tour and committee hearing on Whiteclay, called the town “a two-block stretch of depravity.” Pansing Brooks said Whiteclay’s ratio of beer stores to people would equate to more than 30,000 liquor stores in Lincoln or 50,000 in Omaha.
“There’s a cartel, of sorts, in this,” said Skyhawk. “Basically, it exploits our people and the alcoholism that afflicts many of them,” Speaking of the recent fact finding tour, Skyhawk said, “It was little more than a photo-op, and not an effort to find real solutions for Whiteclay, and that bothered me. We’re going to continue to pressure them, but we’re kind of on hold until January, when the Legislature meets in full session.”
Skyhawk founded American Indians in Film and Television and has appeared in nearly 60 films. In the summer of 2015, he was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “I believe, because of our testimony – especially that given by a woman who adopted six FAS babies, and told what their lives are like with seizures and everything – we will be heard again in January,” Skyhawk said.