Carnage on the Plains, part 2

Oglala Safety Checks Curb Prom-Night Drinking

Part two of an article that appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012.

Just south of Pine Ridge village on May 27, prom night for Pine Ridge High School, the blue and red swirling lights of Oglala tribal cop cars, shown right, lit up the two-lane road. The officers were blocking the way to Whiteclay, Nebraska, and its four beer stores for any dance-goers 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 pick up celebration libations and bring them back illegally onto the dry reservation.

“There’s a long history of prom night drunkeness,” 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 booze to under-21s illegal in Nebraska? Sure thing, but that doesn’t mean anything in Whiteclay, said a 30-something tribal member, who 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, drive to Whiteclay, 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 pm 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 beer-store owners “immoral” for playing fast and loose with laws restricting sales of alcohol.

Do safety checks work? “On the 25 to 30 occasions per year that we do them, calls go down in Pine Ridge, according to the officers on patrol there,” Franks said.

“That contradicts those who claim there’s no relationship between Whiteclay and problems on the reservation,” said Mark Vasina, maker of the 2008 documentary, Battle for Whiteclay. He had shown up to observe the officers in action. “This proves Whiteclay is the source of a lot of misery.”

While watching out for teen 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 seats, shown left, under 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 Greenwald’s recent statement to the House Appropriations Committee.

At the safety check, young officers tucked tiny tykes into their new seats, while a few hundred yards to the south, the gloomy streets and run-down stores of Whiteclay were empty. What Franks called “saturation patrols,” with lots of officers looking out for drunk drivers and other criminal behavior, continued into the night in Pine Ridge village. 

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.