From “Whiteclay,” The New England Review
Whiteclay exists because the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation drink a lot of beer. It’s against federal law to sell alcohol on the reservation, but the adult alcoholism rate there is sixty-five percent. The reservation’s alcohol-related death rate is nine times the national average, and twice the average on Indian reservations. Its unemployment rate is seventy-three percent. It occupies Shannon County, which, with an average family income of $3,700, is the poorest in the country. In 2010, Whiteclay’s four package stores sold 4,900,000 cans of beer—13,000 per day—and grossed $3,000,000.
Tumbleweeds regularly revolve through Whiteclay, which has an official population of fourteen. The town consists of a few stores along a nameless two-block strip of threadbare blacktop that runs north to the reservation and fades to fine, wind-stirred dirt at its edges. Eight abandoned buildings front the street; a multiacre cluster of junked cars that sickened on the reservation dominates the north end of town. The stores are decrepit wood-frame buildings with the high false fronts and porch roofs of frontier towns, or utilitarian structures of cinderblock and corrugated sheet metal with small barred windows. The current of decay in Whiteclay is almost perceptible, like the rate of a clock’s minute hand. The town has two car repair shops, a fried-food restaurant, a pawn shop, and two incongruously well-maintained groceries. Four package stores specialize in cheap beer: Mike’s Pioneer Service, the Arrowhead Inn, the Jumping Eagle Inn, and the H&M Inn.
At pretty much all hours, people from the reservation loiter in Whiteclay: they sit against buildings, or stand around drinking and talking, or lie passed out on the porch of the abandoned post office. They also fight with fists or broken bottles or knives or hatchets or guns, commit suicide, freeze to death, and prostitute themselves in the back seats of junked cars for beer money. Indians often arrive early in the day, drink, pass out, regain consciousness, drink more, and pass out again, the second loss of consciousness melding into nighttime sleep, which is frequently taken outdoors, in surrendered cars or abandoned buildings—drinkers keep caches of sleeping bags and blankets around town. Most of the empty real estate bears signs of congregations: kerosene stains, shoelaces, dusty excrement, pint cans of Ice 800 Malt Liquor, panties, the brittle residue of small fires. Some Whiteclay drinkers go home to their families at night and then commute back to town in the morning. Along the road between Whiteclay and Pine Ridge, foot traffic—figures holding onto or bumping into one another, angled against the wind—is regular.
When I drove into Whiteclay and pulled over—I could park anywhere: the sheriff was an hour away and covered the entire 2,500-square-mile county, and no municipal regulations, or services, existed—I’d often notice a figure I hadn’t seen at first because of its insensate stillness. Sometimes I’d see men standing at the edge of the main street and pissing right out into it, as if it were a river.
Disorientingly, Whiteclay is surrounded by beauty for millions of acres on all sides. The country is mainly ranchland, both on the reservation and off, with cattle so thinly dispersed it’s possible to think of them as wild. From dirt roads prairie grassland pays out for many miles, in gradual rises and shallow bowls, until it’s broken by buttes covered in pine trees. There are coyotes and elk and deer and antelope and wild turkey and grouse and pheasants and geese. Many watercourses lined with elms and cottonwoods cut the prairie, and in them—in Medicine Root Creek and the White River and Black Tail Creek and the Niobrara River and Bear in the Lodge Creek—swim pike and bass and perch and catfish and trout.