Depth report delves into impacts of Whiteclay alcohol sales

Depth report delves into impacts of Whiteclay alcohol sales

Jake Crandall and Calla Kessler | Photo illustration
The photo of a Native man superimposed over the village of Whiteclay, Nebraska. A new depth report by journalism students explores the impacts of alcohol sales in the village on the community and Pine Ridge Reservation.

Seven cans of beer are purchased every minute of every day in Whiteclay, Nebraska.

Annually, that translates to more than 3.6 million cans sold in the unincorporated village of 12 residents and four beer-only liquor stores.

Of the 38 million cans sold in the last decade, the vast majority were purchased by residents of the nearby and officially dry Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

A new depth report developed by University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism students examines the relationship between the thriving liquor stores of the tiny village and alcoholism on the reservation. The report, "Wounds of Whiteclay: Nebraska’s Shameful Legacy," also showcases individuals who are working to make a difference in what is the most impoverished county in the United States.

"This project is about a group of young journalists shining a light on a very dark place to expose poverty, illness, injustice and degradation of human life," said Joe Starita, a professor of news-editorial and faculty editor for the project. "The hope is that this light is strong enough and will last long enough to make a difference in a place that should shame all Nebraskans."

The work is part of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications' depth-reporting course through which students focus on a single topic over multiple semesters. The projects combine long-form writing, photography, video and graphics into an online and/or printed publication.

Previous depth report topics have ranged from examining Nebraska-based impacts of immigration and recession to life in Cuba and tsunami recovery in Sri Lanka.

Initial stories featured on the Wounds of Whiteclay website include an overview of the project; a day in the life of Whiteclay; the economic impact of beer sales on taxpayers and Lakota people; and profiles on a family that cares for Native children and Nebraska’s first Native state senator.

The Whiteclay depth report website launched Jan. 10. Students will continue to expand the site and add content through the spring semester.

Watch a student-produced preview of the Whiteclay depth report here.

Calla Kessler, a senior journalism major, is one of the students developing the Whiteclay report. For one Wounds of Whiteclay assignment, the photographer spent a series of days documenting the life of Nora Boesem, a former nurse raising nine Native children who suffer from varying levels of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

"When I'm working, I try to remove myself from the emotional experience of the situation," Kessler said. "It was a challenge to do that on the Whiteclay project -- especially when I was with the Boesem family."

The story, which was written by Marcella Mercer, a junior journalism major, explores how Nora and her husband Randy -- who live in a double-wide trailer in rural Newell, South Dakota -- have adopted and cared for 12 children suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Of the nine current children in the house, eight were adopted from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Since 2001, the Boesems have taken in more than 100 foster children.

"When I returned and started going through the photos in the comfort of my own home, the emotions of it really hit me. I cried a lot and it took a few days to decompress," Kessler said. "Our biggest challenge on this project is to take photos and write stories that make people care beyond just sharing or liking on social media. We want these reports to haunt readers, to have them see the despair in these peoples’ lives and get them to act, to make them want to do something that could bring about tangible change.”

The students’ story on the Boesems was featured last fall in the Lincoln Journal Star. That preview of the Whiteclay project has inspired at least $520 in donations to the family.

“That’s the whole point of this project,” Starita said. “These students shine that light and we hope people see it and react. Together, we have an opportunity to make a real difference in this community.”

For more information on the Wounds of Whiteclay project, including a complete list of contributors, click here.

Wounds of Whiteclay trailer
Nora and Randy Boesem have adopted 12 children suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Since 2001, the Boesems have taken in more than 100 foster children. Boesem family members pictured are (from left) Rachel (15), Jeremy (10), Mark (4), Frannie (12), Nora, Dontae (14), Randy, Kayleigh (10), A.J. (10), Michelle (15) and Arianna (5) in the middle. Not pictured is Vincent (24), the late baby Justice and the late Donovan.
Tom Brewer, Nebraska's first Native senator, rides across a field near Fort Robinson on Sept. 14.
People stand beside a building as the sun sets over Whiteclay. Many of those who spend time drinking on the streets in Whiteclay spend their nights in a makeshift camp not far from the town.