KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The town of Whiteclay, Neb., has a population of less than 20. And until this month, it had four controversial liquor stores. They've all been shut down. The stores sold 4 million cans of beer every year, mostly to people who live on the adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which bans alcohol. The store owners are appealing the action by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, and that could take months. From Whiteclay, Jim Kent reports.
JIM KENT, BYLINE: The battle over Whiteclay alcohol stores has been going on for decades. Images of the Lakota people openly drinking in town or staggering drunk on its streets are commonplace. But now that easy access to alcohol is gone. Andrew Iron Shell works for a Lakota nonprofit, focusing on reconnecting tribal members with their culture. With several years of sobriety under his belt, Iron Shell sees the closing of Whiteclay's liquor stores as a huge step forward for residents of the bordering reservation.
ANDREW IRON SHELL: It's a victory for the community. It's been a hard-fought battle on many fronts, but I think it's also opportunity to bring communities together, to bring people with the same value system about life and about wellness and about creating economic opportunity that benefits the region as a whole.
KENT: The bulk of this town's revenue came from liquor store sales. What's left here now is a thrift shop, a small grocery store, an auto parts business and lots of vacant buildings. That's why members of the Whiteclay Task Force will gather here next week to discuss economic development. But Loren Paul, a county commissioner here, labels them do-gooders who he says are missing two key points - small business owners' rights to operate their establishments and personal responsibility.
LOREN PAUL: Nobody wants to say that alcoholism is a problem and the addict is the problem, and we need to start there. And it doesn't matter where we move the supply to. If you're an addict, you're going to access that. So in my opinion, what we had before was a problem that no one likes, but it has to be addressed from the addict side. But we had a controlled environment. We knew where the problem was.
KENT: Now, Paul argues, the alcohol problem has been spread to the four winds, and those in need will travel south to Rushville, Neb., North to Rapid City, S.D., or wherever they need to in order to get alcohol. He says that puts more people at risk.
Two miles north of Whiteclay, Talea Merrival is gassing up at Big Bat's service station in the village of Pine Ridge. She thinks closing the liquor stores is good for the reservation but calls it a Band-Aid solution.
TALEA MERRIVAL: I honestly don't think closing the town of Whiteclay for its alcohol is going to change on the reservation. There's going to be probably more bootleggers on the reservation. It made it more convenient it was in Whiteclay, but that won't stop them from getting the alcohol itself.
KENT: Merrival says Whiteclay has served as a convenient target for those concerned about the reservation's high rate of alcoholism. But if real change is expected, the Oglala Sioux tribe will have to not only try to shut down local bootleggers but also work harder to set up rehab programs for the estimated 50 percent of its adult population struggling with alcohol abuse. For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent in Whiteclay, Neb.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "SOUND AND COLOR")