Battle for Whiteclay
From the protest posters that marched on the streets of this tiny, reservation border town, to the film packaging that now tells the decade-long story of exploitation and injustice, the Battle for Whiteclay design and activism project is meant to show the severity of the current situation and create a sense of urgency for action.
The Battle for Whiteclay is a documentary film project created to call attention to a tragic situation. The film, appropriately described by Indian activist Frank Lamere, “chronicles a painful odyssey that should give pause to the caring, the oblivious, and those who don’t give a damn.”
It doesn’t take long to drive through Whiteclay. In a blink of an eye, you pass four liquor stores in a town with a population of 14. Then it’s down a two-mile stretch of road to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Hot sun and blue sky overhead. Slow, stale misery on the ground. You get a sense for the centuries of exploitation and abuse. And knowing what’s at work in the community, there really is no way to go there and not be moved to act in some way.
On Saturday, June 11, 2005, at Noon there was a march from the Reservation in South Dakota to Whiteclay, Nebraska to demand that illegal sales of alcohol to Indians be stopped. Some 11,000 cans of beer are consumed every day. There’s crippling poverty. An epidemic of alcohol abuse. On the reservation the unemployment rate is 75% and average life expectancy for men is 48 and 52 for women. It’s been a decade long struggle for justice on the streets of Whiteclay to the halls of Nebraska’s State Capitol. The point of the march was to increase awareness of the situation and, hopefully, begin ending such a bold illegality.
Known as “skid row on the prairie,” Whiteclay continues to be a source of much sadness. The liquor establishments sell their beer.The law is left with too few resources to be enforced. And the people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are forgotten. It’s contemporary conflict pitting American Indian rights against state and local governments in the United States.
Activist and filmmaker Mark Vasina completed the documentary in 2008 and began screening it around the state of Nebraska. It’s been a very effective tool helping tell this complicated, often misunderstood issue. It’s really a whirlwind of a situation. There’s protests and marches both in Whiteclay and in the state capital of Lincoln. There’s hearings and testimony. News reports, editorials and opinions. At times, the basic facts can get overlooked. Realizing that four stores in the tiny village sell about four million cans of beer a year to a clientele who has no legal place to drink the beer tells you just about all you need to know.
For myself, the project has always been about taking on a wrong and trying to get people to help make it right. It’s not an overnight endeavor. It’s slow, arduous politics. The grit of the campaign takes the gravel of that two-mile stretch of road and gives it some kind of context. But once that context is established, nothing will change without a sustained effort. It is poison that’s being sold up there, and it’s crippling an entire population in the name of “it’s just business.” We tend to put emphasis on the economic over the social in America, and you can see that play out in Whiteclay.
When there is an injustice, how the facts are communicated matter. How people perceive the situation is crucial. The messages we confront every day through various forms of media tell us where to shop and what to buy, but also what we choose to care about at every level; personal, professional, institutional and governmental.
Our worldview is shaped and reinforced by the messages we encounter day in and day out. The swirling mass of information and entertainment, opinion and fact, that exists in our culture didn’t just happen. It was all designed to one degree or another. Design as activism sits right in the middle of everything else that’s made to influence people, trying to motivate the caring, turn on the oblivious and battle those who just don’t give a damn.
There are many reasons the situation is as bad as it is in Whiteclay. But one remains clear: an injustice is allowed to go on because not enough people are paying attention. And not enough people have been moved to act, yet.
The project was featured in HOW Magazine in their Designing Change column in 2010.
2006–2008: Activism, Poster, Print