KC Willis/Associated Press
KC Willis/Associated Press
WHITECLAY, Neb. – In a tiny Nebraska border town that has become known more for alcohol than anything else, KC Willis is hoping to change perceptions.
Willis has opened LightShine Thrift Store in Whiteclay, a town of about 12 people just across from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“I’ve been coming to Pine Ridge for a year,” said the Longmont resident. “Over the course of that year, I began to realize there was no place on the rez for people to get the essentials, at least on the southern half. There was no place for a mom to get socks or a shirt for her daughter for school without going to Rapid City or Chadron, Neb.”
The reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, spans more than 2.7 million acres and is located in one of the poorest areas of the country.
Going down the street to pick up items at Walmart, Target or another store isn’t possible on Pine Ridge, where even basic infrastructure such as gutters and sidewalks are lacking.
And traveling by car 100 miles northwest to Rapid City or 50 miles south to Chadron can be problematic for residents without reliable transportation.
Whiteclay, located two miles south of the reservation, is where many of the tribal members go for groceries. It’s also where some go for alcohol. The Oglala Sioux Tribe has sued the town’s beer stores and several distributors, saying they are knowingly contributing to alcoholism on the reservation, where alcohol is banned.
Willis has both a simple and complex goal in opening the 75,000-square-foot store. She wants to offer a place where residents of Pine Ridge can go to buy simple everyday items such as books and clothes.
She also wants people to see that Whiteclay and the Lakota people can do good things. The store is in Whiteclay and not on the reservation because rent is cheaper in Whiteclay and because the complicated process that nontribal members must go through to rent on the reservation can be time-consuming, Willis said.
Plus, she added, “I’m close enough to the reservation to service them, but I’m not inside the reservation taking up a building that could be owned by a Lakota business.”
The store, which opened about two weeks ago, carries furniture, shoes, clothes and books. The items are mostly donated. Two tribal members work with Willis to run the store.
Willis hopes to open an art studio for tribal artists in the future in the back of the store. There’s also a ministry component to the store, but Willis, who is white, said she will not be preaching to the Oglala Sioux people about what they should be doing.
“They’ve had enough white people trying to do stuff like that,” she said.
Vic Clarke, manager of Arrowhead Foods in Whiteclay, said he hopes the new thrift store can last in Whiteclay. However, catering to tourists is difficult, he said, because many are uneasy about the town and the people who line up on the street and panhandle there.
Willis also will have to work at building a reliable client base among the tribe, Clarke said.
“People are not going to come buy. They’re going to want to come trade,” he said.