During halftime at a Denver Nuggets basketball game at the Pepsi Center, lawyer Reeves Whalen of Burg Simpson in Englewood, Colorado, watched a scrimmage between students from a K–12 school located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. As an occasional substitute teacher in the Denver Public Schools and a student of history with an interest in Native American culture, he decided to visit the school.
Whalen sat in on classes and met with administrators at the Red Cloud Indian School. While talking with students, teachers, and staff, he learned that the school is “an oasis” for kids living in an area stricken with poverty and epidemic alcohol abuse.
Pine Ridge is the second-largest Indian reservation in the United States. Less than 200 feet beyond the reservation’s borders is the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, with a population of 12—and four liquor stores. These stores sell the equivalent of 12,500 cans of beer per day, which Whalen said contributes to long-term poverty in the reservation community. “It’s shameful what’s going on there,” he said.
“The school is a temporary refuge for students to learn, use the Internet, and get a view of the world,” he said. The school also helps students retain their Indian culture; 10 percent are fluent in Lakota.
In one Social Justice Studies class Whalen visited, 12th graders were writing letters to members of the South Dakota and Nebraska legislatures, telling them about the harm that the liquor sales were inflicting on the community. Whalen decided to voice his concern as well and to get to work raising money for the school. “These experiences change you—they change your outlook,” he said.
He wrote a letter to the Nebraska governor explaining the issues people on the reservation faced, urging him to better protect public health and safety in Whiteclay and to work with the Nebraska legislature to adopt a resolution to examine the problems related to alcohol sales there.
The scrimmage at the Pepsi Center is an annual event for the Red Cloud students. Whalen is coordinating with a school official to raise money for the school, and he plans to present a check to the students at their next Pepsi Center event in November.
Whalen can be reached at email@example.com.