Leo Yankton, 41, erects a tipi in the backyard of a home in Lincoln, Nebraska, in late October 2017. Yankton wants to start a tipi-manufacturing business in Whiteclay, Nebraska, following the closure of four beer stores there in April 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Lakota man dreams of building tipis in Whiteclay to rebuild border town economy

Lakota man dreams of building tipis in Whiteclay

By Kevin Abourezk

Leo Yankton often visited Whiteclay, Nebraska, as a boy.

Growing up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, his family would travel to the village just across the Nebraska border to buy groceries.

One day, the young boy and his grandmother walked up to a grocery store in the town and saw a woman passed out near the entrance. She smelled of alcohol and urine.

The boy turned to his grandma: “Is there anything we can do to help her?”

The old woman told him there was nothing they could do for the woman. The alcohol she was drinking was possessing her, she told her grandson.

“She was a living example of the despair I was feeling,” Yankton said.

As a 41-year-old man living today in Lincoln, Nebraska, Yankton wants to help those caught in the throes of alcoholism in Whiteclay and on his reservation.

“I feel like as a grown man, while I’m still strong, that I have the opportunity to change some of the stuff that nobody could change for me at the time,” he said.

He sees an opportunity to bring economic development to the small Nebraska village, a long-vilified place where four beer stores sold the equivalent of nearly 4 million cans of beer a year until the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission shut down those stores in April. In September, the Nebraska Supreme Court rejected an appeal of the commission’s ruling filed by the owners of the four beer stores, effectively closing the beer stores barring an appeal of that decision.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Meet Leo Yankton - A Lakota Man With A Dream

Yankton said he would like to start building tipis in Whiteclay and is now looking for property to buy or lease in the village where he can open a manufacturing facility. He sees it as a way to provide a living for himself while also employing local artisans and others to help construct and decorate the tipis.

Yankton, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, has been learning about tipi construction from a Southwest Iowa man who builds them. He said he met the non-Indian man while attending a sundance near Rosebud, South Dakota, in August. Yankton asked the man if he would be willing to teach him to build tipis.

“He immediately agreed that he would teach me,” He said.

He has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to launch his tipi-making business. As of Monday, he had raised $2,760 toward a $150,000 goal. He said he plans to use any money he raises to purchase land for the business and either renovate an existing building or construct a new one.

He said he has reached out to people who currently own property in Whiteclay but has been discouraged to find land prices in the village are higher than he expected. He said he was able to contact Jason Schwarting, owner of the former Arrowhead Inn beer store, the most prosperous of the four former beer stores.

Leo Yankton sits in a tipi he set up outside a beer store in Whiteclay, Nebraska, in September 2017, on the day the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled the beer store and three others would have to remain closed. Yankton wants to start a tipi-manufacturing business in Whiteclay. Photo courtesy Leo Yankton

He said Schwarting quoted him a price of $400,000 for the nearly 2 acres upon which the former beer store sits, as well as a quonset hut on the site. When reached by phone, Schwarting declined to say whether he plans to sell the property, saying he hasn’t yet decided whether he will appeal the Nebraska Supreme Court decision.

“I don’t know yet,” Schwarting said.

He said he plans to hold an auction Saturday to sell equipment and tools that once belonged to his father, Don, who recently died and once owned Arrowhead Inn.

Martin Pilcher, whose grocery store in Whiteclay burned down in July 2016, said he’s considered selling the land where his store once sat. He said a property owner in the town recently sold land to the owners of a new Family Dollar store for nearly $85,000. He said he would expect his land to sell for at least that much, considering it has two wells and is larger.

Bruce Bonfleur, who runs a nonprofit called Whiteclay Redevelopment, said the Family Dollar store is expected to open within a week.

“They’ve hired people, and they’re stocking the shelves now,” he said.

Leo Yankton: Tipi Business Crowdfunding

It’s just another sign of prosperity in a town once known solely for its massive alcohol sales.

Bonfleur said a family that owns a trading post in the town is preparing to start leasing space to two new businesses in a building down the street that once served as a gift store. In addition, the Fireside Inn recently completed renovation of its storefront, and Whiteclay Redevelopment is continuing its efforts to start a “makerspace” in the village.

The makerspace would be a place where people could work collaboratively on projects and have access to tools, such as a quilting machine and construction equipment, Bonfleur said. He said he’s working with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to establish the makerspace.

He started an online fundraising campaign to launch the makerspace and has raised nearly $1,300 toward a $127,000 goal. He said he’s working with a Wisconsin man who owns land on the south end of Whiteclay to see if his nonprofit can use the land and a building there for the makerspace.

He said the number of visitors to the town has increased since the beer stores closed in April and public drunkenness has nearly disappeared.

“There’s nobody in the street drinking, zero,” he said.

For his part, Yankton understands some of the challenges of starting a business on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He said he operated a thrift store in Pine Ridge in 2007 that didn’t succeed primarily because the local community was simply unable to support it.

He said his tipi-making business wouldn’t need to rely solely on local customers to survive. He said he plans to market his tipis not only in the United States but in Europe, where the interest in Native American culture is high.

“I feel like I have a lot of potential for success right now but it’s slow-going,” he said.

Nebraska Supreme Court Decision:
Kozal v. Nebraska Liquor Control Commission (September 27, 2017)

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