Dry zone sought near Pine Ridge

Published Saturday July 25, 2009

LINCOLN — A former South Dakota senator is urging President Barack Obama to rescind a 104-year-old executive order that allows alcoholic beverage sales to Native Americans in the reservation border town of Whiteclay, Neb.

In an opinion piece published July 15 in the New York Times, James Abourezk, a U.S. senator in the 1970s, called on Obama to overturn President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 order that wiped out a 50-square-mile “buffer zone” along the Nebraska border.

Before Roosevelt’s order, sales of guns, knives and alcohol were banned inside the buffer zone to residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation, just across the border in South Dakota.

Eliminating the buffer zone opened the way for alcohol sales in the unincorporated village of Whiteclay, Neb., where four beer-only outlets now sell 3.2 million cans of beer a year, mostly to reservation residents.

Alcohol is officially banned on the reservation, though alcoholism and other liquor-related problems are rampant. The issue has prompted calls for the Whiteclay outlets to be shut down.

Abourezk, a Sioux Falls attorney who has long been involved in Indian rights, said he made the plea because it would be cheaper and easier for the president to restore the buffer zone than to halt sales through a federal lawsuit.

“What Teddy Roosevelt did was highly illegal,” he said Thursday.

Abourezk, 78, maintains that Roosevelt lacked the authority to overturn the act of Congress that created the buffer zone.

Re-establishing the buffer zone, he said, would force liquor stores to locate farther from the reservation, making it harder for alcoholics and bootleggers to purchase alcohol.

“Any time you can do that, it’s a plus,” Abourezk said.

He made similar pleas to former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Other advocates have raised the buffer zone question without success.

Defenders of the Whiteclay beer stores maintain that as long as they operate within the law, they should be allowed to remain and that closing the stores would simply move the problems down the road.

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