Nebraska lawmakers again discuss Whiteclay and alcohol

Published Friday, September 25, 2009

As Nebraska lawmakers gathered Friday at the state Capitol talk about how to help his alcohol-drenched town, which has vexed politicians, local American Indians and activists for decades, Lance Moss let out a groan in Whiteclay.

He’s heard it all before.

“I get so sick of the same old rhetoric from people who visit here once a year and walk around,” then try to solve its problems, said Moss, owner of Whiteclay Grocery. “Have you ever heard of anyone solving an alcoholic’s problem for them? People need to make a conscience choice to change their way of living.”

Moss’ store, which doesn’t sell beer, is near four stores in the town _ population 14 _ that sells about 4 million cans of beer annually. It mostly goes to residents of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, which is just across the border in South Dakota.

Liquor is banned on the reservation, but it is within walking distance of Whiteclay and has one of the country’s highest alcoholism-related mortality rates.

The joint legislative hearing held at the Capitol on Friday was prompted by two lawmakers’ visit to Whiteclay early this year and designed to come up with ways to prevent the town from inflaming alcohol-related problems. But new ideas were in short supply and the hearing was largely a recitation of problems that have plagued the town and reservation for decades.

Some who testified said slowing or stopping the flow of alcohol from Whiteclay stores to the reservation would help ease alcohol-related problems in the area. Others said people on the reservation would simply get alcohol elsewhere.

Still others said tighter alcohol-law enforcement in Whiteclay may not be a total solution, but Nebraska has a moral obligation to do what it can.

One of the leaders in the long effort to address problems in Whiteclay and the reservation, Indian activist Frank LaMere, acknowledged at the hearing that “I don’t know just exactly what we have done” to help over the years.

“We’ve not even got out of the chute,” said LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe.

Jurisdictional issues complicate the uneasy tie between Whiteclay and the reservation. Problems in the area _ where people are often passed out drunk on the sidewalks or begging for beer money _ have been the subject of finger-pointing for years.

Common alcohol offenses in Whiteclay include public consumption, selling to intoxicated people, bootlegging onto the reservation, the sale of alcohol on credit, sale to minors, public intoxication, trespassing, assault and theft.

State Patrol superintendent Col. Bryan Tuma told lawmakers that enforcement of alcohol-related laws is difficult in Whiteclay because it’s hard for officers to infiltrate the tiny town where everyone not only knows everyone, but often can see them at the same time. The town is comprised mainly of just one, short street.

Asked by a state senator whether giving more money to the patrol would help enforce laws in Whiteclay, Tuma replied: “To give us money just for Whiteclay when we have so many pressing needs, I don’t know if that’s the answer.”

About four years ago, state and tribal officials reached what they called a historic agreement that allowed tribal police in the Pine Ridge Indian reservation to be deputized in Nebraska so they could patrol Whiteclay. The agreement was signed by Attorney General Jon Bruning, Gov. Dave Heineman and the then- president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

But nearly $200,000 earmarked by Congress to pay for Pine Ridge officers to patrol the town slipped away, unused, two years ago when the tribe didn’t have officers trained to be cross-deputized.

Moss said cross-deputizing may not have helped, but stricter enforcement by local and state police in Nebraska might. Daily, dozens of people pass out drunk on Whiteclay’s sidewalks _ a scene Moss said is somehow tolerated in Whiteclay but wouldn’t be in nearby towns, such as Rushville.

“Why is open public drunkenness OK here and not OK anywhere else?” Moss said. “If someone was passed out drunk in front of the bank in Rushville, how long do you think they’d be able to stay? Not very long. But I see people passed out in front of my store everyday.”

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