White town’s burden: Legislature continues investigation into the prairie’s skid row

Published Wednesday December 16, 2009
THE READER (Omaha, Neb.)

Lydia Bear Killer believes Nebraska is committing genocide in Whiteclay.

She told the Legislature’s General Affairs and Judiciary Committees so Dec. 11 at a public hearing centering on the small panhandle town’s alcohol sales and its effect on the bordering Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Alcoholic beverages are by law banned from the reservation. But less than two miles away in Whiteclay, four beer stores are fueling rampant Indian alcoholism, effecting up to 80 percent of the population by some estimates. Activists have for years been trying to get the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to revoke the liquor licenses of the beer sellers, claiming they frequently sell alcohol to minors and intoxicated adults, and allow drinking on the premises of their businesses.

Bear Killer, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, was one of several witnesses at the hearing in Chadron, Neb. A video stream was broadcast to Lincoln where state senators could listen to their comments.

Lawmakers heard first from Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Two Bulls offered several suggestions, including that Nebraska help establish a detoxification center in Whiteclay.

Ron Duke, of the Pine Ridge Police Department, said his department had 288,678 calls in the past year; 90 percent of arrests were alcohol related. The reservation has 40 police officers, based on a funding formula from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The hearing came a day after Two Bulls announced a state of emergency because of reservation suicides. The Associated Press reported Dec. 11 that Two Bulls acted after suicides and attempted suicides reached 30 for the year. Two Bulls said alcohol was the leading factor, according to the AP.

An average 11,000 cans of beer are sold in Whiteclay daily. Bear Killer said the rampant alcoholism is killing her people en masse.

In February, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said he would address the situation in three ways: conduct an undercover investigation on stores selling alcohol to minors and drunks, take state senators to Whiteclay and hold re-licensing hearings for Whiteclay’s four beer stores.

Bruning led Nebraska officials to Whiteclay the following month, said Allen Forkner, his director of communications. That group included Sens. Russ Karpisek and Colby Coash, along with Bob Batt of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

Forkner said Bruning tried an undercover operation, but has found it difficult to find people to buy alcohol as part of an official action.

This was the committees’ second hearing on the Whiteclay study; the first was in September.

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