Hearing speakers demand action on Whiteclay issues

Published Friday December 18, 2009

Frustrations at the lack of progress on the issue of Whiteclay alcohol sales were evident Friday at a legislative hearing telecast in Chadron, but several solutions were also suggested to rein in alcohol sales and help those dependent on the substance.

“Going into Whiteclay, it’s like going into a black hole,” testified Terri White Eyes, who works with a drug and alcohol program on the reservation.

All of the agencies on the reservation tasked with handling the problems that arise from alcohol are underfunded and understaffed, she said. The disease of alcoholism affects everyone in a family, and Pine Ridge has no way to treat them.

White Eyes said she appreciates that the Legislature is again looking at the issue, but she wants to know what the solutions are.

“And I hope it’s not ‘what’s wrong with you people?’”

White Eyes called for a detoxification center to be built and for Nebraska to help fund the training of staff to run the center. She also said sales need to be restricted at Whiteclay.

“Why would someone need 20 cases of beer? That’s not for individual consumption. The storeowners know where that’s going. They’re making a profit off our people’s misery,” she said.

Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe called it a “vexing situation” for both sides but added that the specific reason Whiteclay exists is because of actions taken by Nebraska to end the buffer zone around the reservation in the early 1900s.

The issue has been talked about for years, and Two Bulls said it’s frustrating that nothing has been accomplished. However, she’s also certain solutions do exist.

She suggested having Nebraska law enforcement enter into a memorandum of understanding with tribal law officers, building a detoxification center in or near Whiteclay – a suggestion that came up more than once – increasing the tax on sales of beer to help fund that detox center and/or a homeless shelter, working with South Dakota to reimburse the Indian Health Service for costs it incurs related to alcohol use and curtailing the sales of the substance in Whiteclay. Two Bulls suggested the liquor stores there be made to close every Sunday and on holidays.

“We want to have results. We want solutions. We want to work together … in a positive way,” she said in her opening remarks at the hearing.

Ron Duke, a police captain for the OST, explained that his agency has answered over 288,000 calls for service in the last year; 15,100 of them are from 911 calls, and the calls have generated more than 1,800 juvenile and 24,000 adult arrests.

“The majority of these arrests are alcohol related,” he said.

The challenge is manpower, he said. The OST police department has just 40 officers to cover the entire reservation. They need at least 100. Duke said the agency used to have Department of Justice grants that helped fund an adequate police force, but those grants have now run out, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs has not increased funding to make up the difference.

Senator LeRoy Louden mediated the hearing at the Chadron site, where more than 50 people gathered to testify or observe. Louden asked several of those testifying where else people on the reservation get alcohol, pointing out numerous times that Scenic, Martin and other towns also surround the reservation. He also pursued questions about bootlegging, remarking once that if that type of illegal activity is taking place it needs to be stopped. Duke and an individual who testified on behalf of the OST Attorney General’s office said the tribe cannot prosecute bootlegging. Possible bootleggers can be held by the tribe on lesser charges, but the FBI and BIA takes over all investigations and prosecutions of felony charges like bootlegging.

The Pine Ridge AG’s office arrested and charged 1,263 adults last month on more than 3,780 criminal charges. Of the individuals arrested, 1,199 of them were held on alcohol-related charges.

“That I believe can be directly attributed to the alcohol problem on the Pine Ridge caused by the bars and liquor establishments in Whiteclay,” the AG staff member said.

Duke added that it is his belief that other surrounding towns are not as large of a problem as Whiteclay, solely because of its proximity to the reservation.

Jack Ten Fingers of the OST ambulance service also used statistics to show the problems that stem from Whiteclay. The town is not part of the reservation, and the ambulance service is not licensed to work in Nebraska nor does it have a contract for service to do so. However, the ambulance service is the nearest emergency response agency and can often be on scene more quickly than Rushville’s volunteer service. The OST ambulance responds to more than 7,000 calls across the entire reservation and in the last year 150 have been calls to Whiteclay. Ten Fingers said they respond to Whiteclay if it’s an emergency because they feel they have a duty to protect life, even though they are not licensed to operate in Nebraska. He then requested memos of understanding with Rushville and Sheridan County so they can legally respond to calls for service.

Louden said he looked at the ambulance service’s Web site and didn’t see Whiteclay listed as part of the agency’s territory. Citing the short distance from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay, Louden said the Nebraska town is essentially part of the greater Pine Ridge community.

Lydia Bear Killer, a member of the OST council, said that while alcohol does come into the Pine Ridge from areas other than Whiteclay, the hearing Friday was about Whiteclay and she called strongly for senators to focus only on that and not try to deflect the issue to other towns. She views the sale of alcohol to the Native American population as genocide and said Nebraska is earning all of the revenue off the sales in Whiteclay while the tribe has to provide all of the services – i.e. ambulance, police, courts.

“Our people are dying and we’re sitting here repeating ourselves,” Bear Killer said. “Nebraska this is your issue. This problem is yours.”

She suggested that if Nebraska does absolutely nothing else it should at least add a $1 tax to each sale in Whiteclay and designate that money to offset the disparities in the social costs of dealing with alcohol sold in Whiteclay.

Bob Larson, a former pastor, also floated the idea of issuing just one liquor license in Whiteclay and ensuring that enforcement of that license is strict.

Terry Robbins, Sheridan County Sheriff, said his staff tries to spend as much time in Whiteclay as they can, but people often don’t see them because it’s after business hours. His priority, he said, is public safety and much of the time focuses on making sure people have someplace warm and dry to stay the night.

“The OST is trying to stay dry, and I respect that if that’s what they want, but a lot of what they’re concerned about is not enforceable in Nebraska,” he said. Differences in laws between the two states and the tribal government often means something illegal in Pine Ridge is not in Nebraska.

And while he’s attempted to follow-up on rumors that people are selling alcohol on credit, in trade or to intoxicated individuals, he’s been unable to build a case. His office and the Nebraska State Patrol have tried to find evidence of those things happening, even going so far as to send in an undercover officer, but they can find no witnesses.

“So far in all my investigations on that, nobody will come forward.”

Bruce Von Fleur has lived in Whiteclay for just over five years. There are three main issues the state needs to address right away, he said. Those are inadequate law enforcement, health and public safety and abandoned structures.

“Whiteclay is a full-time problem and it needs a full-time solution once and for all,” he said in asking for a full-time law enforcement officer.

He also suggested the state build public restrooms in Whiteclay in response to health issues that people live with day-to-day there, and said the owners of the abandoned buildings need to be held accountable for maintaining or destroying them.

Finally, he said, there needs to be some job opportunities. Von Fleur said he has hired the Native Americans who spend much of their time in Whiteclay to work for him and they have stayed sober the entire time they work. He proposed that the state provide a way for them to earn GEDs and start a day labor camp and/or a recycling center to create jobs.

“The ‘Nebraska The Good Life’ sign is an insult to me and to everyone who sees it everyday,” he said, adding that he stands ready to work with the state to make the sign a reality in Whiteclay.

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