It’s cowboys vs. Indians in Whiteclay dispute

Published Monday August 9, 1999

Q: Is the Old West mentality alive and well in contemporary Nebraska?

A: Yes, if you examine the plight of native people in Whiteclay and Santee — two
lonely outposts on opposite sides of the state near the South Dakota-Nebraska border.

The unincorporated village of Whiteclay lies on non-Indian land, a beer bottle’s throw
from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. To the east, there’s Santee, a
small village on Nebraska’s Santee Sioux Reservation.

Though separated by 294 miles, they share an increasingly interesting — and tense –
relationship with state government.

And taken together, the two illustrate a modern take on the traditional
cowboys-vs.-Indians approach to taming the West: It seems the state still condones a
system that exploits Indians, yet scorns those Indians wanting better lives for

– On the one hand, Nebraska officials support the business practices of beer-store
owners in Whiteclay, a hardscrabble western village of 22. Here, the most vibrant
businesses are four white-owned bars, which annually peddle $3 million worth of beer
to their Oglala Lakota neighbors.

– On the state’s eastern edge, about 1,000 people struggle to support themselves
under the weight of the Santee Sioux Reservation’s 74 percent unemployment rate. Here,
the tribe ekes out a handful of jobs from four tribally owned businesses: a box
factory, a farm and ranch operation, a hay company and a casino. The largest business,
the casino, employs 23 people.

For most of this century the villages of Santee and Whiteclay have remained largely
out of sight, out of mind. Recent headlines thrust each into the spotlight.

On June 8 the bodies of two Lakota men were discovered in a ditch off the highway
leading from Whiteclay to Pine Ridge. Their unexplained deaths marked the sixth time
in about five years that dead Indian men surfaced near the border.

In protest, American Indian Movement members organized a rally June 26, marching into
Whiteclay with 1,500 supporters. After protesting each Saturday since, they timed this
weekend’s four-day rally to coincide with the reservation’s largest annual powwow.

Native people have asked Nebraska officials to step in and shut down the white-owned
businesses. For decades, those businesses have served as a beer pipeline into a
reservation where alcohol is illegal. Tribal law appears irrelevant next to the law in
Nebraska, where it is legal to sell beer. Legal to profit from the misery of some of
the nation’s most impoverished people.

Gov. Mike Johanns said Thursday that short of imposing martial law, the state is
powerless to interfere with the legal rights of Whiteclay business owners.

Yet these same state officials also maintain they are powerless to help the Santee
break their dismal cycle of poverty.

In March 1993 the tribe and the state began talking about building a casino on Santee
land. The talks led nowhere. The state refused to negotiate a compact with the Santee,
contending casino gambling is illegal in Nebraska — where the “Good Life” includes a
multi-state Powerball lottery, keno, pickle cards, bingo, raffles, horse racing and a
state-sponsored lottery.

A bit of background: Legal problems have plagued the Ohiya casino since February 1996,
when tribal leaders decided to open a casino without state permission. The National
Indian Gaming Commission ordered the Santee to close the casino in May 1996. After 52
days, the tribe reopened the casino.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals ruled the casino illegal because it lacked a gaming compact with the state –
a requirement of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

In November 1998 U.S. District Judge William Cambridge ordered the tribe to close the
casino. It refused. In February, Cambridge imposed a $3,000 daily fine, warning tribal
leaders they could face time in prison. Four months later he increased the daily fine
to $6,000. Prison sentences still loom before 11 tribal council leaders, who are
scheduled to appear in an Omaha federal court Aug. 27.

Last week, tribal members voted 61-11 to keep the casino open. Santee Tribal Chairman
Arthur “Butch” Denny has repeatedly said he would go to jail to keep 23 tribal members

The Santee have argued they need the casino to help provide a better way of life.
Although the casino generates less than $1 million annually, those profits support
schools, education, housing and health programs.

It’s the same stance Johanns takes in lauding Nebraska’s “legal” form of gambling –
the state lottery. It has “definitely served the public well by providing millions of
dollars for necessary and worthy projects,” Johanns said. The state has pocketed
nearly $20 million in annual lottery proceeds since its inception five years ago.

Nebraska lawmakers claim legal bindings supersede moral obligations. It seems beyond
their comprehension to create, interpret or change laws to benefit American Indians.

In essence, the state seems to be saying it’s OK if Indians are down and out in

But it’s a crime if they are empowered and employed in Santee.

Seems the only good Indian in Nebraska these days is one who is dead, drunk or

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