‘Historic’ agreement could be tapped out

By Nate Jenkings / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WHITECLAY — Once hailed as a historic step toward mopping up this alcohol-drenched village, a deal to allow tribal police to patrol it has instead gone the way of empty beer cans so visible in the area — ditched.

The agreement, signed nearly two years ago by Attorney General Jon Bruning, Gov. Dave Heineman and the then-president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, allows tribal police in the Pine Ridge Indian reservation to be deputized in Nebraska.

But the patrols never started, and now nearly $200,000 earmarked by Congress to pay for Pine Ridge officers to patrol the town is in danger of slipping away, unused.

“The way it was set up originally, it hasn’t taken place,” said Lance Moss, owner of Whiteclay Grocery.

Moss’ store neighbors four others that sell millions of cans of beer annually to residents of the reservation just across the border in South Dakota.

Liquor is banned on the reservation, which has one of the highest alcoholism-related mortality rates in the country and is within walking distance of the stores. The 5,000-square-mile reservation is home to about 15,000 Oglala Sioux.

The uneasy tie between the village and the reservation is complicated by jurisdictional issues. Problems in the area — where people often are passed out drunk on the sidewalks or begging for beer money — have been the subject of finger-pointing for decades.

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

But when the cross-deputization agreement was reached nearly two years ago, officials described it as an important breakthrough.

Cecelia Fire Thunder, Oglala Sioux Tribe president at the time, said it was “an important step forward in working together to address crime in the Whiteclay area.” Bruning called the agreement “historic.”

On Monday, Bruning indicated in a statement he’s still waiting for history to happen.

“The agreement would have benefited law enforcement in Whiteclay. That’s why we put a lot of time and effort into negotiating it,”he said.

Asked why the agreement has led to no action, Bruning’s spokeswoman, Holley Hatt, said, “That would be a question for the tribe.”

Tribal officials did not return phone calls seeking comment. But a man who has closely tracked the issue and been in discussions with tribal members, Mark Vasina of Nebraskans for Peace, described the roadblock to cross-deputization as a :complicated goulash of politics.”

Tribal police officers don’t want to be deputized, some residents are worried the agreement is designed to encourage off-reservation police to encroach on the reservation, and others see the deal as damaging to their claim that Whiteclay is part of the reservation, Vasina said.

Others are worried that cross deputization would force tribal police to take residents to the Sheridan County jail in Nebraska and that the money earmarked for patrols isn’t sufficient, Vasina.

“I think it was historic and the most important thing…is Nebraska politicians displayed a real commitment to seeing something would be done,” Vasina said.

But the agreement was an ineffective way of solving the problems that also shuns the state’s responsibility, he said.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., helped secure $200,000 over two years to cover the cost of Pine Ridge officers patrolling the town. But none of it has been spent to date, and deadlines loom.

Half of the money is expected to no longer be available to the tribe if, by the end of the month the tribe doesn’t show it has incurred related expenses and has the pieces in place to do the work.

The other half could be lost by the beginning of October.

“Nothing happened, and nothing will happen,” Vasina said. “I think that’s a fact.”

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