New Oglala Sioux president: Shut down Whiteclay

ASSOCIATED PRESS / November 26, 2012

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — At first, the agenda of the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s newly elected president might seem overly ambitious.

But Bryan Brewer says issues on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — ranging from a housing shortage and high unemployment to alcoholism and violence — are deeply intertwined.

Brewer, 65, beat out incumbent John Yellow Bird Steele in an election held earlier this month to become president of the tribe headquartered on the reservation in southwestern South Dakota. He’ll be sworn in Dec. 7.

“Things aren’t getting better. I had a feeling people wanted change, and I’m a new face, you know, brand new,” Brewer said.

A military veteran three years removed from a 30-year education career, Brewer said he hopes to address about 10 issues during his two-year term — all of which depend on the others.

“You may have a home but no job, or you may have a job but no home. I have to work on all those things. If we get housing for all the people, they have to have a job to keep the houses up,” he said, adding unemployment on the reservation is at 89 percent.

In comparison, South Dakota’s unemployment rate was at 4.5 percent in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One of the biggest obstacles to creating change on the reservation is a lack of statistics. Tribal data doesn’t exist for such things as the amount of violence or the number of children living away from their parents.

Brewer plans to initiate task forces to examine violence and look into the welfare of the tribe’s children, including how many have been placed in foster homes. He also wants to create a safe house for children when they are in trouble.

“That’s a big priority right now,” said Brewer, who’s married and has four adult children and five grandchildren.

Alcoholism is rampant on the reservation despite a ban on alcohol. Tribal members smuggle in booze from nearby towns — including Whiteclay, Neb., which sold the equivalent of 4.3 million 12-ounce cans of beer last year.

Brewer, like his predecessors, wants to shut Whiteclay down.

“I believe it’s killing our people. I want to meet with the people in Nebraska. I’m going to ask them to close it down, take their license away, and if they don’t, you know, we’re going to have to try to figure out something else. It’s just terrible up there.”

In October, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit the tribe filed against four beer sellers in Whiteclay and some of the nation’s biggest breweries, saying the suit belonged in state court.

Brewer said he does not plan to push to re-file the suit — which sought $500 million to cover health care, social services and child rehabilitation programs — until speaking with tribal council members and lawyers.

One thing he knows for sure: He does not support legalizing alcohol on the vast reservation because it isn’t ready to handle the initial uptick in violence that he said is common when a community becomes “wet.”

“Until we have infrastructure and we can start educating our people and getting our people jobs and things like that — right now I’m against it,” he said.

Supporters of lifting the alcohol ban have said doing so would help the tribe control consumption, reduce drunken-driving fatalities and generate tax revenue to pay for diversion and education programs.

For now, Brewer, who was convinced to run for office by the tribe’s military veterans, is busy visiting with tribal members and learning about the more than 60 tribal programs and services ahead of his first council meeting Dec. 4 in Wounded Knee.

“I’m ready to do it. I’m anxious. Let’s get this going,” he said.

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