Meeting on Whiteclay alcohol sales ends quickly with no progress

By JOE DUGGAN / OMAHA WORLD-HERALD / July 8, 2013

LINCOLN — The first meeting between the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Nebraska’s governor may prove to be the last.

The two leaders met Monday morning at the State Capitol to discuss the flash point issue of alcohol sales in the northwest Nebraska border town of Whiteclay. According to accounts from both sides, the meeting, scheduled for one hour, lasted just a few minutes.

President Bryan Brewer said he walked out after Gov. Dave Heineman said it was not up to him to solve alcohol problems on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

“He said, ‘It’s not my problem, it’s your problem,’” Brewer said.

Jen Rae Wang, the governor’s communications director who was present at the meeting, gave a far different account. When the governor asked Brewer what was being done by the tribe to provide treatment for those addicted to alcohol, Brewer refused to accept responsibility.

“The president started by being very confrontational and said he didn’t have any responsibility for this,” Wang said. “That was a theme he said over and over again.”

Brewer, who requested the meeting, said he hoped to persuade the governor to help shut down the beer stores in Whiteclay, which sell mainly to residents of a reservation where alcohol is banned.

The four off-sale beer stores sold the equivalent of nearly 4 million cans of beer last year. Most of that beer and malt liquor ends up on the reservation, where alcohol-related deaths, assaults and child abuse are rampant.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Brewer accused the governor of having “blood on his hands” for not doing something to stop the exploitation of Lakota people.

“I don’t know why he’s mad at me,” Brewer said. “I don’t know why he agreed to meet with me.”

At a different news conference before the meeting Monday, the governor said the Whiteclay stores sell a legal product. Unless the store owners break the law in some way, the state of Nebraska cannot revoke their liquor licenses.

“I’m going to suggest to President Brewer that on the reservation, they need to have more action on treatment of alcohol abuse,” Heineman said. “Let’s tackle the problem head on. I think that’s where they can improve.”

Wang said the meeting also was attended by Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann, Nebraska State Patrol Col. Dave Sankey and Larry Bare, the governor’s chief of staff. The governor reserved an hour for what he hoped would be a productive discussion, she said.

“The president was clearly not interested in having an open and honest conversation related to these difficult, sad and sometimes tragic issues occurring on the sovereign land with the sovereign people over whom the president governs,” she said.

Despite years of protests and efforts to bring attention to the problems in Whiteclay, the situation remains largely unchanged.

The Oglala Tribal Council voted last month to allow tribal members to decide whether to legalize the sale and consumption of alcohol on the reservation. Supporters of legalization say it would allow the tribe to generate revenue that could be directed to treatment, while reducing the common practice of bootlegging. Some also hope it would drive the Whiteclay stores out of business.

A date for the referendum has not been scheduled.

Brewer said he opposes legalizing alcohol sales, but said he is preparing for the possibility if tribal members vote for a change.

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