Whiteclay focus of talks, march

Published March 3, 2003

Nebraska’s commitment to breaking what some would call the death grip Whiteclay liquor stores have on a nearby Native reservation came under fire Saturday.

At a panel discussion at the Nebraska Union, several panelists argued the state would have addressed the issue long ago if the retailers’ customers were affluent whites. “People ask, `What would happen if they shut down Whiteclay?’” said panelist Frank LaMere, a Winnebago from South Sioux City. “They’ll just move down the road.”

That reasoning, said LaMere, amounts to a double standard.

“You wouldn’t allow this in west Omaha or southeast Lincoln,” he said. “If one white dies, we’d shut it down.”

Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of 22 near the Oglala Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge in South Dakota, has four liquor stores, which sell primarily to Natives from the dry reservation.

Critics charge the stores regularly flout state liquor laws by selling to intoxicated or underage men and women. Critics also see a link between those practices and a number of accidental deaths and unsolved homicides near the village over several decades.

To call attention to the issue, the American Indian Movement and Nebraskans for Peace organized the panel discussion, followed by a rally and march to the Governor’s Mansion Saturday afternoon. About 150 people attended the event.

Col. Tom Nesbitt of the State Patrol, a panelist, said his agency has devoted a disproportionate number of resources to Whiteclay in recent years. Troopers did 900 hours of patrol in the area and issued 1,800 tickets or warnings in 2001, he said.

Yet, he acknowledged, more could be done. Unfortunately, he added, the patrol –responsible for 640 liquor licenses in 272 communities around the state — is already spread too thin.

“Those (other 271) communities are our responsibility as well,” he said. “So, it just isn’t a Whiteclay thing.”

Panelist Byron Peterson criticized the patrol and local authorities for what he called their slack, if not nonexistent, response to reports of heavily intoxicated men and women who needed shelter.

According to Peterson, three people died in the area this winter from exposure. Public drunkenness, he said, is tolerated in and around Whiteclay to a degree unheard of in other communities.

“I see things there I don’t see anywhere else,” he said. “People drinking on the streets. People passed out.”

But Peterson reserved his harshest criticism for the state Liquor Control Commission, which, he said, has ignored clear violations.

He cited the sale of beer to two men whose blood-alcohol levels were at least double the legal levels for intoxication. The commission, he said, determined the clerks could not have known the men were drunk and, thus, declined to cite the business.

“I have profound disrespect for the Liquor Commission,” Peterson said.

Commission members and Gov. Mike Johanns were invited to the meeting Saturday, but none attended.

Pine Ridge resident Webster Poor Bear said the commission bore responsibility for the murders of his brother and cousin. Their bodies were found outside Whiteclay in June 1999, he said in an interview. The crime remains unsolved.

Poor Bear said both men were heavily intoxicated at the time of their deaths.

“I hold them (commission members) directly responsible for the deaths,” Poor Bear, 52, said. “If they would just enforce their own laws, we’d solve these problems.”

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