Johanns, Oglala Sioux Meet, Talk

Published Tuesday June 12, 2001

Lincoln, Neb. — Two topics—allegations of overzealous law enforcement and the prospect of building a tribal nursing home near Whiteclay, Neb.—dominated a meeting about solving problems associated with massive beer sales at the border village.

In response to the problems, the Nebraska State Patrol has stepped up traffic stops and roadblocks near Whiteclay, where four beer-only liquor stores sell 4 million cans a year to residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation just across the South Dakota border.

John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said the beer sales enact a terrible toll on the reservation, contributing to massive alcoholism, domestic violence, murders and rising alcohol-related diseases.

While Steele said Monday’s meeting was a good first step toward addressing problems, he criticized the recent crackdown as harassment.

“The focus is against our people instead of focusing on the liquor sales,” Steele said.

He said his tribal vice chairman had been jailed after being stopped at a State Patrol compliance check. Passengers also have been checked, Steele said.

Recently, merchants in Whiteclay and nearby Rushville, Neb., have complained, saying that the increased patrols are scaring away customers.

Gov. Mike Johanns, who organized what was characterized as the Whiteclay summit, appeared somewhat irritated by the allegations Monday.

The governor said he ordered the crackdown because of “demands” by business owners in Whiteclay and others. Johanns said the traffic stops and roadblocks have been evenhanded.

Steele disagreed that the stops targeted both whites and Indians. Johanns said he would investigate.

Monday’s meeting follows several months of protests in Whiteclay about the beer sales and the unsolved murders of two Lakota men.

Saturday, about 300 people marched on Whiteclay on the second anniversary of the murders.

Johanns said there are several issues that the tribe and the state can work on together.

He reacted positively to a request that the State of Nebraska help build a long-sought nursing home on tribal land near Whiteclay.

A moratorium on building new nursing homes in South Dakota has stymied the project on that side of the border, Steele said.

Nebraska not only could help solve a nagging problem but also could aid in changing the perception of Whiteclay as only a place where beer is sold, tribal officials said.

“It’s hard to envision Whiteclay as a place for economic development and jobs, but it could be,” said David “Tolly” Plume. He is director of the “empowerment zone” set up after President Clinton’s visit to the reservation in 1999.

Plume said the empowerment zone designation would give the tribe preferential treatment in obtaining federal grants to build a nursing home.

In a telephone interview, Damian Prunty, South Dakota’s state Medicaid director, said that such a nursing home would be a “two-state issue” that both states would need to discuss.


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