Tribal leaders agree to help patrol Whiteclay

Published June 1, 2005

WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. — Tom Osborne sits at the front of the sport utility vehicle beside tribal officer Jackson Ten Fingers as they roll through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Ten Fingers points to a spot off the road and describes how a father and his daughter were killed there recently by a man who was drunk and driving a stolen car.

Osborne says nothing as they drive over hills and past a cemetery where in 1890, 300 Lakota men, women and children were killed.

As they pull into a parking lot, Osborne asks where they are.

“Wounded Knee housing.”

A few hundred feet from the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, Nebraska state leaders pleaded Tuesday with leaders from the Oglala Sioux Tribe to accept $100,000 meant to help the tribe patrol the border town of Whiteclay.

Those tribal leaders accepted that invitation, voting 13-2 Tuesday to approve a tentative agreement giving the tribe the power to patrol the town.

The agreement, which still must be signed by the tribe, would allow tribal officers to cite or arrest those who violate state law in Whiteclay, across the border from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. That authority would include the power to cite Nebraska beer store owners for violating liquor laws, said Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.

Tribal officers would transport offenders they arrest and detain to the Sheridan County Jail in Rushville, south of Whiteclay, where they could be prosecuted.

Owners of three beer stores in Whiteclay, population 14, sell an estimated 11,000 cans of beer daily, mostly to tribal members from the nearby dry reservation. Tribal and Nebraska activists have fought for years to end alcohol sales in the town.

Said Bruning of the agreement: “It’s not a panacea, but it’s a step in the right direction to do something about the problem in Whiteclay.”

More than a week ago, the agreement seemed like a long shot.

Tribal leaders had sent Bruning an e-mail saying they were going to reject the agreement unless more money could be given to the tribe to pay its officers to patrol Whiteclay.

In an effort to save the agreement, Bruning boarded a plane Tuesday, picking up Osborne in Kearney and landing on an airstrip east of Pine Ridge.

The two then drove to Wounded Knee, where the Oglala Sioux tribal council was in session. Only hours before, council members had rejected an attempt to impeach tribal President Cecelia Fire Thunder.

So the mood was grim as Osborne and Bruning took the microphone.

Tribal council member Ruth Brown asked why the state of Nebraska couldn’t just shut down the Whiteclay beer stores.

“We’d be happy to prosecute those liquor store owners,” Bruning said. “That’s one of the things your officers can help us with.”

But first a case must be built against the beer store owners, said Bruning, who described Whiteclay beer store owners as “vultures.”

“They’re preying on people’s sadness,” he said.

No beer store owners could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Other council members asked why Congress had approved only $100,000 when tribal leaders had asked for $250,000.

“I did the best I could,” Osborne said of the $100,000 congressional appropriation he secured in September. “I feel so badly about what is happening in Whiteclay.”

However, he said, if tribal members failed to accept the money, it would be sent back to the federal treasury and likely wouldn’t be reapproved by Congress.

Some council members expressed concern about tribal officers detaining their own people and delivering them to nontribal authorities.

“We are a very poor nation, but we’re very proud,” said council member Walt Big Crow.

Robert Grey Eagle, an attorney for the tribe who has worked closely with Nebraska officials on the agreement, said it is meant to allow tribal officers to arrest people for major offenses, such as assaults and murder, not just for drinking.

Eileen Iron Cloud, a former tribal council member, said she worried children with adults who were arrested would be taken by Sheridan County authorities and lost within the county’s foster care system rather than being returned to the tribe.

Bruning said he was confident tribal officers would make good decisions about how to handle such situations, possibly deciding to return such children to their reservation families.

After the vote, Fire Thunder applauded the council: “There is a whole lot of work we need to do on Whiteclay. This is a first step.”

Later, as Bruning and Osborne drove with Ten Fingers back to the airport, the two asked the tribal officer what he thought of the decision.

As they drove past Wounded Knee, past the spot where the father and daughter were killed by the drunken driver, Ten Fingers took a moment to gather his thoughts.

“I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “You got to start somewhere.”

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