Political News

Nebraska town awaits ruling on beer sales near reservation

Posted August 28

— Four months after state regulators halted beer sales in a Nebraska town along South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, streets once filled with panhandlers and public drunkenness have gone quiet — but residents say some of the problems have moved elsewhere.

Residents say conditions have dramatically improved in Whiteclay since the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission closed the village's four beer stores in April, a decision the Nebraska Supreme Court will review with oral arguments Tuesday.

Liquor commissioners cited concerns about inadequate law enforcement in Whiteclay, an unincorporated reservation border town with nine full-time residents that sold the equivalent of about 3.5 million cans of beer a year. Whiteclay historically served as a hangout for people to drink, loiter and sometimes fight and pass out in the streets.

An attorney for the stores argues the commission violated state law, which requires members to automatically renew liquor licenses as long as conditions in and around an establishment haven't substantially changed. Some living south of Whiteclay also worried that store closures would spur an increase in drunken drivers near their communities. Sheridan County Attorney Jamian Simmons said the number of cases has increased slightly, but it's too early to know if that's a trend.

The commission's 3-0 vote came amid a flurry of new activity in the village, which abuts the reservation.

Two abandoned buildings known to attract vagrants in the village of nine were demolished. A new nursing home opened last year for aging members of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Crews are building a new dollar store, and existing businesses have spruced up exteriors and swept beer cans off the streets.

"The streets in Whiteclay are definitely cleaner and safer," said Bruce BonFleur, director of Lakota Hope Ministry in Whiteclay and a managing partner of a new redevelopment group. "It's like the town can breathe now."

BonFleur said he now sees two to three "regulars" on the village streets at any given time, compared to roughly 25 at a time when the stores were in business.

Roughly half of the regulars now spend their time on the reservation, many living with their families, BonFleur said. He said some have stopped drinking and are seeking to improve their lives, including one seeking to start a landscaping business.

Yet some who wanted the stores closed acknowledge that shuttering them has fed illegal bootlegging on the reservation, which bans alcohol. The reservation still struggles with high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome and related problems.

More than 50 established bootleggers now sell alcohol on the reservation, compared to a handful before, said Canupa Gluha Mani, who tracked the numbers through his group, the Strong Heart Warrior Society in Porcupine, South Dakota.

Alcohol sales also appear to have surged in nearby communities after the Whiteclay stores closed, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. Retailers in Rusvhille, the closests town to Whiteclay and about 22 miles (35 kilometers) away, bought nearly 13,000 (4,900 liters) of beer from wholesalers in June, more than 3 ½ times the amount purchased in January, according to the data.

Even though sales have stopped in Whiteclay, Mani noted, authorities haven't made any arrests in cases involving reservation residents killed in the village over the last several decades. Last year, a woman found beaten and unconscious behind a building in Whiteclay died of her injuries.

"If Nebraska really wants to make a difference, the law has to be enforced," he said.

John Maisch, a former Oklahoma alcohol regulator and activist who fought to close the stores, acknowledged that the beer sales have shifted to other towns.

But he argued that, unlike Whiteclay, other towns have enough law enforcement to handle any problems, and some have experienced a sales-tax windfall.

Another activist who opposed the stores, Olowan Martinez, said some tribe members who loitered in Whiteclay still drink but are now closer to relatives who care for them.

"They're back here, among their people. They're in clean clothes. They aren't sleeping in the streets," said Martinez, of Porcupine.

Martinez said she wants Nebraska state government and its residents to leave the tribe alone, and urged the state not to let the stores reopen.

Now activists who opposed the stores plan to shift to addressing health care concerns on the reservation and trying to eradicate bootleggers.

BonFleur said he expects "huge protests" from tribe members if the Nebraska Supreme Court overturns the liquor control commission's decision and allows the stores to reopen.

"Nebraskans should be worried about how they'll look to the world," Martinez said.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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