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Legislative Bills Propose Alcohol-Free Buffer Zone

LINCOLN, Neb. - Legislation in Nebraska has taken a page from the history books and has proposed a no alcohol buffer zone around reservations that prohibits alcohol sales.

Two bills, introduced by Sen. Dan Preister may not solve the alcohol problems that have been fought for years on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but may bring about some public awareness of the problem.

Preister said he was not hopeful that either of the bills would get out of the General Affairs committee this session, but he was more pleased that debate and media attention to the bills brought the problem before the legislature.

"We attempt to educate through public hearings and the media. There are 11,000 cans of beer sold daily in White Clay, mostly to people from the Pine Ridge Reservation. We need to educate people to the severity of the problem," Preister said.

The proposed legislation is directed at White Clay, a village of 17 people and four establishments that sell alcohol two miles south of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

He said law enforcement is not shutting the establishments down for illegal behavior, nor stopping the consumption of alcohol in public, which is prohibited by Nebraska law.

Without the introduction of the bills, Preister said, the media would not have paid attention to the problem. Without the public hearings, the voice of American Indians and others who oppose the sale of alcohol would not have been heard.

The gist of the bills is to create a buffer zone of five miles around any reservation that prohibits alcohol sales and consumption within the reservations exterior boundaries. No licenses could be sold, but existing licenses would be grandfathered in. The first bill was introduced in 2003 and the second bill followed in 2004. The second bill adds the element of no license renewal.

The problem of alcohol sales two miles from the Pine Ridge Reservation has existed for many years, but in 2000, the deaths of two American Indians prompted an all-out effort to shut White Clay down.

The murders of Ron Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk Jr. have never been solved. The two brutally-beaten bodies were found near the South Dakota border between White Clay and Pine Ridge. The deaths were blamed on alcohol purchased and consumed at White Clay.

White Clay is nothing more than four stores that sell alcohol, an estimated four million cans of beer annually. Patrons cannot consume the beer on the premises of any business, or on the street in public view. The consumer cannot take the alcohol on to the reservation either.

Even though consumption of the alcohol is illegal many empty beer cans litter the roadside between White Clay and Pine Ridge.

Since 1999, Camp Justice has protested the sales of alcohol and many marches have taken place in the village and supporters from Nebraska, Nebraskans for Peace have tried to close down the establishments. Two Nebraska governors have entered the debate, yet no change has occurred.

One of the establishments, Arrowhead Inn was cited for a violation of allowing an open can on the premises. The business lost its license for 10 days.

One problem is the lack of law enforcement. White Clay is unincorporated and has no law enforcement other than what the state or county can provide. Routine stops by authorities are rare.

Preister said the small town contributes some $250,000 in taxes on the sales of beer annually, so some of that could be designated for law enforcement in the village.

The Nebraska Highway Patrol and the Pine Ridge Department of Public Safety entered into negotiations more than a year ago, but no agreement has been reached.

"I think the Highway Patrol is ready to go along, but there are things to work out with the tribe," Preister said.

Pine Ridge law enforcement would be allowed to patrol White Clay and issue citations for violations in White Clay only. Actual details of the agreement have not been made public and law enforcement officials from Pine Ridge could not be reached for comment.

"This is a step in the right direction, but does not solve the problem," Preister said.

He said he has hope that a summit between the state, Oglala Sioux tribal officials and the BIA will take place to seek a solution. "I see hopeful signs."

The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council rejected a resolution that would have taken the issue of liquor sales on the reservation to a referendum of the people. Opposition to even the referendum was so strong the council voted the resolution down 10 to 2.

One of the arguments supporting legal sales was potential income that could support law enforcement and treatment programs. Supporters also asserted that White Clay would no longer be an issue and funds from the sale of alcohol would stay on the reservation.

Opponents argued that alcohol was a problem on the reservation and it would only grow if alcohol was more readily available. But the tribal government is in dire need of funding for programs. It most recently had to lay off workers just before the holidays because funds were spent for the fiscal year. Revenue from alcohol would be welcomed in such a case, proponents said.

Preister's legislation is almost a historic footnote. In 1882 President Chester Arthur issued a directive that created the five-mile buffer zone around reservations to stop "whiskey peddlers" from preying on American Indians. In 1889 Congress passed a law that accomplished the same thing.

Advocates in support of no alcohol at White Clay, claim the law is still in effect and that the sale of beer in White Clay is therefore illegal. There has been no enforcement of the law, and little argument as to why it is still not in effect.

"Many lives have been lost that can be directly attributed to White Clay," Preister said. "Unsolved murders, two underage kids killed in a car accident in White Clay, three other seriously injured, a man burned in his trailer and no one reported the fire.

"We have a moral obligation to act to rectify the activity that is causing these deaths," Preister said.