LINCOLN, Neb. - Gov. Mike Johanns opened a dialogue with Oglala Sioux tribal officials saying he wanted to discuss mutual interests of his state and reservation communities across the border.
The June 11 summit was called in response to alcohol-related problems at Whiteclay, a tiny, unincorporated village in north-central Nebraska with four stores that sell an estimated 4 million cans of beer a year.
Tribal leaders say most of that is sold to tribal residents who live just across the border on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is banned.
American Indian advocates have asked the state for several years to revoke the stores' liquor licenses. Allegations have been made that Whiteclay is a haven for liquor law violations and other illegal activities.
During the weekend prior to the summit, nearly 500 people marched south from the reservation to Whiteclay, where they were met by about 50 members of the Lincoln-based Nebraskans for Peace.
The demonstration was the culmination of a week's worth of events meant to draw attention to the alcohol problem and the two-year anniversary of a pair of unsolved murders.
"If we don't continue this cooperation, there are going to be more murders. We are doing something about the last two and we are working together," said Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Steele.
"I'm encouraged. There is a better relationship now with the state of Nebraska than there has been in the past," Steele said.
Steele began the meeting by outlining the needs of residents on the reservation, including the need for improved accessibility of health care, a nursing home facility, improved infrastructure, housing, law enforcement and roads along with the issue of illegal liquor sales across reservation boundaries.
Steele suggested that building the nursing home in Whiteclay could serve as a catalyst to change the character of the community and fuel a better relationship between border town residents and tribal residents.
"Let's build a nursing home there and change what Whiteclay is all about. "We've got to change the perception of the locale. People think of Whiteclay as just a place to buy alcohol," he said.
Gov. Johanns said the state and tribe should continue to investigate what can be done to operate a facility in Nebraska on tribal land. Nebraska Health and Human Services officials were uncertain how to address the issue immediately, but the state could certify the nursing home allowing it to receive Medicare reimbursement.
Steele said a nursing home would be another industry that would promote greater civic responsibility and help stabilize the area.
Because of the protests by American Indians, the Nebraska State Patrol has increased law enforcement efforts in the Whiteclay area.
The owner of Mike's Pioneer Service, Mike Coomes, pleaded guilty in April to selling alcohol to an intoxicated person Feb. 19 and had his liquor license suspended for 20 days. The State Patrol wrote tickets against at least two other stores in the spring, and dozens of tickets have been written for public intoxication, drinking in public and trespassing.
Those enforcement efforts have raised the resentment of some business leaders in nearby Rushville, 20 miles south of Whiteclay, who are concerned establishments in the area are observed with closer scrutiny than in other areas of the state.
However, Tim Rinne, who represents Nebraskans For Peace, said enforcement by the state's Liquor Control Commission has been lax. It has the authority to cancel the licenses of those violating the state's law after four incidents, but few have been, revoked, he said.
The state has increased its efforts to patrol and enforce liquor laws, but with the more aggressive approach have come phone calls complaining the efforts are unfair. Johanns said he wanted the law applied fairly.
"If anybody here wants greater law enforcement, I will deliver it in an even hand," the governor said. "You can't turn your back on the violations of the law," adding he was getting calls from both sides. Vendors didn't feel they were being treated fairly and patrons didn't feel they were treated fairly.
"We have increased enforcement activities with more than 800 regular hours and made more than 1,300 contacts, including warning citations for drinking and trespassing. Six citations are currently before the liquor commission, said Col. Tom Nesbitt of the state Highway Patrol.
"We conduct compliance checks all over the state of Nebraska."
About a dozen officers enforce the state's liquor control laws, watching more than 260 businesses. While the state has been short-handed, other patrolmen were assigned to assist in curtailing the problems, Nesbitt said.
Steele said he has heard stories of alcohol traded for sex and the trading of lewd pictures for alcohol. "It seems the owners of the establishments (need to) be a little more responsible," he said.
Steele proposed the possibility of a one-way, cross-deputation of tribal law enforcement to assist in policing the area. Although state officials were willing to consider the issue, combining efforts brings its own set of obstacles.
"The biggest hang up is the liability issue, said Lt. Col. Michael Behm, assistant superintendent of the state highway patrol. "Once they accept it, they accept the liability.
"We have cross-deputized on a temporary basis. The state of Nebraska would be required to defend an allegation of assault, the officer said.
Steele told of incidents where stolen property belonging to the tribe was traded for liquor and sales being made to minors.
"Selling to minors is outside the law. Accepting stolen property is outside the law. People have to be more responsible in their dealings," he said.
"I think the responsibility rests with the Liquor Control Commission. We've done more with this in the past few months than any other time," Frank LaMere, Winnebago, said.
Six citations is enough," LaMere said. "They need to do their jobs."
"The problem isn't just Whiteclay. It takes all of our health care dollars and clogs up our court system. It isn't something that is going to be taken care of overnight. That's why I'm so encouraged by this meeting. It's like the national drug problem," Steele said.
In some cases, Steele said, vendors selling the liquor take no payments at the time the liquor is picked up and the cash transaction is made later, making it difficult for police to catch them.
Even though it may have seemed to some they were still a long way from solving the problem, federal mediator Pascual Marquez of Justice Department's Kansas City, Mo., office, said he thought the two governments, which had been at a impasse in addressing the issue, had made progress.
"I'm very encouraged," Marquez said.