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White Clay panel debates alcohol problems

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LINCOLN, Neb. - Nebraska officials blamed budget woes, lack of funding and a shortage of manpower for failure to stop the flow of liquor from vendors in White Clay across the border onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.

Officials of the Oglala Sioux Tribe want the problem stopped at the border.

Tribal Chairman John Yellow Bird Steele pleaded with Nebraska officials to help solve the problem during a forum before Lincoln High School students at the Arts and Humanities Center April 6.

More than 30 students studying the issue sat in on the session with tribal representatives and officials from Nebraska's Liquor Commission, State Highway Patrol and representatives of Nebraskans for Peace.

Steele discussed the history of the Oglala Lakota with the students while delivering his message that the tribe wants to see an end to the alcohol-related events that cross the border onto the reservation as liquor is resold to tribal residents.

"This town continues to be a source of destruction and exploitation of the Lakota people," said Tom Poor Bear, the tribe's sergeant-at-arms.

Poor Bear, an Oglala Lakota civil rights leader from Pine Ridge, continued to criticize the state patrol's enforcement effort, saying the agency is wrongly targeting Native people suffering from alcoholism.

Poor Bear marched in response to grief over two murders involving his cousins whose bodies were found in South Dakota north of White Clay in 1999. The march prompted Nebraska officials to send an overwhelming number of law enforcement to the site in a display of power and a number of protesters including Poor Bear were arrested in connection with the march.

"We're not the criminals, we're the victims," he told the forum. "The State Patrol should look at the real criminals, the people selling beer in White Clay."

Patrol officials said citations increased following stepped-up efforts mandated by the Nebraska governor two months ago in response to a plea from Steele and others for tougher enforcement in White Clay.

Four off-sale beer stores operate in White Clay, several hundred yards from a reservation where alcohol possession is banned.

Alcohol on the reservation was banned in 1882 when Indian Agent Valentine McGillicuddy convinced President Chester B. Arthur to create a buffer zone of 50 miles around the reservation. Congress made an executive order a law in 1889, but in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt put the buffer zone back in the public domain allowing liquor to be sold freely.

Troopers issued 30 tickets in February and 33 in March. Most involved misdemeanor offenses such trespassing, public drinking and open container, said Sgt. Martin Costello, the patrol's alcohol and tobacco enforcement coordinator.

Costello said enforcement efforts have been impaired by the lack of funds in the budget and too few patrolmen to justify placing them in the area for longer periods.

The state has between 400 to 450 establishments licensed off-premises alcohol sales and only 12 officers to enforce liquor laws, he said.

"We can't magically pull officers out of the air," he said.

Each year, the four stores sell an estimated 4 million cans of beer almost exclusively to residents of the reservation where nearly 38,000 tribal people reside.

Poor Bear, who has repeatedly led marches from the reservation to White Clay to protest violence against the Lakota, said the patrol's enforcement effort is misdirected.

"For years Native people have told Nebraska officials about illegal sales in White Clay, yet not a single liquor license has been revoked," Poor Bear said.

Today when the patrol focuses attention on the small town, Native people pay the price, he said.

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"I hope one day the governor will come back to White Clay and see that nothing's changed. My people are still in pain."

Frosty Chapman, executive director of the state's liquor commission, said the state's liquor control board couldn't simply pull a license based on hearsay and that investigations with hard evidence must take place before such citations are issued.

Chapman said there were more than 4,400 liquor licenses issued in the state and that the jurisdiction of his office is limited to those who hold the licenses.

"The commission has strongly called for more enforcement," he said.

Costello defended patrolmen accused of failing to enforce the law saying they couldn't act unless they saw the law being violated. He added that troopers can't pick and choose which laws to enforce. If they see a violation in White Clay or any other Nebraska town, they must act accordingly.

Frank LaMere, a Winnebago from South Sioux City, questioned why officials couldn't take action against the beer vendors who were contributing to so many violations on the streets. He said he would closely watch how patrolmen and the state Liquor Control Commission handle the violations.

"If there are that many citations, I am hoping and I am anticipating, that something is going to happen to those liquor licenses," LeMere said.

Costello said enforcement is made even more difficult when a person standing in the street with an open container won't reveal where he made his purchase.

While Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns agreed in February to a summit involving Nebraska and Oglala leaders no date has been set.

Steele said his greatest concern was for the families whose members fall victim to violence because of the free flow of alcohol on the reservation. He specifically mentioned his concern for two murder victims.

Poor Bear said he is reluctant to meet with the governor who, he says, continues to ignore the problem.

"Until the governor of this state has an understanding and a compassion for our people, I won't meet with him again."

"We have experienced sadness, anger and frustration almost to the limits of our patience," Poor Bear said.

Joe Moccasin of the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation said much of the debate about alcohol use and its consequences need to start on the reservation and with the individual. Moccasin said the issue boils down to personal responsibility.

"I can't tell anybody not to drink and I can tell anybody not to sell."

Tribal leaders and state officials are considering cross-deputation as a method to stop the flow of alcohol over the reservation borders, but no agreement has been reached on the proposal.

"In teaching, the most gratifying moments are those when we are learning about human issues that raise our consciousness and show us ways in which society can be transformed," said Lincoln teacher Linda M. Kalbach, who helped organized the panel discussion.

"From an educational perspective, we hope the students come to understand that injustice is man-made, in the case of White Clay. It is a man-made injustice that includes virtually all of our current society's social ills - racism, economic exploitation, human rights abuses, and disregard of both moral and 'legal' laws."

Students said they felt as though state officials had made weak excuses for the lack of enforcement at White Clay.

"This sort of thing gives us a perspective of government. When you see something like this you see government completely unwilling to listen to the people," said 17-year-old Lenna Pierce, a high school student at Lincoln High who is enrolled at the Arts and Humanities campus.