Whiteclay urged to clean up its image

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. - If the store owners of Whiteclay, Neb. and state officials do not stop liquor sales, a blockade will be set up to stop it.

On June 7, hundreds of supports walked the two miles from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay to pray and advocate for change in the gargantuan sales of beer that take place in the tiny border town of Whiteclay. Some 11,000 cans of beer are sold daily out of four stores in the town that is situated adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Alcohol sales are prohibited on the reservation.

For the past four years advocates have asked the state of Nebraska to shut the alcohol sales down, but legal obstacles stood in the way. This year the state offered a solution - to deputize tribal police and authorize them to issue violations to stores that skirt the law with sales of beer and alcohol.

Nebraska Attorney General John Bruning attended the June 7 gathering along with Col. Tom Nesbitt, state patrol superintendent to present the offer.

Bruning said his office has determined that cross-deputizing of Pine Ridge police is legal to enforce Nebraska laws, and the plan should be put into action yet this summer. He said the biggest problem was the sales of alcohol to intoxicated persons.

Nesbitt said what happens next will be meetings between the state and tribal officials to start the process in motion.

But, if all this does not work, the next step will be to blockade Whiteclay and prevent delivery of alcoholic beverages, said Vernon Bellecourt, AIM Grand Governing Council.

"Like surgeons we have to remove the cancer that destroys the health and welfare of the people on Pine Ridge. Nebraska has allowed that cancer to continue and destroy the spirit of the people," Bellecourt said.

He added that the blockade will also stop anyone from purchasing alcohol, but people that are in town to purchase other items will be allowed to.

The proposal, that at first glance seems out of reach, of relocating the businesses that sell alcohol a great distance from Pine Ridge, rebuilding Whiteclay with a hotel and conference center that could revitalize the area and emphasize its beauty, is the idea of Bellecourt and Frank LaMere, Winnebago and member of the Democratic National Committee.

"The state must play a role to transfer the licenses to other white communities and allow the owners to sell the poison to their own," Bellecourt said.

He added that would be a "win, win, win, win for everybody."

He speculated that the proposed improvements would help other businesses in Pine Ridge like grocery stores and restaurants and would provide space for a Laundromat and a youth center.

"It has all the potential in the world," he said. "Whiteclay would be a shining example."

A meeting has been called for June 27 with Bellecourt and LaMere, tribal officials and Nebraska officials. Whiteclay business owners are also invited.

"We are just floating the idea so people can start to come up with other ideas. I would think it would be favorable to Nebraska. It would make an attractive road to Pine Ridge," Bellecourt said.

Given a reasonable amount of time to formulate and start a plan the blockade will be held off. Should nothing happen, the blockade will take place, Bellecourt said.

Gov. Mike Johanns, in Japan on a trade mission, said demonstrations in Whiteclay are one thing, but he does not want to see a blockade take place. He said the demonstrators were always asked not to do anything illegal.

Bellecourt said that sometimes radical conditions require radical thinking that may lead to radical change.

In 1999 Ron Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk Jr. were murdered on the borderline of the reservation and the state of Nebraska, but no charges have ever been filed. Tribal members blame those deaths and many others on consumption of alcohol purchased in Whiteclay.

Since that time, Tom Poor Bear, brother to Hard Heart and cousin to Black Elk formed Camp Justice on the location where the two bodies were found.

There has been growing cooperation between the Camp Justice people, Oglala Sioux tribal officials and advocates over the Whiteclay issue. Four years ago, LaMere noted, people were arrested when they gathered in Whiteclay to draw attention to the problems.

It is not yet certain that the meeting will transpire. At this point the idea is just days old and John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Lakota Nation has not committed to the meeting, although Bellecourt said his calendar has June 27 clear and organizers are working with tribal officials.

Should the plan for a hotel and conference center be accepted, the owners of the Whiteclay businesses would have to relocate, the tribe would take over the town and most likely it would have to be taken into trust by the Department of Interior. That's all preliminary and speculative, from the organizer's point of view.

And how would the rebuilding of the new town take place? Bellecourt said that HUD may have some money and more could come from the Neighborhood Development Corporation and other federal agencies. "Wherever there is a will there is a way," Bellecourt said.

"We don't pretend to know all the answers. Pine Ridge needs a hotel and conference center. Let's take a look and see what happens."