LINCOLN, Neb. — A recent death and other problems in Whiteclay are drawing new scrutiny from Nebraska lawmakers, who plan to announce an initiative to address persistent issues when they visit the tiny village later this week.
Senators say they’re looking seriously at ways to improve conditions in Whiteclay, which sells millions of cans of beer each year on the border of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said she organized the trip to show fellow lawmakers the conditions in the ramshackle town dotted with abandoned buildings, garbage-strewn streets and Native Americans lying passed-out on sidewalks. Lawmakers and officials with the Nebraska Public Service Commission will tour the area on Wednesday before releasing details about the new initiative. A legislative hearing will take place next month at the Capitol.
“It’s important that more people go up there and understand what’s going on,” Pansing Brooks said. “There’s a public health crisis in our own backyard.”
Whiteclay’s four beer stores sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer last year despite having only a dozen residents. Alcoholism is a widespread problem on the reservation, where an estimated one in four children is born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln said he has never seen Whiteclay firsthand but is joining the group to learn more about the village and brainstorm possible solutions.
“It’s a problem the Legislature probably needs to be involved in,” he said. “We need to find a better solution than the status quo. I think everybody recognizes it’s a bad situation.”
Lawmakers have tried to address the problems before, with little success. Former state Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth introduced bills that would have allowed tighter restrictions on alcohol sales in Whiteclay, but the measures stalled amid opposition from the grocery store and alcohol industries, which argued they could create unintended problems in other parts of the state.
A 2005 plan championed by former Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning would have allowed Pine Ridge tribal police officers to be deputized in Nebraska. Congress approved $200,000 to pay Pine Ridge officers to patrol Whiteclay.
The plan failed, however, because of what one activist described as a “complicated goulash of politics.” Tribal police officers didn’t want to be deputized. Some Pine Ridge residents worried the agreement would encourage off-reservation police to encroach on their land, and others saw the deal as damaging to their claim that Whiteclay is part of the reservation. Still others said the $200,000 earmark wasn’t enough.
Pansing Brooks said she’s taking a different, “multi-faceted approach” that focuses on the region’s public health needs.
“I’m trying to look at it from a different perspective,” she said. “If we don’t keep trying, nothing’s going to happen.”
Some longtime Whiteclay residents said they hope lawmakers take a serious look at the recommendations released by a local task force in August. The task force was formed at Gov. Pete Ricketts’ urging, and its suggestions are virtually identical to ideas Pansing Brooks put forth earlier this year.
The list includes placing full-time Nebraska law enforcement in the area; creating a detoxification and treatment center; getting rid of abandoned buildings; developing a village economic development plan; seeking authority from lawmakers to enact ordinances aimed at panhandling and vagrancy; and improving the state’s relationship with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose members live on the reservation.
Pansing Brooks said she also wants to see broadband service in the area to connect with law enforcement and public health officials in distant cities.
Bruce BonFleur, who lives in the village and runs Lakota Hope Ministry, said he believes conditions in the village can improve if residents and elected officials work together. He pointed to the recent construction of a nursing home that will serve Native Americans on the southern edge of town and a $100,000 federal grant awarded to a nonprofit that will help local Native American artisans sell their work.
“I think it’s another sign that Whiteclay is in the process of being transformed into something good,” BonFleur said.
BonFleur said he’s trying to “build bridges” between activists who want to close all of Whiteclay’s beer stores and residents who are content with the town as it is.
Whiteclay gained new attention in August following the death of 50-year-old Sherry Wounded Foot, who lived in the reservation village of Porcupine. Authorities are investigating her death as a homicide but have not publicly named any suspects. Sheridan County Attorney Jamian Simmons has said authorities received conflicting statements about a “potential assault” involving Wounded Foot in Whiteclay.
Wounded Foot was found lying behind a building in Whiteclay on Aug. 5 in an area where intoxicated people sometimes sleep.