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On Pine Ridge, a String of Broken Promises

Yet the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation, the tribe that defeated Gen. George A. Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 only to suffer the seizure of its gold-rich Black Hills and a massacre by the Army at Wounded Knee in 1890, is growing. Its population -- 14,000 to 20,000 -- is boosted by a baby boom and by adults who are returning, joining those who never left in their ongoing struggles.

On the Borderline

There is not much to do in Pine Ridge beyond the hard business of surviving. The reservation has no movie theater, no department store, no public library and no public transportation. The closest thing to excitement is Big Bat's, the combination gas station, convenience store and deli at "the four-way" -- the four-way intersection -- in the village of Pine Ridge, which is also home to the tribal government offices, courts and hospital.


It has "become too hard to help," says Pat Perkins, who ran an adopt-an-elder program.

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When Webster Poor Bear returned six years ago after decades away, he was not looking for a multiplex. After years of rambling, shaking off the demons of the Vietnam War and raising four children and stepchildren, he wanted peace. He needed the Lakotas' spiritual ways -- sun dances, sweat lodges, the wisdom of medicine men. He gladly moved back to his family's land in Wanblee, one of the most remote towns on the reservation.

But White Clay, Neb., a border town not two miles from the village of Pine Ridge, turned Poor Bear, now 53, into an activist, as he had been in his youth.

Of all the problems facing the reservation, White Clay (population 22) is the one people mention first. White Clay consists of two blocks of old, scarred one-story buildings on dirt sidewalks. Half are boarded up. Of the few that are open, three are package stores that sell beer and malt liquor through slit-like windows. Since alcohol is banned on the reservation, White Clay reaps a fortune from the Lakotas' drinking. The package stores, tribal leaders and Nebraska liquor authorities say, sell about 11,000 cans of beer a day to Indians.

Poor Bear had relatives who loitered in White Clay, including a brother, Wilson Black Elk Jr., and a cousin, Ronald Hard Heart. On June 8, 1999, one month before Clinton's visit, the two men were found beaten and mutilated in a gulch on reservation land 100 yards north of White Clay.

Many marches, meetings and lobbying efforts later, the killings remain unsolved; Mark Vukelich, the FBI agent in charge of South Dakota, said his office is still "very actively investigating all leads." Day and night, at least a few dozen Lakotas are downing 40-ounce Budweisers in White Clay's alleys until they pass out.

"It's difficult to be here," Poor Bear said on a recent visit. It had been more than 30 years since he took a bullet in his knuckle during the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee between the American Indian Movement and the FBI. Drinking men and women were surrounding him, greeting him with awe and surprise. He knew some from the old AIM days. He returned their courtesies.

Even people who want White Clay package stores shut down, such as Poor Bear, concede that the problems traced to its alcohol sales will only move elsewhere until alcoholism is addressed. But still he was angry.

Nebraska officials say they cannot close lawfully operating businesses, he said, but do not mention that it is illegal to allow people to drink outside the stores. He pointed to four men drinking beer in front of one store. "That's illegal," he said. "If the stores were fined as they should be, they'd eventually lose their licenses."

Recent months have brought a little good news. There were four package stores in White Clay until April, when the owner of one lost his liquor license for selling used cars without a license, a felony. And in June, the Nebraska Democratic Party, at its state convention, voted to support a resolution banning alcohol sales in White Clay.

"I wouldn't hold my breath," Poor Bear said, "but we just might make some progress here."

The Last Giveaway

In Pine Ridge, people like to say progress is best measured in inches.

Troy and Pat Perkins are not sure how to measure their efforts. When they moved to the reservation four years ago, Troy Perkins, a member of one of the largest extended families on the reservation, was bringing his wife and two daughters (now 8 and 12) to live there for the first time. His mother had retired as a mail carrier and wanted to travel, but she was worried that vandals or squatters would overrun her house. The Perkinses, eager for their girls to learn more about their father's culture, agreed to leave Rapid City, S.D., and house-sit.


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