LINCOLN, Neb. — Officials have recommended that a small Nebraska town whose four beer stores sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans in 2015 be allowed to maintain liquor sales despite ongoing concerns over widespread alcoholism on a bordering Native American reservation.
County officials voted 3-0 Tuesday to recommend that the state renew the liquor licenses of the stores in Whiteclay, a town with a dozen full-time residents that abuts the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Some members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe blame Whiteclay for problems on the reservation, which is plagued with high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome and poverty.
It’s a setback for activists who for decades have targeted the stores in hopes stopping the sales, considering the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ordered the Whiteclay stores to reapply for their liquor licenses in November amid public pressure to reduce panhandling, public drunkenness and violence.
“For them to renew the licenses in the face of all the evidence we heard (at a recent hearing) is unconscionable but not unexpected,” said activist Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “That is how the ‘good old boys’ work, I guess.”
The state board that regulates alcohol can decide not to renew only if the area fails to meet certain standards, such as having adequate law enforcement — something that Sheridan County Commissioner Jack Andersen said doesn’t seem to be the case.
Last week, Andersen said he didn’t believe closing the stores would keep reservation residents from drinking or traveling farther south into Sheridan County. And commissioner Loren Paul said the board didn’t believe they could legally stop them from selling alcohol, but refused to elaborate.
Critics say the state has a financial incentive to maintain the stores, which generated nearly $103,000 in state excise taxes last year, according to the state liquor commission. Sheridan County does not impose a sales or excise taxes on the stores.
On a typical day in Whiteclay, visitors can see Native Americans passed out on garbage-strewn sidewalks or begging for change. Some loiter on the streets or in abandoned houses littered with dirty blankets, empty beer cans and human waste. Fistfights are common. People wander along the side of the main highway through town — Nebraska Highway 87 — which leads into the reservation, past 1970s-era federal housing, decrepit mobile homes and abandoned cars.
Oglala Lakota County, where the reservation is, has the nation’s lowest per-capita income of about $8,800 per year, according to U.S. census estimates. Nearly half of the county’s residents live below the federal poverty line. Sheridan County has a per-capita income of nearly $15,000.
Activists said Tuesday that the vote will continue to cause suffering for Native Americans who buy beer in the town, as well as for their families.
John Maisch, a law professor in Oklahoma who produced a scathing documentary about Whiteclay, said he had expected the license renewals because of pressure from constituents who argued that allowing closing the stores would encourage more tribe members to drive intoxicated through the county.
Maisch noted that a local government’s recommendation is only one of ten factors state regulators consider when deciding whether to approve a liquor license.
“Today’s recommendation clearly wasn’t about whether Sheridan County has adequate law enforcement, because there was not a single piece of evidence introduced to support that conclusion,” Maisch said. “... The county commissioners’ recommendation was based on fear (that they wouldn’t get re-elected), not facts.”
The effort to close the stores in recent years has included marches, meetings with Nebraska officials and road blockades designed to stop alcohol from crossing into the reservation. In May 2013, vandals smashed the windows and front lights of two beer trucks and slashed at least one tire during deliveries to Whiteclay. They also fought with local law enforcement officers who were keeping watch over a third shipment.
Activists have also called on Nebraska officials to restore a 10-mile-wide, 5-mile long buffer zone that was created in 1882 to protect tribe members from whiskey peddlers. Known as the Whiteclay extension, the zone was eliminated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 through an order that opened the land to white settlement and alcohol sales.
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