LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four Nebraska stores that sell millions of cans of beer each year near a South Dakota Indian reservation lost their liquor licenses Wednesday amid complaints that they fuel alcohol-related problems among members of the Oglala Lakota Tribe.
The state ruling marks a monumental shift for Whiteclay, an unincorporated town with nine official residents on the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The stores have operated in town for decades despite criticism that the area lacks adequate law enforcement to enforce state liquor laws and prevent violence and sexual assaults.
Advocates who wanted the stores closed erupted in cheers as the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission voted 3-0 not to renew the stores' licenses. The stores are expected to appeal the ruling. Their licenses are set to expire on April 30, although a district court judge could allow them to stay in business until the appeal is resolved.
"I never expected this to happen," said Bryan Brewer, a former Oglala Lakota Tribe president who had called on state officials to close the stores. "I'm just really surprised and thankful. Now, we have to start our healing process."
Frank LaMere, a Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska member who has fought for decades to close the stores, wiped tears from his eyes after the decision was read.
"Today I am proud to be a Nebraskan," LaMere said. "But our work is just beginning."
Bob Batt, the commission's chairman, said after the hearing that the reservation suffers from "benign neglect" and the attitude of the local Whiteclay officials and beer store owners "reminds me of Alabama in the 1950s," a reference to the local officials who allowed racial discrimination in the South. Batt said the federal government needs to take steps to address the reservation's longstanding problems.
"These are human beings," Batt said of the tribe members. "They are really suffering."
Andrew Snyder, an attorney for the beer stores, said the commission contradicted previous Nebraska Supreme Court rulings with its decision and argued that the store owners complied with state law.
"They're disappointed, but they're resolved to see it through" to an appeal, Snyder said. "The commission was wrong, and we believe the decision was contrary the law."
Messages left with the beer store owners were not immediately returned.
Here are some key things to know about Whiteclay:
WHY ARE THE STORES SIGNIFICANT?
The stores sell cheap beer and malt liquor just 200 yards south of the reservation, which prohibits alcohol but continues to struggle with high rates of fetal alcoholism and one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the Western Hemisphere.
Whiteclay draws mostly Native Americans who loiter around abandoned buildings, beg for change and pass out on sidewalks lined with dirty clothes and empty beer cans.
HOW IS LIFE IN WHITECLAY?
Advocates urged the commission not to renew the licenses during a hearing earlier this month. The tribe's attorney general testified that Nebraska law enforcement officers seldom work with the tribe's police force, which has 25 officers to patrol a reservation that's geographically larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Religious leaders who live in Whiteclay said they frequently see public drunkenness, human waste and Native Americans suffering from injuries. Occasionally, they said women will come to them claiming they were raped.
Officials in Sheridan County, which includes Whiteclay, disputed the claims that law enforcement is inadequate but acknowledged that they recently increased the county's law enforcement budget to deal with problems in the area. During an April 7 hearing, the Oglala Lakota Tribe's attorney general argued that local law enforcement rarely communicated with the tribe's police force.
Dave Domina, an attorney for the stores' opponents, said those comments played an important role in his case. The nearest law enforcement office in Sheridan County is based in Rushville, more than 20 miles south of Whiteclay.
"I think we're in a very strong position" to contest any appeal, Domina said.
WHAT DOES LAW ENFORCEMENT SAY?
During the April 7 hearing, longtime Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins disputed allegations that deputies ignore the problems but acknowledged that he no longer writes citations for open container violations. He said his deputies don't visit Whiteclay every day but spend more time in the village during the 1st and 15th of each month, when tribe members receive government benefit checks.
A Nebraska State Patrol investigator told commissioners the patrol has received four formal complaints against the stores in the last two years but wasn't able to substantiate any of them.
WHAT ELSE ARE STATE OFFICIALS AND ACTIVISTS DOING?
In a separate case, the Nebraska attorney general's office has filed 22 citations against the businesses for selling to bootleggers, failing to cooperate with investigators and other liquor-law violations. Those allegations are set for a separate hearing in May and were inadmissible as evidence in the license renewal case.
Nebraska state Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, an Oglala Lakota Tribe member whose district includes Whiteclay, said he and other lawmakers will continue their recently announced push to clean up the garbage-strewn town and promote economic development in the area.
"This isn't going to end the problems, but it's a start," Brewer said.
John Maisch, an activist who fought to shutter the stores, said opponents will work with the tribe to help make changes that its members want.
"A dark cloud has been lifted off of Nebraska today," he said. "We feel Whiteclay can be an enormously vibrant place."
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