By GRANT SCHULTE - Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ Less than three minutes into a meeting Monday about alcohol sales in Whiteclay, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe walked out on Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman.
Tribal president Bryan Brewer said he left because he felt the governor has no intention of trying to address alcohol-related problems that stem from the Nebraska town that sells millions of cans of beer and borders South Dakota’s officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He also accused Heineman of greeting him with a hostile tone, an allegation the governor denied.
“He has no plan. He said it’s not his problem, it’s my problem _ solve it,’’ Brewer said at a news conference after the meeting.
Earlier Monday, Heineman said Nebraska has no legal authority to shut down the beer stores unless they violate state law. He said the tribe should provide education and treatment to curb alcohol abuse.
“Alcohol is a legal product, and as long as the law is followed, we have no ability to shut down those places in Whiteclay unless they violated the law,’’ Heineman said in a news conference on an unrelated subject. “That’s just a fact of life.’’
Brewer also said he felt disrespected by the governor. Brewer said Heineman angrily threw down a press release by an anti-Whiteclay activist group that made light of the Republican governor’s political contributions from the alcohol industry.
Heineman spokeswoman Jen Rae Wang denied the allegations, saying Brewer questioned the governor’s integrity by insinuating he was influenced by alcohol-industry lobbyists.
Wang said the governor was willing to have an “an open, honest, and difficult’’ conversation about the challenges in Whiteclay, and set aside an hour in his schedule to meet with the tribal president after Brewer requested it. Others in attendance included Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann, the governor’s chief-of-staff, a state policy adviser and the head of the Nebraska State Patrol.
“Clearly, President Brewer finds himself in a very frustrating situation,’’ Wang said. “But the state of Nebraska is responsible for upholding the laws in the state. President Brewer faces a sometimes sad and tragic situation on a sovereign land, confronting the sovereign people that he governs.’’
Activists have targeted Whiteclay for well over a decade with marches, meetings with Nebraska officials and road blockades designed to stop alcohol from crossing into the reservation. But the situation has escalated in recent months. In May, vandals struck two beer trucks that were making deliveries to Whiteclay and clashed with local law enforcement officers who were keeping watch over a third shipment.
Beer sales in Whiteclay have tumbled over the last two years, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. The town, which has roughly a dozen residents, sold the equivalent of nearly 3.9 million, 12-ounce cans of beer in 2012 _ a 10 percent drop since 2011, according to the commission’s year-end report.
Brewer said he also met Monday with Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a well-known advocate for poor and minority populations. Brewer said he still hopes to work with state officials, including Chambers and the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.
Had Monday’s meeting continued, Brewer said he would have asked Heineman to help shutter Whiteclay by asking for Nebraska to restore a 50-square-mile buffer zone known as the Whiteclay extension, created in 1882 to protect Pine Ridge residents from whiskey peddlers. President Theodore Roosevelt eliminated it in 1904, which opened the land to settlement and alcohol sales.
Restoring the zone would effectively give back the northwest Nebraska land to the tribe.
The Oglala Tribal Council approved a ballot measure last month that would legalize alcohol on the reservation, which supporters say would generate tax revenue and reduce bootlegging. Opponents worry that doing so would only worsen the problem. A referendum date hasn’t been set.
Frank LaMere, a Native American activist from Nebraska’s Winnebago Tribe, said Heineman failed to show Brewer the respect owed to the leader of a sovereign tribe.
“I apologize for the way you were treated today,’’ LaMere said at the news conference. “That to me is shameful.’’