Tribal, State Police Unite Against Crime in Nebraska

Nebraska authorities are allowing tribal police from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to patrol the neighboring town of Whiteclay, Neb. It's an effort to curb soaring alcoholism, crime and abuse on the reservation. South Dakota Public Radio's Charles Michael Ray reports.

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Each year four million cans of beer are sold in the dusty town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, home to a few dozen people. A majority of the liquor sales are to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is strictly prohibited. Nebraska and Pine Ridge leaders are hoping a new plan to cross-deputize tribal police as state officers will help clean up the area. South Dakota Public Radio's Charles Michael Ray reports.

CHARLES MICHAEL RAY reporting:

The closest thing to a taxi in the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, might be this early '80s Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra station wagon, fondly named The War Pony. Loren Black Elk and Ronny Fisherman(ph) use this car to help tribal residents in need.

Mr. LOREN BLACK ELK: All the people that need rides, he takes them, you know.

Mr. RONNY FISHERMAN: I take them home.

RAY: Like many other members of the Oglala Sioux tribe, Black Elk believes this is Indian land. The tribe stands by the treaty signed between the great Sioux nation and the US government some 140 years ago. Black Elk says, according to the treaty, native people should have total jurisdiction over much of western South Dakota and this part of Nebraska.

Mr. BLACK ELK: I call our people up here the forgotten people. I mean, nothing else to do. There's no jobs for us. It's a government under the treaties. Live up to their law. Our people don't want to be living like this.

RAY: The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is slightly bigger than the state of Vermont, yet with 80 percent unemployment, the residents who live here have an average income of about $3,000 annually. Besides being one of the poorest areas in the country, this reservation should also be one of the driest. The distribution, possession and consumption of alcohol are all prohibited here, but alcoholism rates are higher here than in the surrounding areas.

(Soundbite of bottle rolling)

RAY: Just across the state line in Nebraska, booze is fully legal. The border town of Whiteclay is a rock's throw away from the Pine Ridge Reservation. The gravel parking lots and fences that line each side of the highway are littered with bottles and cans and drunk people on the street are a common sight here. Tribal leaders say alcoholism is a major problem for the impoverished people of Pine Ridge. Each year, about $3 million in alcohol sales run through this small town. What is seen by many as blight in Whiteclay has become an issue of contention in Nebraska. The state's attorney general, Jon Bruning, says the liquor store owners of this town are exploiting the residents of Pine Ridge.

Mr. JON BRUNING (State Attorney General): They're death purveyors is the way I've looked at them. I would like to find a way to catch them in violation of the law and shut them down.

RAY: Bruning may have found that way. The new agreement between the leaders on the reservation and the state of Nebraska allows reservation cops to patrol in Whiteclay. Nebraska law prohibits selling alcohol to someone who is clearly intoxicated, but the nearest sheriff's office is 20 miles away. And Bruning says a bigger law enforcement presence in town will keep store owners in line.

Unidentified Man #1: I owe 50 cents?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

RAY: It's late afternoon and Clay Brehmer is counting a pile of change a customer has just dumped on the counter of his State Line Liquor store in Whiteclay. Brehmer says he operates a legitimate business and provides a product that tribal residents would get elsewhere if they didn't get it here.

Mr. CLAY BREHMER: I'm not sitting here with devil horns, you know, trying to knock people off, you know. We're just making a living. It may not be the best place in the world to do it, but if you want to live in this area, you've got to find something to do.

RAY: Brehmer concedes that an increased police presence could help clean up Whiteclay. Leaders on the Pine Ridge Reservation agree, but legal counsel Robert Grey Eagle says the solutions to the alcohol problem will also require treatment.

Mr. ROBERT GREY EAGLE (Legal Counsel): Simply patrolling and arresting people for being intoxicated is not enough. We need to get to the heart of the matter, and that's the problem with alcoholism in general. We do have some excellent programs on the reservation, but we need a full-scale, full continuum of care for people who have problems with alcohol.

RAY: Tribal leaders hope this new agreement with Nebraska will open the door to better law enforcement cooperation on the South Dakota side of the border. They hope that having more police in Whiteclay could be the first step towards better race relations and a reduction in alcohol consumption on the reservation. But they admit there's a long road ahead. For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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