From: Fran Potter <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
via Albert Running Wolf
December 06, 1999
U.S. Panel Inspects Whiteclay
BY PAUL HAMMEL
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
U.S. Civil Rights Commission
Whiteclay, Neb. - The bright light of a U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigation shone on this border town on Sunday, and at least two of the panel's members, including its chairman, didn't like what they saw.
The van carrying five commissioners pulled into town just before noon, in time to see a group of 10 men waiting in a parking lot for the opening of one of the town's beer-only liquor stores, the Jumping Eagle Inn.
Mary Frances Berry, a college professor from Philadelphia and the chairwoman of the civil rights panel since 1993, said even at first glance, it was clear to her that beer sales in Whiteclay exploited the rampant alcoholism on the adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
"It's unfortunate that other people profit from other people's misery in a perfectly legal business," Berry said. "It must be painful to do that."
During a daylong visit that included visits with the Sheridan County sheriff in Rushville, local merchants at Whiteclay and tribal members at Pine Ridge, S.D., commissioners heard differing views on racism in the area and what should be done, if anything, about beer sales at Whiteclay.
The panel ends its two-day visit with a fact-finding hearing today in Rapid City, S.D., focusing on equal justice issues raised in the deaths of several American Indian men in South Dakota.
But Sunday's focus was Whiteclay, a village on the Nebraska-South Dakota border that sells 4 million cans of beer a year, mostly to Indians who live across the border on the reservation, where alcohol is banned.
The village of 22 residents and four liquor stores received national publicity after a series of marches this summer protesting the lack of progress in the investigation into the deaths of two Lakota Sioux men, Wilson Black Elk Jr. and Ronald Hard Heart. Their bodies were found June 8 in a grassy ravine north of Whiteclay.
But the investigation, led by the FBI, has produced few leads. On Thursday, FBI agents assisted by search dogs conducted what they called "the most comprehensive search yet" in the investigation, combing the area where the bodies were found.
On Sunday, even some civil rights commission members agreed with local residents that the search was too late and appeared geared toward demonstrating to the panel that something was being done.
"Why weren't they here six months ago when this first happened?" asked Eileen Janis, a public-relations aide to the tribal chairman.
She and other tribal members criticized the FBI, saying the agency is unwilling to vigorously probe the deaths of reservation Indians because of a lack of manpower and lingering anger over the deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation during unrest in the 1970s.
Law enforcement on the reservation also is hampered, Janis said, because tribal police are poorly trained and because the reservation is governed by conflicting sets of state, federal and tribal laws.
She and Tom Poor Bear, the Lakota activist who has been leading the protests at Whiteclay, said unsolved murders of Indian men in Whiteclay and Rapid City and the release of white suspects in recent deaths of Indians in two South Dakota towns, Mobridge and Sisseton, illustrate a double standard of justice.
If those victims had been white, they said, the outcomes would be much different.
"It seems like it's open season on Indians," Janis said. "Non-Indians see they can get away with it."
As for the problems in Whiteclay, merchants said they were operating legal businesses that, if closed, would only push sales of alcohol farther down the road to other towns.
Sheridan County Sheriff Homer Robbins, during a 45-minute talk with civil rights commissioners, said so many Native Americans are jailed in his county because reservation residents must shop in border towns such as Rushville and because of the high rate of alcoholism and unemployment on the reservation.
Commissioners asked questions, but did not offer opinions, about the deaths of three inmates -two of them Indian - at the Sheridan County Jail over the past four years.
The sheriff told commissioners that one Indian man was highly intoxicated when he was brought into the jail and died later of a brain hemorrhage caused by a fall before he was jailed. The two other men committed suicide by hanging, which may have been caused by depression because they were jailed, Robbins said. Grand juries investigating the deaths found no wrongdoing.
While some, but not all, Indians said shutting down alcohol sales in Whiteclay would make it harder for those with alcohol problems to buy beer, merchants in Whiteclay said there was no reason to end alcohol sales.
"If you put them on the highway, you'll have worse problems," said Mary Bourne, who owns a Whiteclay cafe, the Fireside Inn.
While white business owners said they treat their customers fairly and without prejudice, Indians said racism is alive in Whiteclay and other neighboring communities.
"You have to be Lakota to see it and feel it," said Poor Bear.
Whites and Indians appeared to agree on one thing: a short-term detoxification center is needed in Whiteclay or in neighboring Rushville and Pine Ridge. Such an overnight facility used to exist in Rushville. Now, Sheriff Robbins said, he has few choices but to hold intoxicated people overnight in jail.
Elsie Meeks, a member of the Civil Rights Commission who lives at nearby Interior, S.D., said she used to work at the now-gone Sheridan County Alcohol Rehabilitation Center.
Meeks was glad the panel visited Whiteclay to see what she said she has known all her life: The town's sole purpose is to exploit Indians.
Berry, the commission's chairwoman, said she was shocked to find the lack of a detoxification and rehabilitation center, even in the sparsely populated hills around the Pine Ridge reservation.
She said that she has not yet formed an opinion on what should be done but that the need for such a preventive measure, in Nebraska where everyone seems to travel for alcohol, is obvious. "Political leaders in Nebraska ought to be concerned," Berry said. "It's a major problem and it's a costly problem."
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