LINCOLN — Activists seeking closure of the liquor stores in the notorious border town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, disclosed Tuesday that they’ve asked President Barack Obama to intervene.
Frank LaMere, a Winnebago tribal member who was among the first to complain about the beer sales at Whiteclay, said that a letter he wrote was handed to an aide of the president at his recent appearance in Omaha.
LaMere revealed the letter Tuesday morning as activists appeared at a meeting of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to seek action against the four Whiteclay stores.
The meeting came a day after it was learned that Gov. Pete Ricketts convened the first meeting of an ad hoc committee he had formed to look at the alcohol-related problems associated with Whiteclay.
Four liquor stores in Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of 14 people, sell nearly 4 million cans of beer a year, almost all to residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation just across the Nebraska-South Dakota border.
LaMere and other activists have been asking for nearly two decades that the stores be shut down because of their contribution to rampant alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome on the reservation. Critics say the stores are “predatory” and exist only to sell alcohol where it cannot legally be consumed.
“I think you have the horses” to shut down the beer stores, LaMere told the liquor board, “but I don’t think you have the nerve to do the right thing.”
He said he asked the president to take action “because we have not acted as a state and you have not acted as a board.”
Hobert Rupe, the executive director of the liquor commission, said that the agency has been hamstrung in punishing violations of liquor laws in Whiteclay because witnesses are unwilling to testify.
On Tuesday, he told LaMere that the commission would take action against the stores if he could produce witnesses to allegations of violations, which include selling to drunken customers and selling beer on credit or in exchange for food stamps or sex.
Others testifying during a standing room-only meeting on Tuesday included a foster mother who said one of her foster children has cost taxpayers $3 million for surgeries and hospital visits due to birth defects associated with fetal alcohol syndrome.
“Her mother drank on the streets of Whiteclay every day,” said Nora Boesem of Newell, South Dakota, who has served as a foster mother for 150 children over the past decade. The majority suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, she said.
Others testified that racism contributed to the lack of action in Whiteclay and said that if drunks were lying on the streets in Omaha or Lincoln, the liquor stores would have been shut down.
Ricketts, who took office 13 months ago, pledged in October to form a committee to explore solutions in Whiteclay after residents of the area complained about increased problems with vagrants drinking on the street and harassing customers of local grocery stores.
Last fall, a World-Herald story focused on fetal alcohol syndrome associated with the Pine Ridge Reservation, where an estimated one in four children is born with the syndrome.
The group met Feb. 1 in Rushville and included elected officials from Sheridan County and Rushville as well as owners of beer stores and grocery stores in Whiteclay.
On Tuesday, LaMere called the governor’s committee a “semi-secret” group and criticized it for not including women or more Native Americans. Only one member of the committee, the owner of one of the grocery stores in Whiteclay, is Native American, he said.
LaMere said it would be impossible for a group that includes beer store owners who profit from “the human carnage” in Whiteclay to find solutions. He said he asked Ricketts’ chief of staff, during a meeting later Tuesday, to add more Native and non-Native members to the committee.
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