A Sheridan County commissioner acknowledged Tuesday that law enforcement in Whiteclay isn't adequate to handle the host of issues surrounding alcohol sales in the troubled northwest Nebraska village.
Commissioner Jack Andersen told lawmakers "we absolutely do not" have enough resources for proper policing in Whiteclay, which is home to four beer stores and maybe a dozen people and sits less than a mile from South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.
"We really need help with law enforcement," Anderson told members of the Legislature's General Affairs Committee.
His comments, made during a hearing on Whiteclay issues at the state Capitol, came as a welcome surprise to activists who've spent years, even decades, fighting to stop beer sales there.
"It reinforces what we've maintained for quite some time," said John Maisch, a former Oklahoma alcohol regulator who made a documentary about Whiteclay.
Earlier in the hearing, Nebraska's top liquor control official said Sheridan County could effectively shut down Whiteclay's beer stores as soon as next year -- beginning in January when all four liquor licenses come up for renewal -- if county officials deem law enforcement there is inadequate.
"It's up to them," said Hobert Rupe, executive director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, after the hearing.
Lawmakers looking to boost law enforcement in Whiteclay also found promise in Andersen's comments.
Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, whose resolution to examine Whiteclay issues triggered Tuesday's hearing, called the unincorporated village a "two-block stretch of depravity" and said its continued existence makes Nebraska complicit in "genocide" against the Oglala Sioux people of Pine Ridge.
Whiteclay's ratio of beer stores to people would equate to more than 30,000 liquor stores in Lincoln or 50,000 in Omaha, Pansing Brooks noted.
A 24-hour law enforcement presence there would help address public safety and possibly help gather evidence to support state sanctions against the beer stores, she said.
State troopers have spent nearly 500 hours patrolling and investigating crimes in Whiteclay this year, in addition to 3,500 hours over the prior 14 years, said Maj. Kyle Otte, head of investigations at the Nebraska State Patrol.
Those efforts haven't unearthed enough serious violations by the beer stores for the state to try shutting them down, said Rupe, the liquor control official.
And despite Andersen's comments, there's no indication Sheridan County plans to seek an end to Whiteclay beer sales.
The true solution lies north of the state line, on the reservation, Andersen said later.
"Whiteclay is a symptom, not the problem," he said. "The problem would be there whether we have Whiteclay or not."
About 50 people attended Tuesday's hearing. No breweries, liquor distributors or beer store owners testified.
Activists and Pine Ridge residents spent much of the afternoon sharing Whiteclay's tragic narrative and pleading for swift action.
Nora Boesem, a longtime foster and adoptive mother of children from Pine Ridge, described caring for a 5-year-old girl born 13 weeks premature with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The girl takes pain medication daily and has already outlasted her life expectancy.
"I will probably bury most of the children I have adopted," Boesem said.
Former Oglala Sioux Tribe President Bryan Brewer noted alcohol's impact on some 3,500 military veterans living in Pine Ridge.
Longtime Winnebago activist Frank LaMere accused the state of Nebraska of working to "protect the flow of alcohol" into Pine Ridge and law enforcement of ignoring the deaths of Native people in Whiteclay, including the apparent slaying of 50-year-old Sherry Wounded Foot in August.
"We would bulldoze the town tomorrow" if non-Native people were dying, LaMere said. If white people were dying similarly in Lincoln, he said tearfully, "we would act."
Olowan Martinez, jailed for past protests in Whiteclay and more recently while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, said some activists will take matters into their own hands if state officials don't act.
Another testifier, Wanbli Red Cloud, unleashed a loud expletive at lawmakers during her own impassioned speech, then quickly apologized.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman-elect of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said the party opposes continued beer sales in Whiteclay. Speaking on her own behalf, she cited "racism" in Nebraska's polices there compared with the state's handling of the rural methamphetamine crisis.
"If we can do that to protect white rural Nebraskans, close down the supply of meth, we should be able to do the same for our Native brothers and sisters through the alcohol sales in Whiteclay," Kleeb said.
Manape LaMere, Frank LaMere's son, sang a Lakota prayer, saying later that tribes used prayer to solidify their treaties with white immigrants.
"I'm reminding everybody that we sealed the deal through those prayers," he said.