LINCOLN — The recent vandalism of two beer delivery trucks in Whiteclay, Neb., may signal increased tension over alcohol sales to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
State troopers and sheriff's deputies on Monday patrolled Whiteclay while beer distributors made deliveries. The heavy law enforcement presence came in response to the slashing of tires and the wielding of knives, sledgehammers and axes in two separate incidents over the past two weeks.
Although no arrests have been made, investigators believe some of the alleged perpetrators also have engaged in recent protests over beer sales in Whiteclay, said Jamian Simmons, the deputy prosecutor in Sheridan County.
Although the protests have been peaceful, the beer truck incidents have raised concerns, said Col. David Sankey, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol.
“This group, in the last few weeks, has escalated their violence,” Sankey said Monday during a conference call with reporters.
Last year, four stores sold the equivalent of 3.9 million 12-ounce cans of beer in Whiteclay, a village of roughly a dozen people. Most of the beer was sold to residents of the Oglala Sioux Tribe's reservation, which is just across the border in South Dakota. Alcohol sales and possession are banned on the reservation.
Advocates who want the stores shut down say they exploit a population inflicted with alcoholism by selling a product that can't be legally consumed on the reservation. Some of the store owners argue that they are engaged in a regulated, legal business.
Years of marches, protests and meetings between elected officials have left the situation largely unchanged.
The first vandalism occurred May 3 as a pair of delivery workers for a Miller distributor were in Whiteclay. While one worker was in a store, the other was confronted by a group of 15 to 20 protesters, including one who brandished a knife and threatened to kill the driver, the prosecutor said.
Tires were slashed and several cases of beer were smashed open on the street. The distributor reported a loss of about $1,300, Simmons said.
The second incident involved a Budweiser distributor who was making deliveries May 13. On that occasion, several people got out of a vehicle and used axes and sledgehammers to smash windows on the truck. They also slashed a tire.
The second incident, which was witnessed by a reserve sheriff's deputy, resulted in about $3,000 in damage, Simmons said.
Investigators have been trying to get arrest warrants for some of the suspects. However, they won't be able to request extradition if the suspects are on the reservation, Simmons said.
The State Patrol plans to request the assistance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Sankey said.
As of Monday, they had not contacted the tribe, said Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Brewer has granted permission for protesters to stay in a tent camp just inside the reservation border. He also allowed them set up a checkpoint to screen vehicles driving into the reservation.
Brewer said he is working on a plan to maintain a permanent checkpoint using tribal police. “It's a place that's killing our people,” he said of Whiteclay. “It's a terrible place.”
Vic Clarke, who manages one of the town's two grocery stores, said the protests and the vandalism are hassles for Pine Ridge residents who shop in Whiteclay. The grocery stores don't sell alcohol.
Clarke formerly owned the store that he now manages, which sustained $80,000 in damage and losses after it was looted during a 1999 march. The march was prompted by the unsolved murders of two Native American men last seen in Whiteclay.
Clarke said Monday that he doesn't oppose peaceful demonstrations, but the recent incidents crossed the line.
“They're terroristic threats, and they shouldn't happen,” he said.
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