LINCOLN — The first meeting between the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Nebraska's governor could prove to be the last.
The two leaders met Monday at the State Capitol to discuss the flash point issue of alcohol sales in the northwest Nebraska border town of Whiteclay. According to accounts from both sides, the meeting, scheduled for one hour, lasted just a few minutes.
President Bryan Brewer said he walked out after Gov. Dave Heineman said it was not up to Nebraska to solve alcohol problems on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“He said, 'It's not my problem, it's your problem. Solve it,' ” Brewer said.
Jen Rae Wang, the governor's communications director who was present at the meeting, gave a far different account. When the governor asked Brewer what was being done by the tribe to provide treatment for those addicted to alcohol, Brewer refused to accept responsibility.
“The president started by being very confrontational and said he didn't have any responsibility for this,” Wang said. “That was a theme he said over and over again.”
Brewer, who requested the meeting, had hoped to persuade the governor to close Whiteclay's beer stores, which sell mainly to residents of the reservation, where alcohol is banned.
The four off-sale beer stores sold the equivalent of nearly 4 million cans of beer last year. Most of that beer and malt liquor ends up on the reservation, where alcohol-related deaths, assaults and child abuse are rampant.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, Brewer accused the governor of having “blood on his hands” for not doing something to stop the exploitation of Lakota people. He said he will not deal with the governor in the future.
“I don't know why he's mad at me,” Brewer said. “I don't know why he agreed to meet with me.”
At a previously scheduled press conference Monday before the meeting, the governor said the Whiteclay stores sell a legal product. Unless store owners break the law, the State of Nebraska cannot revoke their liquor licenses, Heineman said.
“I'm going to suggest to President Brewer that on the reservation, they need to have more action on treatment of alcohol abuse,” Heineman said. “Let's tackle the problem head on. I think that's where they can improve.”
On the reservation that's home to about 50,000 people, there is just one drug and alcohol treatment center, Brewer said.
Other than agreeing that the meeting was short, the two sides in the dispute gave sharply differing portrayals of what happened Monday.
According to Wang, the governor reserved an hour for the meeting and made sure that his top advisers, including Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann, State Patrol Col. David Sankey and Chief of Staff Larry Bare, were present.
The two leaders shook hands and a “press person” who accompanied Brewer asked to take a picture of them, Wang said. The governor declined because, he said, Brewer had previously requested that there be no press coverage of the meeting.
The president refused to accept responsibility for problems caused by alcohol, Wang said. He then took a political turn by bringing up campaign contributions that Heineman has accepted from the alcohol industry.
“The governor responded by saying he takes issue with the president calling into question his integrity,” Wang said.
According to Brewer's account, he had been instructed before the meeting to bring no one with him. He honored the request, saying he did not have anyone with him.
Another person in the room did ask about a photo, to which the governor said: “Absolutely not.”
“I feel this was a form of disrespect,” Brewer said.
Shortly after the two sat down, Heineman placed an article on the table, highlighting how it reported that the governor has accepted campaign contributions from the liquor industry.
The governor wanted to know what Brewer's motive was in requesting the meeting.
The article was published by Alcohol Justice, a group working to bring an end to alcohol sales in Whiteclay, but Brewer said he had nothing to do with it.
A World-Herald review of campaign finance reports found that Heineman received nearly $164,000 in contributions from liquor interests from 2005 to 2012.
Between two and three minutes into the meeting, Brewer said, he stood up and left.
Despite years of protests and efforts to bring attention to the problems in Whiteclay, the situation remains largely unchanged. But a different approach could be on the horizon.
The Oglala Tribal Council voted last month to allow tribal members to decide whether to legalize the sale and consumption of alcohol on the reservation. Supporters of legalization say it would allow the tribe to generate revenue that could be directed to treatment while reducing the common practice of bootlegging. Some also hope it would drive the Whiteclay stores out of business.
A date for the referendum has not been selected.
In the meantime, Brewer said, he is moving forward with plans to set up a “port of entry” on reservation land just north of Whiteclay. Vehicles coming onto the reservation will be searched for alcohol and other contraband. He would like to establish checkpoints at other locations on the reservation as well.
Both sides said the outcome of Monday's meeting was unfortunate.
“The president was clearly not interested in having an open and honest conversation related to these difficult, sad and sometimes tragic issues occurring on the sovereign land with the sovereign people over whom the president governs,” Wang said.
Said Brewer: “I shook his hand. Now I wish I didn't.”
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.