Oglala Sioux Tribe President Bryan Brewer and Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman sat down yesterday to talk about exploitative alcohol sales at Whiteclay, just across the NE–SD border from the Pine Ridge Reservation. It didn't go well:
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 him to solve alcohol problems on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“He said, 'It's not my problem, it's your problem,'” 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” [Joe Duggan, "Meeting on Whiteclay Alcohol Sales Ends Quickly with No Progress," Omaha World-Herald, 2013.07.08].
I'm going to be rough on President Brewer here. Whoever said whatever, Brewer is the one who got up and left after three minutes. Governor Heineman didn't kick him out of the office or have troopers arrest him for another bounced check.
Whiteclay is a sore spot. Stopping the white exploitation of the neighboring Lakota community is a genuinely hard problem to solve. It's not a winning issue for Governor Heineman: everyone who benefits from alcohol sales in Whiteclay is on his side of the border, and darn near everyone hurt is outside his voter pool. Governor Heineman wasn't going to open the conversation with a 100% mea culpa. He approached the conversation with what a properly skeptical Indian ought to expect from one of the conquering class: defensiveness, denial, and blame. The first three minutes are destined to be posturing.
The proper tactic is to play along, defuse, and push through to the productive part of the conversation. If the Governor tried to open the conversation by shifting the blame to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, President Brewer could have spent five or ten minutes talking about his side's anti-alcohol efforts. "Here's what we're doing. Yup, we're trying. Nope, it's not enough. Yup, we're short on resources. Now, what could you do to help?"
Maybe Governor Heineman would never give a satisfactory answer to that question, but you won't know after just three minutes. When you've got an hour with the Governor, with any governor, you use that full hour. Maybe he'll change his mind. Maybe you'll get useful information. Maybe you'll impress him with your charm, openness, and commitment to finding practical solutions and thus open the door for further conversations... which are certainly necessary, since you're not going to solve Whiteclay in one hour, never mind three minutes.
Maybe talking with the White man won't solve the problem. Maybe the Oglala Sioux Tribe can only win through self-reliance and direct action. But if productive dialogue is possible, President Brewer made it less likely with his premature walk-out yesterday.