LINCOLN, Neb. — A tiny Nebraska village known for selling beer on the border of an alcoholism-plagued American Indian reservation is getting a new broadband tower that officials say could eventually help connect residents to health care, emergency and distance learning services.
Lawmakers gathered in Whiteclay on Wednesday to announce that a new cell tower will serve the remote village and parts of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned. The reservation has struggled for years with aging infrastructure and a rural population spread over an area the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
“How are people kept safe in today’s day and age without wireless broadband?” said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who organized a trip to Whiteclay with lawmakers and a Nebraska Public Service Commission member. “How do they obtain access to telehealth and distance learning help facilitate a move out of poverty?”
It’s unclear when the telehealth or other services could begin, but officials at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha are looking into ways they can provide health services in Whiteclay.
Phone messages left with Pine Ridge tribal officials and their spokesman were not immediately returned.
Pansing Brooks said she will continue pursuing initiatives to improve conditions in Whiteclay, where alcohol stores sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer last year despite having only a dozen full-time residents. Public drunkenness and violence have plagued the town for years, but recently it saw the addition of a new nursing home that will serve elderly Native Americans.
Earlier this year, Pansing and a local task force of Whiteclay residents released nearly identical proposals to address problems in the area.
The proposals include placing full-time Nebraska law enforcement in the area, creating a detoxification and treatment center, getting rid of abandoned buildings and developing a village economic development plan. The plans also include seeking authority from lawmakers to enact ordinances aimed at panhandling and vagrancy, and improving the state’s relationship with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose members live on the reservation.
Lawmakers have tried to address the problems before, with little success. Legislation that would have allowed tighter restrictions on alcohol sales in Whiteclay have stalled over the last several years amid opposition from the grocery store and alcohol industries.
Pansing Brooks said the idea for a tower came to her during an earlier visit with activists to Whiteclay when she was unable use her cellphone.
She said she met with Public Service Commission members who regulate cellular towers and later contacted Viaero Wireless, a client of her law firm. The wireless provider, which serves a large portion of rural Nebraska, agreed to build a tower in Whiteclay at its own expense.