PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) — In some respects, it could be any other supermarket in South Dakota.
Watermelons and lettuce lay in verdant piles. Bottles of shampoo and detergent line shelves. This week, you can buy 20 chicken leg quarters for only $19.80.
But in other ways, the Sioux Nation Shopping Center isn't like any other supermarket. Located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a 2-hour drive southeast of Rapid City, the store is the primary source of food for 30,000 Native Americans in one of the least developed regions in the nation and has faced regular scrutiny over food safety.
And now, after 46 years of operation, the Sioux Nation Shopping Center is faced with potential closure after the tribal government voted this month to terminate its lease and oust the store's owners by August, the Rapid City Journal reported (http://bit.ly/11ozzH4 ).
The tribe claims, among other concerns, that the store has repeatedly sold spoiled meat to customers, overprices its goods, and employs the majority of its 64 employees for less than 40 hours per week so it doesn't have to provide benefits.
The store disputes those charges and says it is has long-since corrected health violations that led to its temporary closure last year. Meanwhile, a groundswell of residents on the 30,000-resident reservation have come to the store's defense. As of last week, 500 people had signed a petition decrying the tribe's decision.
Ken Hart, 52, a self-employed mechanic and a spokesman for Cunkte Oyeta, a grasssroots group on the reservation, said the store's closure would devastate locals, many of whom don't have cars to drive to the nearest large supermarkets in Chadron, Neb., or Rapid City. And while there are other supermarkets in White Clay, Neb., three miles south of Pine Ridge, they are considerably smaller than Sioux Nation Shopping Center, and still difficult to reach for many residents.
"The people I represent don't have jobs, a lot of them live on fixed-income or disability, and they don't have the money to go off the reservation," he said.
Hart said the council made the decision for political reasons rather than substantiated concerns about the store's food or service. He said the tribal government's tendency to unduly interfere with private businesses is why the reservation has such difficulty attracting and sustaining companies.
"That's why we have no infrastructure here," he said. "That's why we have no jobs here."
Lyle Jack, the development manager for the tribe's office of economic development, wants to assure locals that they will not be left in a lurch.
Jack said he led an investigation into the supermarket at the request of the tribe. He said the tribe's concerns are genuine and he has extensive evidence to support them.
He said the tribe is talking with a number of parties off and on the reservation who could take over the management of the store, which is currently run by a San Diego company called Hi-Way 20. Those companies would agree to take on the store's current employees and ensure Pine Ridge still has a large supermarket to serve residents.
"The companies we are talking to say it will take 48 hours to restock everything, so it might be a day or two of no service, but that would be the longest," he said. "So I want to put that rumor to rest. We will have a store."
But those assurances haven't dampened concerns among regular customers at Sioux Nation Shopping Center. On Wednesday, weaving between dusty cars in the store's parking lot on South First Street in Pine Ridge, locals expressed mixed emotions about the tribe's decision.
Waylon Ghost Bear, 35, said he once bought a pack of spoiled beef chunks from the store and the store had to replace it. He also believed that the store sold items at twice the price of Walmart stores in Chadron and Rapid City.
Still, he said, he hoped it didn't close.
"That would be kind of inconvenient for most Indians around here," he said. "Most Indians don't have transportation."
Henry Lodge, 57, who drove his friends to the store on Wednesday from their homes in Pine Ridge, said he had purchased spoiled hamburger meat about two months ago. He said it was red on the outside but brown on the inside.
"I had to give it to my dog," he said.
In the backseat of Lodge's white SUV, Tony Whitecalf, 50, said it was widely believed that the store manager intentionally raised prices on the 10th of every month for "EBT Day," when low-income Americans receive government payments to buy food.
"I don't think the guy likes the people around here," he said. "He's just here for the money."
Rodney Golz, manager of Sioux Nation Shopping Center, disputed those claims and said there is a great deal of misinformation circulating in the community.
Golz said prices might appear higher on "EBT Day" if it fell on a Wednesday, when the store changes its discount prices.
As for food quality, Golz said that fears were still high after the Indian Health Service discovered spoiled meat in the store last year. But Golz said those problems had since been fixed. He had replaced the store's previous manager and said the store complied with all food safety practices.
Golz added that some customers were confused about the condition of packed meat. He said ground beef often appears brown on the inside where oxygen hasn't reached it. He said the store hung up posters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture around its meat section explaining the process.
"They don't understand that concept," he said.
Ultimately, Golz said, the tribe had not consulted store management about the store's alleged violations and had not shown it any evidence to back them up. He said the council's decision was made after five representatives from the tribe conducted a surprise inspection during a scheduled inspection by the Indian Health Service.
Golz said the Indian Health Service found no food safety violations. Meanwhile, the group of five, led by Lyle Jack, the development manager for the tribe's office of economic development, clambered through the store, filming and taking as many pictures as they could.
"They were basically just looking for dirt," he said.
However, Golz was confident that the tribe's attempt to revoke its license would be unsuccessful. He said the company was prepared to mount a vigorous legal challenge and that the tribal government couldn't simply terminate its contract.
Whatever the store's fate, some locals still aren't convinced the alleged crime warrants closure.
Hart said if he was an entrepreneur looking to start a business on the Pine Ridge Reservation, he would be watching closely.
"I would be worried about the council," he said. "They are so un-levelheaded. They are so unpredictable. In my view, it's all political."
Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com