CINEFILMS Review: The Battle for Whiteclay

Published November 8, 2009

Heroes come in many forms and the hero in this film is a local Nebraska activist named Frank LaMere.

The documentary film deals with LaMere’s effort to engage government officials in stopping the sale of liquor in Whiteclay Nebraska, a Nebraska border town within walking distance of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota.

This isn’t a new project for LaMere, but rather it’s his passion and he’s been pursuing it for years. He has every intention of meeting with President Obama and bringing the issue to his attention.

LaMere and fellow American Indian activists Duane Martin Sr. and Russell Means, while conducting totally peaceful protests, have been handcuffed and jailed by both Nebraska and Oglala Sioux police.

They are filmed at protests and in board rooms, presenting their arguments and repeatedly getting turned down for help.

Watching this film it’s amazing that the Nebraskans in political office can so calmly take the situation under advisement and then rule in favor of allowing the liquor stores to renew or get new licenses in Whiteclay.

Native Americans are not permitted alcohol on the reservation. They’re also not allowed to drink alcohol on the local roads, while driving or walking, in stores, restaurants or motels and yet they buy it from the distributors in Whiteclay, get drunk and get into trouble.

When LaMere argues that shutting down the distributors or revoking their licenses will make it much more difficult for people from the reservation to purchase alcohol because they won’t have the means or want to travel further, he is ignored by people in authority.

The rate of alcoholism among the Native American population in Pine Ridge is high and yet legislators insist during meetings that cutting off the alcohol will not help lower alcoholism.

Their argument seems almost ridiculous,since it’s a fact that alcoholism is a medical disease and providing a close source of alcohol simply feeds the illness.

Watching this film is uncomfortable for the viewer. Some scenes are just difficult to watch while others are extremely frustrating.

It’s clear to see that something has to be done and the Lincoln, Nebraska legislators have it within their means to do something positive by voting to cancel the licenses for the four distributors which would make obtaining liquor very difficult for residents of the Pine Ridge SD reservation.

I had the pleasure of hearing Frank LaMere speak following a screening of the film. He is as compelling a speaker in person as he is on screen. His arguments and suggestions make sense and one wonders how legislative committees can listen and then ignore his pleas.

Even worse, although always peaceful, an American, and a resident of Nebraska, he has been arrested for walking from the South Dakota reservation down the road across the state line, into Nebraska, where he is a registered resident and actually resides. What a terrible infringement of human rights.

Vasina’s approach to making this documentary is brilliant because he focuses on the activists who are vocally but peacefully fighting for change in the border town.

He doesn’t reiterate the stories about reservation families suffering because of alcoholism or follow those individuals who are wrecking their lives by buying alcohol and drinking in Whiteclay.

Instead Vasina mentions that the four stores in Whiteclay sell over 11,000 cans of beer daily, and it’s to the Native Americans primarily, not to the tourists who come to visit where the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre historic site.

Vasina films the activists and their supporters making compelling and logical arguments. Among the best is LaMere’s questiion “Would we allow these things that happen in Whiteclay to happen in western Omaha or southeast Lincoln?”

The answer is obvious. No. If the same type of drunken activity went on in western Omaha or southeast Lincoln, the residents, primarily white men, would vote to put an end to it.

It becomes obvious as we follow the trials and tribulations of the activists that the white legislators aren’t concerned with helping the Native Americans, placing a lesser value on their lives and their problems.

Instead the legislators consistently vote to reissue licenses to the Whiteclay distributors, allowing them to continue making high profits by selling alcohol to people suffering from the illness of alcoholism.

Limiting alcohol in Whiteclay may not cure alcoholism but it will definitely have an positive effect in controlling a serious illness and contribute to a healthier way of life for all residents of the Pine Ridge S.D. reservation.

Director: Mark Vasina
Cast: Frank LaMere, Duane Martin Sr., Russell Means, Lyle Jack, Rhonda R. Flowers, R.L.Coyne, and members of the Nebraska State Highway Patrol, members of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, members of the Nebraska legislature, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, members of the Oglala Sioux police
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Genre: Documentary

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