Man’s burns spur questions about negligence

By Paul Hammel / OMAHA WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — A Lakota Sioux man was seriously injured in a recent controlled burn of vacant lots in Whiteclay, Neb., and family members and friends question whether firefighters were negligent in not checking the area before igniting the blaze.

Bryan Blue Bird Jr., 51, of Pine Ridge, S.D., was hospitalized with burns over 25 percent of his body after the March 7 incident.

Volunteer firefighters from Rushville had been burning off thick grass from vacant lots to reduce fire risks to local businesses when Blue Bird was spotted amid the flames, according to Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins.

He said firefighters doused the unemployed military veteran with water and then pulled him from the fire area.

Blue Bird is in the intensive care unit of a Greeley, Colo., hospital, where he is scheduled for a skin graft on his hands Thursday. He also has burns on his face and back, family members said.

His longtime girlfriend, Patricia White Bear Claw, said firefighters should have more thoroughly checked the vacant lots, where drinkers often end up after buying beer in the unincorporated village.

“They know they sit down there and drink. They know that. They should have checked,” White Bear Claw said.

She said it was another example of the lack of “respect” shown for Native Americans in Whiteclay.

“But if not for them, they wouldn’t be making all that money,” White Bear Claw said.

The northwest Nebraska town has drawn national notoriety for its four liquor stores that sell 4 million cans a beer a year, mostly to residents of the adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is officially banned.

It has also sparked a recent federal lawsuit, alleging that breweries and the liquor stores are to blame for the alcohol-related problems on the reservation.

White Bear Claw and Blue Bird’s sister, Carla Cheyenne, said the family has contacted Omaha attorney Tom White to consider a lawsuit over the burn incident. White, a former Nebraska state senator, did not immediately return a phone message. He filed the recent lawsuit on behalf of the Oglala Sioux Tribe seeking $500 million in damages.

Robbins said he was in Whiteclay when the controlled burn was being conducted. He said firefighters had checked the area before igniting the fire.

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