One man’s fight against alcohol dealers

Published December 14, 2008

LINCOLN, Neb. — Just south of Pine Ridge, S.D., is a place that Frank LaMere calls Nebraska’s “dirty little secret.”

It’s a place that has made national headlines for selling 11,000 cans of beer daily, mainly to the residents within walking distance on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It’s a place that has only 14 residents but boasts four liquor stores. It’s also a place that LaMere plans to bring up with President-elect Barack Obama. LaMere is an executive member of the Democratic National Committee.

“When I’m sitting across from the president of the United States, don’t you think that I’m gonna bring up Whiteclay?” he said here at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Film director Mark Vasina, Lincoln, unveiled his documentary, “The Battle for Whiteclay,” Nov. 15 to an audience of about 20 people at the university. The movie explores LaMere’s efforts to engage Nebraskans in the issue he said “has become very much an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation.”

As LaMere travels about the state, stopping to make a speech to future lawyers at the University of Nebraska and to speak to high school students at Creighton Preparatory High School in Omaha, he acknowledges that making his fellow Nebraskans aware of the situation is an important part of the Whiteclay solution.

“What do you do?” he asked the audience here. “I have a very simple answer to that: You do what you can.”

“You have to engage the political process,” he said. “I believe the laws are on the books.”

According to the documentary, catching store owners in the act of unlawfully selling to intoxicated people and minors or illegally allowing them to drink on store premises has yielded little results. Law enforcement has turned a blind eye to many of those rules, LaMere said.

He has been bringing attention to the Whiteclay issue for years. For that he’s been handcuffed and jailed, by both Nebraska and Oglala Sioux tribal police, for his peaceful protests. Often, he’s joined by fellow American Indian activists Duane Martin, Sr. and Russell Means.

“People said in the film, ‘We can get rid of alcohol stores but we can’t get rid of alcoholism,’” LaMere said. “That makes me mad.”

Vasina added that there is no easy solution to the rampant alcoholism plaguing Whiteclay. He has a few ideas, though, about where change can begin.

“The governor is the single most powerful person with respect to this issue,” Vasina said. “People say, ‘We treated the Indians very badly but that’s history.’”

He said he hopes his film shows that the effect of history is still alive today in Whiteclay.

‘Skid Row on the Prairie’

You can’t watch “The Battle for Whiteclay” without feeling a dutiful tug on your conscience, especially if you are an indigenous person.

This documentary follows the travels of American Indian activist Frank LaMere in his quest to bring down the profiteers of American Indian misery in Whiteclay, Neb., bordering South Dakota’s Ridge Indian Reservation. His efforts take the audience to the halls of the Nebraska State Legislature and protests throughout the state. Director Mark Vasina gives the viewer a quick history lesson of how this problem came to be.

The first portion, titled, “Skid Row on the Prairie,” sets the tone for the rest of the movie. LaMere immediately begs the question: “Would we allow the things that happen in Whiteclay to happen in western Omaha or southeast Lincoln?”

By filming marches and demonstrations, strategically making his point without formal interviews, Vasina puts viewers in the action. Rather than interview, he uses footage from organized marches, LaMere’s own testimonies, snippets of state congressional hearings and local county board meetings. Especially insightful testimonies come from representatives of the grocers association and the National Beverage Association. A lot of effort and resources seem to have gone into keeping Whiteclay so opportunely located.

In one march from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay, nine Native people, including LaMere, were arrested for crossing a line that the Nebraska State Highway Patrol swat team told them not to cross. They were loaded onto a bus and taken to jail. Just as powerful is a moment in the movie following the testimony of several people who live in Sheridan County, Neb. The apathy and underlying racism are devastating.

Keeping the liquor stores in Whiteclay, rather than closing them down and making it more difficult for people in Pine Ridge to get the alcohol that is illegal on their reservation, they enjoy the security of knowing that the problem of alcoholism, violence and traffic of Native people is far from their homes. Maintaining convenient access to alcohol in Whiteclay — in a corner of Sheridan County far from the homes of most residents — is masked under the guise of concern for lawful distribution and the rights of the store owners.

While I tire of seeing movies that beat to death the same woes in Indian Country, this movie went a step beyond that. It showed someone doing something about it. And that someone wasn’t just a good-hearted outsider. It was a Native person, albeit one from a different state.

In this movie, LaMere’s actions inspire.

Nancy Kelsey, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, is studying journalism at the University of Nebraska graduate school in Lincoln. She is a graduate of the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. She interned as a reporter at The Seattle Times last summer. Next summer she’ll report for The Associated Press in Boston.

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2 Responses to “One man’s fight against alcohol dealers”

  1. Alessandra Says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. thomas Says:

    thank you for helping open the eyes of the people maybe once again we can be a proud culture and not just dogs waiting for the goverment hand out and waiting to die in the streets. because of people like you we can now start to educate ourselves and take back our pride and sense of self and make our ansestors proud of us once more thank you please write back

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