Nine protesters arrested for crossing police line

Published Sunday July 4, 1999
BY JOE DUGGAN
LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR

WHITECLAY — The sound of the police officer’s calm, amplified voice seemed
unreal against the scene of hundreds of Oglala Sioux Indian marchers
bearing down on a riot squad at the Nebraska state line.

“THIS IS THE NEBRASKA STATE PATROL, DISPERSE OR ENFORCEMENT MEASURES WILL
BE TAKEN.” The warning had the opposite effect. Feet shuffling quickly
against hot pavement filled the air with dust and nearly drowned out shouts
of “Get out, you’re on our land!” or “Let’s take Whiteclay, NOW!” Armed
police wearing black helmets and bulletproof vests held tight to protect
the handful of businesses in the unincorporated town. A Nebraska State
Patrol helicopter cut circles in the sky above, the sound of its rotors
making it hard to hear.

The officer with the bullhorn repeated his warning over and over and over.

But the marchers, angry over alcohol sales and unsolved deaths of their
people near the town that borders the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, kept
coming. Believing they had the constitutional right to demonstrate in
Whiteclay, a lead group of marchers ignored the warning and broke through a
yellow plastic streamer that marked the police line.

The response came quickly … and as promised.

Officers arrested nine protesters — including American Indian Movement
activist Russell Means — and led them to a waiting school bus, but not
before one could slap a sticker on a plastic riot shield that read, “You
are on Indian land.” If human feelings like tension and fury take physical
form, they did Saturday afternoon on that police barricade at Whiteclay.
They could be seen in the enraged woman as she screamed at an armed officer
not 3 feet away. They could be heard in the voice of a rally organizer as
he pleaded with the crowd to keep the promise that this march — unlike one
a week before — would remain peaceful.

“We keep our agreements, they break their agreements,” said Clyde
Bellecourt of Minneapolis, a co-founder of the American Indian Movement.
“Let’s not be like the white people.” Dozens of Oglala Sioux wanted to
follow the nine who crossed the line. But instead, Indian leaders and law
enforcement officers brokered a deal in the middle of Nebraska 87: If
marchers returned peacefully to Pine Ridge, those arrested would be
released immediately on their own recognizance.

Not everybody was happy about it; not by a long shot, but gradually
everyone turned around and left.

Later, those arrested walked into Billy Mills Hall in Pine Ridge and raised
their fists into the air to cheers. They included Means, former tribal
President John Yellow Bird Steele, rally organizer Tom Poor Bear and Frank
LaMere, a Winnebago Indian from South Sioux City, who for two years has
worked to end beer sales in Whiteclay.

The 49-year-old activist decried what he called an illegal arrest of people
who planned a peaceful demonstration.

“I am ashamed to be a Nebraskan today,” LaMere said. “It was pure and
simple intimidation.” Gov. Mike Johanns defended the arrests for failure to
obey a lawful order.

“Any person who fails to obey an order issued in a matter of emergency
during crowd-control efforts is in violation of the law,” he said in a
press release.

Nebraska State Patrol Capt. Tom Parker of Scottsbluff praised the nearly
100 troopers, Sheridan County sheriff’s deputies and 30 tribal officers who
participated in the effort.

“We felt it was successful because nobody got hurt on either side,” he said.

Nearly all of the town’s 22 residents were evacuated Friday in anticipation
of the rally. Most stayed with friends and family in the area, and will do
so until decisions are made on when to reopen the town. Parker said
authorities and business owners would meet today.

In addition, he said the patrol will maintain a presence in the town for
the foreseeable future.

For the second Saturday in a row, residents of Pine Ridge made the 2-mile
walk south to Whiteclay and for the second time, a police confrontation
ensued. Last week, the march ended violently as Indians vandalized, looted
and set fire to a grocery store, then threw rocks at responding officers.
No one was seriously injured in the melee and no arrests were made.

The reasons for both rallies were the same.

First, Oglala Sioux people in Pine Ridge believe prejudice has prevented
investigations of the deaths of several Indian people near Whiteclay. Those
long-held beliefs were brought to the forefront June 8 with the discovery
of homicide victims Wilson Black Elk, 40, and Ronald Hard Heart, 39, in a
roadside ditch just a few hundred yards from the village.

FBI agents and tribal police are investigating the slayings and they have
offered a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Law
enforcement officers on the reservation and Sheridan County said they know
of no other unsolved murders and they denied that racism factors into their
investigations.

Such denials don’t assuage the victims’ family members and AIM activists.

“There is rage here, America,” AIM leader Dennis Banks said at Saturday’s
rally. “America must understand if a building goes down, that’s our rage.
You kill our people. White America should say no more murders at Whiteclay
and Whiteclay should be shut down.” Many allege a Sheridan County sheriff’s
deputy assaults Indians in Whiteclay and some suspect he was involved in
the deaths of Black Elk and Hard Heart. Banks called on authorities to give
the deputy a lie-detector test.

Another issue surrounding the unincorporated village of 22 is beer sales.
Of the town’s businesses, four sell $3 million in beer per year, mostly to
residents of the reservation.

Alcoholism has a huge impact on the tribe’s health care systems, said
tribal President Harold Salway as he addressed several hundred people
attending the rally in Billy Mills Hall. He urged marchers to be prayerful
and peaceful.

“I came to pray with you today,” Salway said. Last week, he was meeting
with White House officials to plan Wednesday’s visit of President Clinton.

As a demonstration of solidarity, Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers made
the trip from Omaha to attend Saturday’s rally. He denounced the fact that
Nebraska could finance a large police effort to protect white businesses in
Whiteclay, but it couldn’t find a solution to the Indian problems there.

Then the rally spilled out of the gymnasium and into a sauna-like
afternoon. Participation seemed somewhat below the estimated 1,500 people
march organizers said were present last week.

The march progressed much the same. Walkers carried hand-written signs with
“Whiteclay Nebraska Still Belongs to the Lakota,” in reference to claims by
Oglala leaders that the land on which Whiteclay is located was given to the
tribe through treaties and the Dawes Act of 1887. Other posters carried
messages like “Most Wanted: Lakota Killers” and “Remember Trail of Tears.”
“Too many of our people die and nobody does anything about it,” said
56-year-old Feleta Two Bulls, explaining why she was marching.

The procession stopped regularly to pray. Will Peters, an Oglala from Pine
Ridge, offered a prayer for the children who walked with their parents and
grandparents.

“Talk to them, teach them, let them know our history,” Peters said.

They stopped for a final time before reaching Whiteclay at the spot where
Black Elk and Hard Heart were found.

Sweat glistened on their brows as they cast an eye to dozens of law
enforcement officers standing at the Nebraska-South Dakota border.

Means, who led an Indian protest to Gordon 27 years ago in response to the
murder of an Oglala man, said he was planning to cross the line and get
arrested to test the Nebraska courts. He cautioned that anyone who went
with him would likely be arrested, too.

Later, after being released in Pine Ridge, Means denounced the Oglala Sioux
tribal police who stood alongside officers from the Nebraska State Patrol
and Sheridan County sheriff’s deputies.

“There’s no excuse for an Oglala Lakota in uniform to act against their own
people who were exercising their own rights,” he said.

Pine Ridge public safety officer Joe Herman said tribal officers were
trying to protect Oglala people as much as work with Nebraska authorities.

“If they can help keep the situation from going out of control, people
won’t be hurt. I guess it’s our job not to take it personally,” he said. “I
think we saved a lot of injuries from both sides.” During the march, Billy
Joe Bene rode bareback on a horse named Buffalo Chaser. Later, as he and
his horse began their 2-mile ride back to Pine Ridge, he reflected on the day.

“I hope something comes of it,” he said. “I hope something comes of it.”

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