Calls for peace, action dominate Indians’ rally

Published July 4, 1999

WHITECLAY, Neb. — Calls for militant action mingled with prayer drums and pleas for peace Saturday as Indian activists gathered to protest alleged treaty violations, unsolved murders and alcohol sales.

After an early afternoon rally, several hundred members of the Oglala Sioux tribe of South Dakota and activists began a two-mile march from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation over the state line toward Whiteclay.

As they approached, more than 100 riot-clad state troopers lined up to meet them. Troopers said they would allow the marchers into Nebraska, but not into the town, whose 22 residents had been ordered to leave the day before by Gov. Mike Johanns.

While tribal leaders said it would be a peaceful march, participants also have vowed to set up teepees and occupy the village until state officials address their concerns. It marked the second protest in recent days; a week ago, a rally in Whiteclay ended with looting and burning. “If I had it my way, we’d tear the damn town down to the ground, but we can’t do that,” said Clyde Bellecourt, American Indian Movement activist and an organizer of last week’s rally.

With President Clinton visiting Pine Ridge next week, tribal leaders said it was important to show they can solve problems without resorting to violence. The president is expected to discuss economic development in Indian communities and tour tornado-damaged parts of Oglala.

The protest stems from allegations by AIM leaders and members of the Oglala Sioux that the U.S. government has violated an 1868 treaty that reserved parts of North Dakota and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska for the Sioux.

Tribe members also are upset that four stores in Whiteclay sell more than $3 million worth of beer each year, mostly to Indians with drinking problems. Alcohol is banned on the reservation, a 5,000- square-mile expanse that is home to 15,000 Oglala Sioux and one of the nation’s highest alcoholism-related mortality rates.

“If the bars weren’t there, a lot of our people, including my cousin and younger brother, would be alive today,” said Tom Poor Bear, another organizer of last weekend’s rally.

Also, tribe members say local police haven’t done enough to investigate the deaths of Wilson Black Elk Jr., 40, and Ronald Hard Heart, 39, whose bodies were found June 8 in a culvert near the Nebraska line. Poor Bear is Black Elk’s older half-brother and Hard Heart’s cousin.

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