Tensions build in Whiteclay, Nebraska

Published Sunday August 8, 1999

Whiteclay, Neb. – A suspected arson fire early Saturday and promises to “take over Whiteclay” today raised tensions another notch in this town bordering the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

While a third straight day of demonstrations ended without violence or destruction Saturday, organizers promised that today would be the day that Indian activists move to enact “cease-and-desist” orders presented to the four liquor stores here. The stores annually sell an estimated 4 million cans of beer to Indians on the reservation, which bans alcohol.

“Tomorrow, Whiteclay is ours,” shouted Dale Looks Twice, one of the demonstration organizers. “No more killing our people with alcohol.”

About 180 Indian activists marched on Whiteclay Saturday from nearby Pine Ridge, S.D., in the continuation of seven weeks of protests against beer sales to Indians and to call attention to the unsolved deaths two months ago of two Indian men.

The number of marchers fell well short of projections that as many as 1,000 people would join the protests because of the large influx of people for the reservation’s annual pow-wow this weekend. But organizers said that today’s march would meet that figure and would include American Indian Movement leaders such as Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt who were not among the marchers on Saturday.

“We will show Whiteclay that we are serious,” said Tom Poor Bear, an Oglala tribe sergeant-at-arms and half-brother of one of the slain men.

At an impromptu rally Saturday in the middle of Whiteclay, organizers pointed to a parade float decorated with boxes depicting structures in a Whiteclay of the future – indoor swimming pools, movie theaters but no alcohol establishments. “When we take over Whiteclay tomorrow,” Looks Twice said Saturday, to hoots and shouts from the crowd, “this is what it will look like.”

A dress shop, closed years ago and now used for storage, was set ablaze early Saturday. The fire was reported about 1:45 a.m. MDT, shortly after law enforcement officers – a constant presence over the past two days – had left the dusty village for the night.

An estimated $10,000 in damage was done to the B-S Lakota Store before firefighters from nearby Rushville could extinguish the flames. The Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office are investigating.

There was a strong smell of diesel fuel in the building, said Capt. Tom Parker of the Nebraska State Patrol, which suggests an arson fire.

“It’s made everyone a little jumpier,”said Ruby Robbins, a clerk at the Jack & Jill Grocery Store in Whiteclay.

Inside the business Saturday afternoon, owner Tim Hotz paced as he pulled on a cigarette and waited for the marchers. Another clerk chewed his fingernails as he looked out onto the sun-baked main street, Nebraska Highway 87. In three vans parked at the end of the street, Nebraska state troopers, dressed in black SWAT team clothing, waited. A plane circled overhead. Nearly 20 patrol cruisers were in town, assisted by county sheriff’s and tribal police cars. By midday, only one liquor store, the Arrowhead Inn, remained open, selling cases and 12-packs of beer at a brisk pace. It closed during the three-hour march and rally. Hotz, who has owned the Jack & Jill (which sells no beer) for 18 years, said he planned to wait and see what happens today. His was the only business in Whiteclay to remain open during the march. “My business was still in town,” he said, referring to the float replica of a new Whiteclay. Parker said the job of law enforcement will remain the same today: to protect the property and people of Whiteclay.

Down the street, Indian activists living at Camp Justice, a temporary camp of tepees and tents just across the border into South Dakota, vowed to remain camped there until answers come in the investigation of the deaths of Wilson “Wally” Black Elk Jr. and Ronald Hard Heart. Their beaten bodies were found on June 8, just north of the state line in South Dakota. The FBI and the Oglala Tribal Police are investigating. The deaths of the two men have fueled rumors about whether they were killed in Nebraska and dumped across the border, as well as speculation that law enforcement officials, gang members or even hate squads were to blame. “If these two people murdered were white people, they would have had this area swarming with FBI agents and they would have solved this by now,”said Poor Bear, a half-brother of Black Elk.

Indians on the reservation, and nearby white residents, disagree on whether closing the Whiteclay stores would help lessen rampant alcohol problems on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Many, however, agree that the lack of progress in the investigation of the deaths has fueled rumors and distrust and that the marches can help address that.

“I think what they’re doing is good,” 65-year-old Pine Ridge resident Bill Horn Cloud said of the marches. He remembers the days, now long gone, when “No Dogs, No Indians” signs were displayed at businesses in Alliance, his hometown. On Saturday, Horn Cloud golfed along with 140 others in the annual all-Indian tournament in Gordon and watched the traditional pow-wow parade in Pine Ridge. He didn’t march with the demonstrators but hoped they would help draw attention, and action, to the investigations. “There are some unsolved murders here,” he said.

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