Indian activists hold Whiteclay for two hours

Published Monday August 9, 1999
BY PAUL HAMMEL AND JEFF BUNDY
OMAHA WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITERS

Whiteclay, Neb. – After taking over this tiny village on the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for two hours Sunday, Indian activists left, pledging instead to halt traffic from the reservation into Whiteclay and to use legal means to end alcohol sales.

About 20 Indians, a small remnant of the 200 who had marched on Whiteclay earlier in the afternoon, left the village at about 4:40 p.m. MDT after organizers met with Nebraska State Patrol Col. Tom Nesbitt.

Tom Poor Bear, who has led seven weeks of marches on Whiteclay, said he would seek an injunction from the Oglala Tribal Court today to end beer sales in the village, which he says was illegally taken from the tribe around the turn of the century.

Poor Bear also pledged to use human barricades to halt traffic from the reservation into Whiteclay, an unincorporated village of 22 that has four stores that sell 4 million cans of beer a year to reservation Indians.

“People don’t understand our spirituality or our cause, but they will understand them where it counts, and that is in their pocketbooks,” Poor Bear said.

Earlier Sunday, about 200 Indian activists marched into Whiteclay, pledging to take over the village and stay as long as it took to halt liquor sales there and end what they contend is racist treatment of Indians.

But about two hours after the occupation began, Nesbitt, who was directing a force of about 75 state troopers, walked into town and talked with Poor Bear. The 20 Indians remaining picked up picnic tables and a buffet they had set up in the middle of Whiteclay’s main street, Nebraska Highway 87, and walked out of town.

The action culminated four straight days of marches on the village and marked the seventh week of demonstrations against what organizers say is continued racism against Indians in Nebraska communities bordering the reservation.

“There’s not even a public restroom in this place,” said Poor Bear, as he spoke to about 200 marchers in the middle of Whiteclay. “It’s like the black people in the ’60s.”

One Whiteclay merchant said the reason wasn’t racism, but the lack of water from private wells in town.

Saturday’s threat to take over Whiteclay boosted tensions here and brought more state troopers and law enforcement officers from Sheridan County and nearby Rushville, Neb.

About 40 marked State Patrol cruisers, as well as three black vans and a school bus carrying black-clad troopers in riot gear, were near the village of 22 residents Sunday.

But confrontations between the troopers and the marchers were brief.

The marchers walked the two miles from Pine Ridge, S.D., to Whiteclay under cloudless skies and with temperatures in the mid-90s.

After praying for Wilson “Wally” Black Elk Jr. and Ronald Hard Heart, whose battered bodies were found just north of the state line with into South Dakota, they marched into Whiteclay, waving flags of the American Indian Movement, carrying photos of the two and bearing a banner that said, “Taking a Donated Town on Stolen Indian Land.”

Briefly, part of the crowd advanced on a dozen patrol cruisers parked at the south end of Whiteclay. The marchers shouted “Go home!” and “Don’t you have other places to be?”

Some rocks were thrown at a state trooper with a video camera on top of a Whiteclay business. Glue was poured into the locks of some businesses. And a woman wrote “Indian Killer” in the dust on the hood of a patrol cruiser.

But just as quickly as the confrontations started, march organizers called the people back. “Come on, we don’t want that,” Poor Bear shouted.

After a few speeches, Poor Bear announced the intention to occupy Whiteclay peacefully “to clean up the white man’s mess.”

“The town has illegally been here too long. Now, we’re exercising our right to live on and eat on our land,” Poor Bear said, restating a contention by the activists that Whiteclay was wrongfully taken in 1904 from the tribe, which bans all alcohol sales and possession on its land.

Unlike Saturday, every business in Whiteclay, including a grocery store that does not sell beer, was closed Sunday when the march began.

As Cora Daugherty locked the gates on the Stateline Auto Service repair shop she co-owns, she expressed her anger at the lack of protection from the State Patrol and Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns.

“He doesn’t care about us,” Daugherty said. She said the police presence was increased only after she threatened to take her own steps to protect her business. “It’s all we’ve got,” she said.

The deaths of Black Elk and Hard Heart have rekindled feelings of distrust between Indian activists and law enforcement officials on both sides of the border over unsolved murders on and near the reservation since the 1970s. They also inflamed feelings that the alcohol sales at Whiteclay are to blame.

Others, including area merchants and many Indians on the Pine Ridge reservation, say that closing the Whiteclay beer outlets will only move the problem farther away or increase the reselling of beer and wine by bootleggers on the reservation. Alcoholics, they say, will drive as far as necessary to feed their habit.

And they blame the recent marches on outsiders.

Poor Bear, who is Black Elk’s half brother, is sergeant at arms for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and lives in nearby Wamblee. He dismissed the fact that AIM leaders Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks weren’t there Sunday, saying that they supported the cause in other ways.

Poor Bear said he must fly to Minneapolis on a family matter today, but he said he will ask the Oglala Tribal Court to issue an injunction against alcohol sales in Whiteclay.

He said he would meet Tuesday with federal attorneys in Rapid City, S.D., to discuss why autopsy reports on the two slain men haven’t been released.

Wendell Bird Head, an Oglala Sioux who lives in Omaha, said he traveled to participate in the Whiteclay marches this weekend because people in his hometown need to realize that Indians on the reservation are still subjected to racism.

“There’s a double standard here,” Bird Head said. “We’re peaceful people, but we’re getting tired of they way we’re being treated.”

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