Walk to Whiteclay: 300 people gather for memorial march

Published June 10, 2001

Whiteclay, Neb. – A red bandanna held Roy Johnson Helper’s long, straight, black hair in place Saturday as he walked with hundreds of Native marchers along a 2-mile stretch between the villages of Whiteclay and Pine Ridge, S.D.

This wasn’t the dark, weathered-faced man’s first trip to Whiteclay, but it was one that evoked hurt, pain and troubled emotions. It had been a week, he said, since he had had a drink, and on this day he was marching for a friend, one whose life ended near Whiteclay two years ago.

“I love my brother,” Helper said as he walked the hot black pavement in dull, faded jeans. “I feel like crying sometimes,” he said, the words no sooner said than tears appeared. And while Whiteclay elicits a personal ache, deep inside, that ache also links him to a town marred by sex and drugs, booze and death.

“Whiteclay has a history of trading sex, drugs and stolen goods for alcohol, providing alcohol on credit, selling to underage individuals, to intoxicated people,” said Frank LaMere, a Winnebago who marched to show his support for the Lakota people of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. Helper and about 300 people gathered in the streets of Whiteclay Saturday as part of a multi-ethnic march to commemorate the yet-unsolved deaths of two men who have risen to represent what Whiteclay is – and what people want it to be.

Today, it’s a town where four beer stores sell nearly four million cans of beer annually to residents of the nearby reservation, where alcohol is prohibited. But there are those who envision a town with no retail beer sales, its land officially recognized as part of the reservation. Although
Whiteclay has been noted regionally for decades, it grabbed national headlines two years ago.

On June 8, 1999, the brutally beaten bodies of Ronald Hard Heart and Wilson “Wally” Black Elk were found in field near Whiteclay just north of the reservation border. Since then, organizers like Tom Poor Bear have organized marches, sometimes on a weekly basis, between Pine Ridge and Whiteclay.

Poor Bear described Saturday’s march as successful. “We brought true unity to our people. All the races came to represent our Lakota Nation. There’s only a handful of us, but we march for millions.” The march ended with dozens of white Nebraskans joining the Lakota, the two groups forming a circle. “This kind of circle is the answer,” said Anne Radford of Scottsbluff, who participated as a result of organized efforts by Nebraskans for Peace. Those who marched met expectations of organizers, state officials and police officers. It was a peaceful event marked by prayer and solidarity. “I would credit the fact that the marches have been peaceful . . . to the cooperation between Nebraska government officials, the tribal police and Tom Poor Bear,” said Lt. Bret Friesz, a spokesman for the Nebraska State Patrol.

But not many people can forget the first march, in July 1999, marking Hard Heart’s and Black Elk’s deaths and protesting the beer sales. It sparked a riot that resulted in the looting and burning of a store.

Poor Bear has blamed the presence of 100 police officers in riot gear and armed with tear gas for provoking the violence.

Stan Star Comes Out, then Oglala Sioux Tribe chief of police, blames Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means, who was one of nine people arrested for crossing a police barrier into Nebraska.

“It was his speech that incited the incident,” said Star Comes Out, one of 40 Oglala police officers on hand in case violence broke out at Saturday’s march. Means didn’t attend Saturday, and tribal police joined 40 Nebraska state troopers, most making up a reserve force that kept out of sight. For people like LaMere, who marched to show his solidarity with the Lakota, Whiteclay represents a cancer that has afflicted many.

“Every reservation has its Whiteclay,” said LaMere. “The country is watching and hoping we can make change. When we change things at Whiteclay, we will change things throughout Indian Country.”

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