Marchers again protest White Clay alcohol sales

Published June 15, 2005
By JOSHUA R. RUSSO
THE CHADRON RECORD

Tom Poor Bear, one of the Lakota speakers Saturday at an annual march from Pine Ridge, S.D. to White Clay, Nebraska to protest alcohol sales in the tiny village, told the crowd of about 300 demonstrators how he was greeted in White Clay at the first march six years ago.

Poor Bear spoke about snipers on the rooftops, trained attack dogs and tear gas. “The only weapon we had marching in here was wisdom, the wisdom of our elders, strength, the strength of our women and our future, the future of our children,” said Poor Bear. “We were not the criminals that day, we were the heroes.”

At the march six years ago, a line was drawn at the White Clay city limits. Nine of the marchers crossed the line. In June each year since a mixed group of people has protested the unsolved murders of Ronald Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk, Jr. and the continued alcohol sales in White Clay, which they believe contributed to the murders and fuels alcohol abuse on the adjacent reservation.

“We need to find 100 of our best men to go to Lincoln -and perhaps they will stay there until something changes,” said Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago tribe. “It has been six years too long. We still lose our people to alcohol use.”

The four liquor stores in White Clay, a town of fewer than 20 people, generate close to $3 million in alcohol sales a year, yet buyers have no legal place nearby to drink alcohol. Many of the customers take the alcohol back to the Pine Ridge reservation, where alcohol is banned. Others drink in the streets. The two-mile stretch of road between the town and the reservation is laden with litter and the danger of drunk drivers.

“Our children cannot live, cannot grow with this in our backyard,” he said.

The message Saturday at the march was mostly one of personal responsibility, and the empowerment of a tribe.

LaMere said that if the tribe wants to shut down the stores, the answer is simple: destroy the need. Leon Matthews, a Lakota minister watching the crowd of 300 Saturday, said the problems in White Clay can be solved by one action. “For things to change, we’re gonna have to stop drinking,” said Matthews.

LaMere also said that his formal request to Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman to politicize the issue of alcohol sales in White Clay was ignored. “You have a responsibility Governor Heineman,” LaMere said. “You ought to politicize the issue. We are beginning to make some positive changes.”

One of the changes that may come soon is the cross deputization of the Oglala Lakota police to enforce Nebraska laws in White Clay. The tribal council recently voted in favor of the action and a $100,000 federal appropriation is in the works to pay tribal costs of policing the village.

Poor Bear contended that, while the U.S. now pursues terrorists, terrorism against Native Americans existed for over 500 years. He listed names of people who have been murdered and reminded the marchers that Crazy Horse was also murdered in Nebraska. He said that the state of Nebraska is currently oppressing the Lakota people by allowing alcohol abuse in White Clay.

A number of non-tribal members also marched against the alcohol sales.

“As a Nebraskan, my concern is to find out how we can contribute,” said Mark Vasina, president of Nebraskans for Peace.

Vasina, who helped organize the march, said there are two reasons he marches the two mile stretch between White Clay and Pine Ridge, S.D. He wanted to show other Nebraskans how accessible alcohol is from the reservation. “People will understand how easy it is to get it,” he said, adding that the alcohol sales in White Clay are an insult to the Lakota, South Dakotans and Nebraskans.

He said the second reason is to put an image in the minds of White Clay’s alcohol vendors and Nebraska elected officials. He said the state of Nebraska is showing contempt for the Lakota’s decades-old policy of prohibition and efforts to promote sobriety. Vasina said that over 80 percent of families on the reservation are affected by alcohol abuse.

“We’re not here to tell the Lakota people what to do,” Vasina said. “We join with them to protect innocent children and families.”

Tim Rinne, another representative of the Nebraskans for Peace who has attended each of the six marches, said Nebraska elected officials “deliberately and intentionally” allow the alcohol sales when they have been asked numerous times by the Lakota and South Dakota to solve the problem.

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