Whiteclay grocers plan to reopen store

Published July 13, 1999

Despite television reports stating otherwise, owners of a Whiteclay grocery store looted during a June 27 march said they plan to rebuild and reopen.

On the eve of Gov. Mike Johanns’ Whiteclay tour and meeting with Oglala Sioux tribal leaders on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Vic and Deanna Clarke Monday started cleaning the market that was vandalized and burned about two weeks ago.

Reports they would walk away from VJ’s Market—a business generating millions of dollars during their six-year ownership—were false.

For days, they weren’t sure what to do, but Deanna Clarke said a sense of community obligation and an outpouring of customer support—mostly from the nearby reservation—helped them decide to reopen.

“The majority of people on the reservation do not believe in what took place,” she said. “The violence is not going to solve anything.” At 2 p.m. MST today, Johanns will visit the unincorporated town of 22 that has been the flash point of three protests by Oglala Sioux and American Indian Movement members.

March leaders have said the town epitomizes racist attitudes where Indians are assaulted, attacked and even murdered. They said the village’s four beer stores exploit residents of a reservation where alcohol sales are banned. Additionally they argued that Whiteclay belongs to the tribe, citing 19th century treaties.

In a telephone conference call with reporters Monday, Johanns said his first visit to Whiteclay will be in response to an invitation from Oglala Sioux Tribe President Harold Salway, whom he met with in Chadron July 2.

“The purpose of our meeting tomorrow is to continue the dialogue,” Johanns said. “With the lines of communication open, we can work toward solutions to the issues that have been raised surrounding Whiteclay.” It is unclear how long the governor will stay in Whiteclay. After the visit, he will spend about two hours on the reservation, where tribal leaders will set the agenda, Johanns spokesman Chris Peterson said.

Expected to join Johanns are U.S. Attorney Tom Monaghan of Omaha, Pascual Marquez, conciliation specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice in Kansas City, and Tom Cook of Chadron, a member of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.

Although the Oglala Sioux Tribe has a long history with the little border town, the marches were sparked by the recent murders of Pine Ridge residents Wilson Black Elk Jr., 40, and Ronald Hard Heart, 39. The men were found June 8 in a South Dakota roadside ditch just north of Whiteclay.

Angry over what they consider an inadequate response by law enforcement, an estimated 1,500 people gathered in Pine Ridge June 27 and marched two miles south to Whiteclay. At the end of the march, a relatively small number of people looted the store and engaged in a violent standoff with police.

The following weekend marchers retraced the route and nine American Indians were arrested and cited when they broke through a line of about 100 police wearing riot gear.

On Saturday about 80 people marched and posted signs in Whiteclay giving the beer stores and VJ’s Market 30 days to vacate. When asked about such demands, Johanns said businesses that operate legally have a right to stay open.

Some people have said VJ’s Market was targeted because Vic Clarke is a racist.

“People have latched onto rumors and just went with it, but it’s not true,” Deanna Clarke said of her husband.

“It’s been suggested that Vic is with the KKK or a white supremacist, which is totally false,” she said. “Our family is not about hate.” Although they have insurance, Deanna Clarke said an adjuster has not yet written an estimate of the store loss. Rebuilding custom doors, coolers, freezer compressors and burned floors and fixtures will take time, but they hope to reopen by early September.


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