They marched for their dead brothers…

Published June 27, 1999
BY JOE DUGGAN
LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR

They marched for their dead brothers, their dead sons, their dead people.

About 2,000 Oglala Sioux people marched from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to this Sheridan County border town, the center of anguish for those who’ve lost family members here.

For four hours, the emotional march progressed peacefully. Then, in one hour of white-hot anger, it disintegrated into looting, arson and a police standoff.

“We’re here today to tell Nebraska, all the way to the governor, that this is our land,” said Russell Means, an Oglala and high-profile member of the American Indian Movement, as he stood on the north edge of town.

Minutes after his speech, the blue-sky Nebraska day spun out of control.

Before it was over, a line of roughly 40 law enforcement officers — some wearing Plexiglas face shields and carrying tear gas guns — marched into town.

As Nebraska State Patrol troopers and Oglala Tribal Police struggled to gain control of the situation, a tense standoff ensued in the center of the unincorporated village.

It started with about a dozen Indian men tearing down the large metal “Welcome to Nebraska” sign on the edge of town and ended with looting and a fire at VJ’s Market in Whiteclay.

Protesters pelted officers with rocks, epithets and screams of “murderers” and “killers.” One Indian officer repeatedly beat a protester with a baton, but no shots were fired. A Los Angeles Times photojournalist shooting pictures of the looting was struck by protesters and had cameras stolen. Another photographer also had his cameras taken.

“Whiteclay is no longer Whiteclay, you lost it to the Lakotas,” one woman shouted at authorities.

No arrests were made, according to Nebraska State Patrol spokeswoman Terri Teuber. An investigation is ongoing into the fire. No injuries were reported, she said, but several Indian people appeared to have suffered minor cuts, scrapes and bruises in the melee.

By late afternoon, officers regained full control, but the word around the reservation was that some people were attempting to rally another assault on the town.

“I just can’t believe it can happen in the United States,” said VJ’s market owner Vic Clarke, after firefighters had left and as he tried to take stock of his losses. “I just can’t believe it.” Making sense of the violence may never happen, but its roots go back 27 years to an Oglala man named Raymond Yellow Thunder.

On a February night in 1972, the hard-drinking brothers Leslie and Melvin Hare beat Yellow Thunder, stripped him from the waist down, stuffed him in a trunk and drove around Gordon. At one point, they tried to force the injured, half-naked man onto a crowded dance floor at the American Legion.

Yellow Thunder spent the night in jail. The next morning, he went to a Gordon used car-lot, sat behind the wheel of a pickup and died of a brain hemorrhage.

“The Oglala people stood up and said that’s enough and they took over Gordon for two days,” Means said Saturday. In a gymnasium full of tribal members in Pine Ridge, he recalled the AIM protest he led to the Sheridan County seat 27 years ago. Since then, there have been unsolved murders on the reservation, but it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact number.

During the lawless, violent times of the early 1970s, tribal police known as “goon squads” hunted AIM members, who represented a threat to the elected leadership, said Clyde Bellecourt of Minneapolis, one of AIM’s co-founders.

In the early to mid-1970s, more than 60 unsolved murders occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation, according to tribal members and scholars who’ve researched the era.

Mark Vukelich, an FBI supervisory special agent in Rapid City, S.D., disagreed. He said the number of unsolved homicides is “a handful.” So when Wilson “Wally” Black Elk Jr. and Ronald Hard Heart were found dead June 8 in a reservation highway ditch a few hundred yards north of Whiteclay, it harkened to the days of Yellow Thunder.

Two weeks after the bodies were found, family members had received little information about the killings. Tom Poor Bear, an Oglala living in Rapid City who is the brother of Black Elk and the cousin of Hard Heart, said he felt the old suspicions creeping in.

Rumors ran rampant, especially around Whiteclay. The village is the closest place to buy beer for people living on the dry Pine Ridge Reservation. Friends have reported last seeing the victims taking the two-mile walk south at various times before their deaths.

One of the most persistent rumors is that a Sheridan County sheriff’s deputy killed the men. Authorities, from the FBI to Sheriff Terry Robbins, said the rumor is unfounded.

“They can deny all they want to the mistreatment of Indians, but we’ve experienced it,” Poor Bear said.

In addition, Poor Bear said there have been about a half-dozen unattended deaths in and around Whiteclay in the past few years. Poor Bear added that families of the deceased all saw evidence the victims were beaten.

Sheriff Robbins said he was familiar with four of the cases and the deaths were caused by alcohol, exposure, a fall and a pedestrian-vehicle accident. Officials with the FBI and the Oglala Sioux tribal police said they knew of no unsolved homicides in recent years.

When asked about allegations that Sheridan County law enforcement authorities ignore crimes against Indians, County Attorney Dennis King said, “I don’t even want to dignify that comment. We do our duty and it doesn’t have anything to do with race.” Pine Ridge is the second-largest of the nation’s 320 Indian reservations. Its boundaries encompass roughly 5,000 square miles at the foot of the Badlands, and it is home to about 18,000 Oglala Sioux.

History breathes in the Pine Ridge, and it stirs the people like the wind sways a field of buffalo grass. This is the land of Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, perhaps the greatest warriors of the Indian Wars.

Each June 26, the Oglala call a tribal holiday to celebrate their 1876 victory over Lt. Col. George Custer at the Little Big Horn.

Once nomadic bison hunters, the government forced the Oglala to adapt to the fixed lifestyle of white European settlers more than a century ago. The government provided housing, food, medicine that began a relationship of dependency that still exists today.

That relationship has not been good for the Oglala.

Residents of reservations face staggering unemployment. It is estimated that eight out of 10 people living on the Pine Ridge are jobless. Unemployment causes widespread poverty and Shannon County, S.D., is considered the poorest in America.

Poverty leads to despair. Depression is common and suicide rates on the reservation are six to eight times the national average. Social service workers say up to 90 percent of Pine Ridge residents have alcohol problems. Excerpt, “We’re up against people who think it’s OK to kill Indian people,” Banks said. “They think it’s OK because they’ll get away with it.” The air inside the gym was infused with the aroma of burning sage and tobacco. Soon, a band of Oglala drummers sang a prayer song in honor of Black Elk and Hard Heart.

Families and friends said both men were kind and willing to help out others on the reservation. Black Elk, 40, was described as a spiritual man. He loved his nieces and nephews and was working to put his life together so he could obtain custody of his six children.

“The Great Spirit didn’t call for him, somebody sent him,” Poor Bear said. “Wally had too many things to do here on Mother Earth.” Hard Heart, 39, worked odd jobs and was always willing to help, said Bamm Brewer, an Oglala who raises bison on a ranch west of Pine Ridge village. But Hard Heart had a drinking problem and he hung out at Whiteclay a lot.

“Sometimes I’d pick him up, take him home and let him sober up,” Brewer said. “Now I wish I would have done a better job looking out for him.” After the rally, the marchers poured onto the streets of Pine Ridge. The drum singers loaded into a pair of pickups and the people began their 2-mile march to Whiteclay.

Several hundred yards long, the procession filled the highway from shoulder to shoulder. Marchers sang, thrust their fists into the air and beckoned people lining the route to join in. Family members carried photographs of the victims.

When they reached the spot where the bodies were found, the families walked down, said more prayers and planted flags in the ground. Then the marchers crossed into Whiteclay. The procession went to the south edge of the town and back to the state line.

Along the way, some people yelled “start it on fire,” but people laughed and seemed not to take it seriously.

Means told the people the Dawes Act of 1887 gave the pine-covered escarpments of northwestern Nebraska to the Oglala. He said he will urge tribal leaders to seek the return of the land to the Lakota.

Soon after, about a dozen Indian men began shaking a large metal sign on the north side of Whiteclay. Before long, “Welcome to Nebraska, the Home of Arbor Day,” was being lifted by the group and carried through the streets of Whiteclay.

They carried the sign to the south edge of town, where a pair of Nebraska State Patrol cruisers waited. They slammed it down, spat on it then taunted the troopers.

As they turned back into town, others smashed the glass doors of VJ’s Market. Soon looters began pouring out of the market carrying cartons of Marlboros, cases of Pepsi, boxes of candy and even watermelons.

Observers said the looters targeted the market because its owner has a reputation for mistreating — even assaulting — Indian people. Market owner Vic Clarke called the allegations absurd.

As the State Patrol cars slowly crept toward the looters, rocks flew. Soon, thin smoke started seeping from the market doors.

A fire truck drove up to the store, but firefighters abandoned it after being pelted by rocks and bottles. That seemed to prompt the officers to move in.

For what seemed like hours, angry faces shouted at each other over an invisible line in the highway. Police wanted the protesters to move back to the state line. The protesters refused to budge and they seemed particularly incensed by the tribal police who stood side-by-side with the Nebraska officers.

“Why don’t you stay over there, traitors,” a woman yelled.

Finally the tension eased somewhat when Chief Oliver Red Cloud, a respected elder of the tribe, told the protesters to back up. Eventually, most of the marchers left the town. The AIM leaders apparently left earlier.

Meanwhile, the editor of the Scottsbluff (Neb.) Star-Herald, Steve Miller, said he had received phone calls Saturday from protesters who threatened to “take over the town” unless Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns arrived by today.

“The governor doesn’t deal with demands,” said Chris Peterson, a spokesman for Johanns. “Making a demand that the governor travel two miles or two hours seems foolish, considering the governor’s open-door policy. His home phone number is listed and he is always willing to listen and work with people.” Sen. Bob Wickersham of Harrison said he was not aware of the incident but said he “would have to hope” it was not the result organizers intended.

“I can’t imagine any circumstances under which it is appropriate as a form of protest or expression to destroy property or to harm others,” he said. “I do not think that additional acts of violence will contribute to any reduction in future violence, nor do I think it serves as a salve for old wounds or injustices.”

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