American Indian tribe are marching on the prairies again

Published August 11, 1999

WHITECLAY (Nebraska, US): ┬áIt is the “Moon of the Drying Grass”, time of the Sun Dance, but the season is unquiet – the Oglala Sioux are marching on the prairies again.

This time the face of their legendary chief, Crazy Horse, looks out from a flag in the wind, carried through the heat by a man called Wolf wearing the black paramilitary beret of the American Indian Movement, back in action on the Pine Ridge reservation for the first time since the famous Wounded Knee occupation of 1973.

Wolf did three tours with the Marines in Vietnam and was, of course, here in ’73. He draws on a pipe: “I fought in ‘Nam, I fought on the reservation and I’d fight again now.”

The destination of the march is the scrappy town of Whiteclay, outside the reservation, over the Nebraska state line, but set in land conceded to, and claimed by, the Oglala Sioux and other tribes under the treaty of 1868, which remains America’s great unhealed wound.

Today an eviction order served by the protesters from a tepee encampment called Camp Justice expires. The order was served on eight white businesses in town, including a bar which the protesters accuse of destroying their people in a wash of alcohol sold for vast profits.

The camp was established for a second reason: the torture and murder of two Oglala last month, their bodies dumped in a ditch just over the state line inside the reservation. On Monday several
thousand were expected to march into Whiteclay.

“I don’t like force,” said a man called Eagle Hawk, who gave up a job worth $2,000 a month in Kansas to join Camp Justice. “But whatever it takes – whatever it takes. On Sunday, we make peace by whatever means.”

The battle between Whiteclay and the Sioux is a convergence of anger, outrage, desperation and resistance – it is the focus for a sudden surge of militancy in America’s poorest county.

Unemployment on Pine Ridge reservation runs at 90 per cent – Bill Clinton came through last month making promises but impressed few.

Whiteclay, meanwhile, is a town of 22 white people which net $4.2 million a year from three shops and five bars or liquor stores to which hundreds of Oglalas make their way to drink themselves stupid and then stagger home – if they are lucky. But this is also the town in which Wilson Black Elk and Ron Hard Heart last month became the latest and most villainously killed victims in a string of murders by what those encamped at the cluster of tepees beside the ditch in which they were dumped insist are the work of “the Ku Klux Klan, the
cops or both”.

Meanwhile, five American Indian bodies have been recovered from the river at ┬áRapid Creek to the north. The coroner says they had alcohol in their blood – there are rumours on the reservation of stabbing and beating. Whiteclay cuts also to the heart of the issue of land, and the treaty of 1868.

It is but one touchstone in a sudden flurry of activity over the treaty. Over the other side of the reservation, on an island in the Missouri called La Framboise, another array of tepees, banners and campfires has been established in protest against a law passed in Congress recently assigning federal land not to the tribes to whom it was guaranteed under the treaty but to the state of South Dakota.

But this weekend, the flashpoint is Whiteclay.

The demonstrators on last Thursday’s march out of the reservation stopped four times to pray before arriving in town to face the watchful barrels of the state troopers’ guns and the confident smiles of the bar and liquor store owners.

“This is our land,” thundered Tom Poor Bear, organizer of the march and brother of one of the murdered men. “Instead, it’s a place where our people are not safe to walk the streets. My patience is running out. If this place is not shut down on Sunday, Camp Justice moves to town” – that means across the state line, into Nebraska and “enemy territory”.

“Leaving?”, says Jeff, a barman in the Arrowhead Inn, “of course I ain’t leaving. This is our town, this is Nebraska, not a reservation. I ain’t heard of no treaty.”

At Camp Justice, preparing for the march, the mosquitoes bite and the grasshoppers thwack into the hurricane lamps. The tepee poles reach into a star-spangled sky, their banners flying and the campfires crack. The campers are from a new generation of militants, impatient with degradation and seeking to return to what they regard as their stolen culture.

Lauren Black Elk gestures towards the ditch where his brother’s mutilated body was found. “We were close as brothers could be,” he says.

Bull Hard Heart was brother to the other dead man. “He was the baby in the family,” he says. “I can’t believe he went just like that.”

Both families have been told the autopsy results cannot be made public for evidential purposes. There are gruesome details, they are told, “known only to the killers”.

The tribal authorities are ambivalent over the war being waged by Camp Justice, and the looming crisis over Whiteclay. The chief and elders are wary of the return of AIM to the reservation.

However, the camp was blessed by the cantankerous but clear-sighted elderly man who lives in a green house on a hill outside the town of Pine Ridge. He is the chairman of the tribes of the Sioux nation and his name is Oliver Red Cloud.

His great-grandfather was the chief who, side by side with Crazy Horse, fought Custer’s army in the Black Hills and then the deportations to Pine Ridge. “God has placed us on this land and we must remain, and survive,” he says with a deliberation that quakes with anger. “The people need to take action.”

A few miles west of Red Cloud’s home, a group of teenagers are lassoing and saddling a convoy of horses. John Little Thunder, 17, said of the protest: “They say that this is just anti-drink, anti-drugs, and it is, when we watch our grandparents, and our parents and even our friends staggering home, can’t even see in front of their faces.

“But it’s not just that. It’s for things too. It’s for a way of life. It’s for saying who we are and surviving.”

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