Nine protesters arrested for
crossing police line
By Joe Duggan
Lincoln Journal Star
Sunday, July 4, 1999

The sound of the police officer's calm, amplified voice seemed unreal against the scene of hundreds of Oglala Sioux Indian marchers bearing down on a riot squad at the Nebraska state line [July 3, 1999].

"THIS IS THE NEBRASKA STATE PATROL, DISPERSE OR ENFORCEMENT MEASURES WILL BE TAKEN." The warning had the opposite effect. Feet shuffling quickly against hot pavement filled the air with dust and nearly drowned out shouts of "Get out, you're on our land!" or "Let's take Whiteclay, NOW!" Armed police wearing black helmets and bulletproof vests held tight to protect the handful of businesses in the unincorporated town. A Nebraska State Patrol helicopter cut circles in the sky above, the sound of its rotors making it hard to hear.

Associated Press photo
Members of the Oglala Sioux tribe march on Highway 87 as they leave the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on their way to Whiteclay, Neb., Saturday, July 3, 1999.

The officer with the bullhorn repeated his warning over and over and over. But the marchers, angry over alcohol sales and unsolved deaths of their people near the town that borders the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, kept coming. Believing they had the constitutional right to demonstrate in Whiteclay, a lead group of marchers ignored the warning and broke through a yellow plastic streamer that marked the police line.

The response came quickly ... and as promised.

Officers arrested nine protesters -- including American Indian Movement activist Russell Means -- and led them to a waiting school bus, but not before one could slap a sticker on a plastic riot shield that read, "You are on Indian land." If human feelings like tension and fury take physical form, they did Saturday afternoon on that police barricade at Whiteclay. They could be seen in the enraged woman as she screamed at an armed officer not 3 feet away. They could be heard in the voice of a rally organizer as he pleaded with the crowd to keep the promise that this march -- unlike one a week before -- would remain peaceful.

"We keep our agreements, they break their agreements," said Clyde Bellecourt of Minneapolis, a co-founder of the American Indian Movement. "Let's not be like the white people." Dozens of Oglala Sioux wanted to follow the nine who crossed the line. But instead, Indian leaders and law enforcement officers brokered a deal in the middle of Nebraska 87: If marchers returned peacefully to Pine Ridge, those arrested would be released immediately on their own recognizance. Not everybody was happy about it; not by a long shot, but gradually everyone turned around and left.

Later, those arrested walked into Billy Mills Hall in Pine Ridge and raised their fists into the air to cheers. They included Means, former tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele, rally organizer Tom Poor Bear and Frank LaMere, a Winnebago Indian from South Sioux City, who for two years has worked to end beer sales in Whiteclay.

Associated Press photo
Sky, no last name given, of Minneapolis, a member of the American Indian Movement Security Team, is one of nine arrested by Nebraska State Troopers after crossing through a police line in Whiteclay, Neb., after a two-mile prayer march from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D., Saturday, July 3, 1999.

The 49-year-old activist decried what he called an illegal arrest of people who planned a peaceful demonstration.

"I am ashamed to be a Nebraskan today," LaMere said. "It was pure and simple intimidation." Gov. Mike Johanns defended the arrests for failure to obey a lawful order.

"Any person who fails to obey an order issued in a matter of emergency during crowd-control efforts is in violation of the law," he said in a press release. Nebraska State Patrol Capt. Tom Parker of Scottsbluff praised the nearly 100 troopers, Sheridan County sheriff's deputies and 30 tribal officers who participated in the effort.

"We felt it was successful because nobody got hurt on either side," he said. Nearly all of the town's 22 residents were evacuated Friday in anticipation of the rally. Most stayed with friends and family in the area, and will do so until decisions are made on when to reopen the town. Parker said authorities and business owners would meet today.

In addition, he said the patrol will maintain a presence in the town for the foreseeable future.

For the second Saturday in a row, residents of Pine Ridge made the 2-mile walk south to Whiteclay and for the second time, a police confrontation ensued. Last week, the march ended violently as Indians vandalized, looted and set fire to a grocery store, then threw rocks at responding officers. No one was seriously injured in the melee and no arrests were made.

The reasons for both rallies were the same.

First, Oglala Sioux people in Pine Ridge believe prejudice has prevented investigations of the deaths of several Indian people near Whiteclay. Those long-held beliefs were brought to the forefront June 8 with the discovery of homicide victims Wilson Black Elk, 40, and Ronald Hard Heart, 39, in a roadside ditch just a few hundred yards from the village.

FBI agents and tribal police are investigating the slayings and they have offered a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Law enforcement officers on the reservation and Sheridan County said they know of no other unsolved murders and they denied that racism factors into their investigations. Such denials don't assuage the victims' family members and AIM activists.

"There is rage here, America," AIM leader Dennis Banks said at Saturday's rally. "America must understand if a building goes down, that's our rage. You kill our people. White America should say no more murders at Whiteclay and Whiteclay should be shut down." Many allege a Sheridan County sheriff's deputy assaults Indians in Whiteclay and some suspect he was involved in the deaths of Black Elk and Hard Heart. Banks called on authorities to give the deputy a lie-detector test.

Another issue surrounding the unincorporated village of 22 is beer sales. Of the town's businesses, four sell $3 million in beer per year, mostly to residents of the reservation.

Alcoholism has a huge impact on the tribe's health care systems, said tribal President Harold Salway as he addressed several hundred people attending the rally in Billy Mills Hall. He urged marchers to be prayerful and peaceful.

"I came to pray with you today," Salway said. Last week, he was meeting with White House officials to plan Wednesday's visit of President Clinton.

As a demonstration of solidarity, Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers made the trip from Omaha to attend Saturday's rally. He denounced the fact that Nebraska could finance a large police effort to protect white businesses in Whiteclay, but it couldn't find a solution to the Indian problems there.

Then the rally spilled out of the gymnasium and into a sauna-like afternoon. Participation seemed somewhat below the estimated 1,500 people march organizers said were present last week.

The march progressed much the same. Walkers carried hand-written signs with "Whiteclay Nebraska Still Belongs to the Lakota," in reference to claims by Oglala leaders that the land on which Whiteclay is located was given to the tribe through treaties and the Dawes Act of 1887. Other posters carried messages like "Most Wanted: Lakota Killers" and "Remember Trail of Tears." "Too many of our people die and nobody does anything about it," said 56-year-old Feleta Two Bulls, explaining why she was marching.

The procession stopped regularly to pray. Will Peters, an Oglala from Pine Ridge, offered a prayer for the children who walked with their parents and grandparents.

"Talk to them, teach them, let them know our history," Peters said. They stopped for a final time before reaching Whiteclay at the spot where Black Elk and Hard Heart were found.

Sweat glistened on their brows as they cast an eye to dozens of law enforcement officers standing at the Nebraska-South Dakota border.

Means, who led an Indian protest to Gordon 27 years ago in response to the murder of an Oglala man, said he was planning to cross the line and get arrested to test the Nebraska courts. He cautioned that anyone who went with him would likely be arrested, too.

Later, after being released in Pine Ridge, Means denounced the Oglala Sioux tribal police who stood alongside officers from the Nebraska State Patrol and Sheridan County sheriff's deputies.

"There's no excuse for an Oglala Lakota in uniform to act against their own people who were exercising their own rights," he said.

Pine Ridge public safety officer Joe Herman said tribal officers were trying to protect Oglala people as much as work with Nebraska authorities.

"If they can help keep the situation from going out of control, people won't be hurt. I guess it's our job not to take it personally," he said. "I think we saved a lot of injuries from both sides." During the march, Billy Joe Bene rode bareback on a horse named Buffalo Chaser. Later, as he and his horse began their 2-mile ride back to Pine Ridge, he reflected on the day.

"I hope something comes of it," he said. "I hope something comes of it."

White Clay

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