Frank LaMere, self-described as “one of the architects of the effort to shutdown Whiteclay,” does not gloat over recent rulings to deny beer sellers licenses in that forlorn Nebraska hamlet.
A handful of store owners, along with producers and suppliers, have profited millions at the expense of Oglala-Lakota from South Dakota’s nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is banned but alcoholism runs rampant. A disproportionate number of children suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Public drunkenness, panhandling, brawls and accidents, along with illicit services in exchange for alcohol, have been documented in and around Whiteclay. Since first seeing for himself in 1997 “the devastation” there, LaMere’s led the epic fight to end alcohol sales in the unincorporated Sheridan County border town.
“This is a man who, more than anyone else, is the face of Whiteclay,” said Lincoln-based journalist-author-educator Joe Starita, who’s student-led reporting project — www.woundsofwhiteclay.com — recently won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism grand prize besting projects from New Yorker, National Geographic and HBO. “There is nobody who has fought longer and fought harder and appeared at more rallies and given more speeches and wept more tears in public over Whiteclay than Frank LaMere, period.”
LaMere, a native Winnebago, lifelong activist and veteran Nebraska Democratic Party official, knows the battle, decided for now pending appeal, continues. The case is expected to eventually land in the Nebraska Supreme Court. Being the political animal and spiritual man he is, he sees the Whiteclay morass from a long view perspective. As a frontline warrior, he also has the advantage of intimately knowing what adversaries and obstacles may appear.
His actions have gotten much press. He’s a key figure in two documentaries about Whiteclay, But his social justice work extends far beyond this specific matter.
“I’ve been involved in many issues in my life,” he said.
Indeed, he’s stood with farmers, immigrants, persons with disabilities, police misconduct victims, child welfare recipients. He’s opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline.
“I must have marched a hundred times in my life and not always on Native interests. If somebody’s being mistreated and I have time and they come ask me, I don’t care who it is, I’m going to go there. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what drives me in my work.”
LaMere’s fought the good fight over Whiteclay, where he sees a clear and present danger of public health and humanitarian crisis. As a Native person, it’s personal because Whiteclay exists to exploit alcohol intolerance among the Pine Ridge populace. He’s cautiously optimistic things will get better for residents, assuming the courts ultimately uphold the denial of the liquor licenses.
“We’ll see where things go from there,” he said, “but rest assured, things will never be the same at Whiteclay. The only thing I know is that the devastation will never be like it was. I truly believe that.”
Just don’t expect him to do a victory lap.
“There are no wins and losses at Whiteclay. Nobody won, nobody lost, but all of us decided maybe we should begin to respect one another and find a better way. I think we will after the dust settles.”
The state Liquor Control Commission, a district judge and the Nebraska attorney general oppose beer sales happening there again but LaMere knows powerful opposing forces are at work.
“I think Nebraskans have good sense. We know what’s right. But there’s money involved. Whoever controls alcohol at Pine Ridge-Whiteclay controls money, controls county government and until very recently even controls state government. I am unequivocal on that. I understand what’s going on here. You’re talking about tens of millions of dollars and we’re threatening that, and when you threaten that, you know, you get a reaction.”
He said he’s received threats. He and fellow Whiteclay advocate, Craig Brewer, went there the day after the sellers lost their licenses.
“There was a foreboding I had all that day I’ve never had in my life,” LaMere said. “It was strange to me. I’ve been dealing with things my whole life and never been afraid. But this time I was looking at different scenarios having to do with the volatility there and if things didn’t work right what could happen to me. Maybe it’s aging. Maybe it was the newness of the situation. I don’t know.
“We got up there very apprehensive about what we were going to encounter, maybe from the beer sellers or from those who support the sellers or maybe from their hired associates. We didn’t know what to expect, but we went up there because that’s what we do – and everything worked out. The right thing happened.”
The sellers did not open for business.
“I told a reporter we went up to look the devil in the eye and the devil wasn’t there, and I don’t think the devil’s coming back.”
He said attorney David Domina, who represents the interests opposed to alcohol, appeared the same day there in the event something amiss happened.
“It was no coincidence,” LaMere said. “We were to be there that day. A lot of prayers went with us.”
LaMere will maintain a wary watch. “I will continue there to be careful, to be apprehensive, but I’m still not afraid.”
He knows some contentious situations he steps into pose certain dangers.
“I’m a realist, I know how things are.”
He and his wife Cynthia made an unwritten pact years ago not to be at rallies or protests together to ensure they won’t both be in harm’s way.
“I do a lot of things in a lot of places and Cynthia grounds me. She critiques whatever approach I’m taking, always asking, ‘Do you have to do it?’ I’ve learned she’s protective of me. But I also hear from her on many of these issues, ‘Well, why didn’t you say that?’ because she knows Frank, what he’s committed to, and she never questions that.
“I can do something I feel good about and I’ll come home and she’ll tell me the downside that maybe I don’t always want to hear. She’ll give me a perspective I need to hear that sometimes other people won’t give me. She’ll tell me the brutal honest truth. Cynthia’s tough, engaged, committed.”
His admirers marvel at his own doggedness.
“He’s an indefatigable worker and once he latches onto an issue that he sees as a moral challenge, he does not let go, and Whiteclay is a case in point. He’s the most principled man I know,” said Nebraskans for Peace coordinator Tim Rinne.
Joe Starita said LaMere is “hard working for his causes to the point of physical and mental exhaustion.”
“He’s a man who shows up for allies when nobody else is looking,” Nebraska Democratic Party chairman Jane Kleeb said.
Setbacks and losses he’s endured have not deterred him, including a serious stroke that required extensive speech therapy, and the death of his daughter, Lexie Wakan, who was a Creighton University student.
“He’s a man who’s had hardship, yet still continues to get up and stand up,” Kleeb said. “For me, that’s what Frank’s all about – he always shows up.”
For LaMere, it’s a way of life.
“Every day’s a fight, and if you keep fighting you win because others watch that. The impact of Whiteclay will manifest itself hopefully with a win in the Supreme Court and perhaps in some young leader who cares about these things. I’ve been in a hundred struggles in my life, lost almost all of ’em, but I was never afraid, and that’s what I want people to understand.
“If you’re not afraid, people see that as a victory because you cause others to take heart, to persevere, to take action.”
He’s glad his resilience to keep agitating, even in the face of intransigence and tragedy, inspires others.
“I’ll accept that because that’s what it is – you just keep working.”
He likes to say Whiteclay’s implications are “bigger than we can ever fathom.”
“Years from now, we will understand it is way bigger than us. I got to be a bit player. The creator of all things, said, Frank, I’m going to have you see what you can do, and along the way I’m going to cause you to struggle. I’m going to knock you down, and I’m even going to take something from you, and if you keep going, maybe I’ll let you change something.
“That’s the greatest work we can do.”
Reflecting on Whiteclay, he said, “This was an emotional roller coaster for all Nebraskans.” He chalks up the recent breakthrough to divine intervention.
“There’s things happening that are so strange,” he said.
He recalled a hearing in Lincoln on LB 407 introduced by Neb. State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks to create the Whiteclay Public Health Emergency Task Force. LaMere testified. His son, Manape LaMear, sang a sun dance song. After finishing his sacred song, Manape asked if someone from Sheridan County was there to speak.
“A big guy got up and testified,” said LaMere. “He was asked, ‘Do you have enough law enforcement to take care of Whiteclay?’ and he answered, ‘Absolutely not.’”
“This man said some things absolutely nobody expected him, maybe not himself. to say. If you’re with those (monied) interests of Whiteclay, you’re not supposed to say that, you’re going to be ostracized. But for whatever reason, he told the truth. I attribute that to the powerful prayers said that day.
“You’re watching at Whiteclay a very spiritual journey. There’s something much bigger than us that has brought us to this point – that we would make such a great change for the Oglala Lakota people. I think it’s God’s work. From that I hope things will be better.”
He’s convinced “the greatest impact will not be felt for generations,” but added, “I’ve seen immediate impact right now.”
“I believe there’s a child whose mother and father were together at home and did not drink. I believe children are feeling very good Whiteclay is not open. I believe there’s been prayers by children that their parents be sober. I believe their prayers are very powerful. I think what we’re seeing may have to do with these children and their suffering and their prayers.”
LaMere has disdain for arguments that banning alcohol at Whiteclay will only move the problem elsewhere, thus increasing the danger of drunk drivers.
“Worrying about someone driving down Highway 87 who might get hurt by a drunk driver can’t be our greatest concern. Our greatest concern has to be the health and well-being of hundreds of children crippled in the womb by fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). I’ve called out many on this. Where are pro-life people? Where’s the church? Children are crippled in the womb tonight and nothing’s said about it because there’s money involved. That’s troubling to me.
“We’ve crippled hundreds of kids in the womb on Pine Ridge – all so somebody can get rich, wrap themselves in a flag, and talk about this model of free enterprise. We cherish that more than we cherish life. It’s ugly to hear that but that’s what we’ve done. But we’ve always been afraid to accept that.”
Attorney John Maisch, whose documentary Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian includes LaMere, said, “I would say Frank’s empathy is what drives him. Frank is in a perpetual state of mourning. Frank has lost many family members and friends to addiction. I think that is partially what drove him to tackle Whiteclay. Frank lost his daughter, Lexie, and I think that is why he’s particularly drawn to fighting for those children, whether Native children lost in our foster care system or suffering from FAS as a result of their mothers drinking on the streets of Whiteclay. He’s drawn to suffering of others because he has also suffered great loss.”
LaMere acknowledged he’s “redoubled” his efforts since losing his daughter.
“And it’s not in any way substitution,” he said. “I don’t see it that way. I look at it very simply that now I stand on the shoulders of my daughter. In all of the things I’m doing right now perhaps I’m as bold as ever, and there’s a reason for that, for that is what she would have me do. If I hedge, she’ll say, ‘Why are you doing that? That is not who you are.’ I even heard her say in her young life: ‘This is my father, this is who he is, and this is what he does, and he does this for the people.’
“All I do for the rest of my life will be done in remembrance of my daughter because she was so committed at a very young age to the things I’m still committed to.”
LaMere’s glad Nebraska may finally own up to its sins.
“At long last Nebraskans have said perhaps it’s time for us to look at this. For once I’m pleased Nebraskans are not going to merely beg the question, they’re going to look at the impact of Whiteclay and maybe we’re going to act and make some of it a little bit better.”
As LaMere sees it, the whole state’s culpable.
“We as Nebraskans are unwittingly, unknowingly responsible for it. We need to act and to mitigate some of those things we’ve helped to cause at Pine Ridge. Even after all this, I say Nebraskans are fair – fair to a fault. Sometimes it takes us so damn long to act.”
The real culprits, he said, are “those in Sheridan County” who’ve turned a blind eye.
“The beer sellers and the rest are going to have hell to pay, not from Frank LaMere, but from the Supreme Court, the Liquor Control Commission, the attorney general, all these other interests, because when they take a good, long hard look at what’s happened, there there’s no way you can reconcile that as being anything close to normal or acceptable.”
As watchdog and conscience, LaMere said he lives out a covenant he made with his creator to serve others.
“I’ve traveled a million miles, spent everything I have, taken time from my family, taken time from myself. At some point, there’s a moral authority you feel. Nobody can give it to you or bestow it on you. Once you acquire it, it means nothing unless there’s a moral imperative that goes with that. I’ve tried to achieve some moral authority and the moral imperative that goes with it.
“I hear every day in my work with different agencies the words ‘by the authority invested in me.’ Means absolutely nothing to me. Doesn’t impress me at all. I don’t care how much authority you have – if you do not use it and if there’s no moral imperative to make things better, it’s meaningless. I meet with those people all the time. They have the authority, but they don’t use it. I’m not being cynical. I have the truth on my side.”
Whiteclay offered duly elected and appointed officials decades of opportunities to act, but they didn’t. LaMere never left the issue or let authorities forget it.
“Sometimes I can go into a room with a hundred people and I have the least amount of authority-power-title, but they have to listen to Frank because he’s put time and energy into it and he’s acquired that moral authority and he uses it. He scares them. They wish he would go away. People have to listen to Frank because he never goes away and there’s nothing in it for him.
“That’s why we made some changes at Whiteclay and that’s how we’re going to make change in our society – gain that moral authority and act.”
LaMere said his greatest asset is the truth.
“Any issues of change, even Whiteclay, you stand with the truth. I’ve learned that over many years. Because once the press conferences, the conventions, the rallies are done, the arrests are made, the petition drives are over, the legislative efforts go by the wayside, the only thing that’s left is the truth. It’s very important you stand with the truth and be recognized having stood with it.
“That’s the only thing that keeps me going. I’m firm, forthright and respectful and always telling the truth. Of late, it has worked in some respects for me.”
If Whiteclay confirmed anything, he said, it’s that “nothing changes unless someone’s made to feel uncomfortable and you have to make yourself uncomfortable.” In dealing with Whiteclay, he said, he expressed his “healthy disrespect for authority.”
“Maybe it’s a character flaw,” he said, “but you can put me in a room with a hundred people and if there’s a bully, before the night’s over I’ll probably butt heads with him.”
As a young man he was active “on the periphery” of the American Indian Movement. Later in life he got close to AIM legends Russell Means and Vernon Bellacourt. The men became allies in many fights.
“I saw Native people and non-Native people be bullied simply because somebody felt they had a position of power over them and whenever I see that I naturally react to that. I don’t care what the issue is, I’ll ask, ‘Who do you think you are? Why are you doing that? Why are you treating him or her that way?’ I’ve said that. I’ve always grown up with that feeling that if somebody is being mistreated, I will always speak up for them.”
Whiteclay offered a microcosm of predatory behavior.
“When I first went to Whiteclay 20 years ago, I took one look and you could see the Natives who went there did not have a voice and were not held in high regard. The owners and residents paid little attention to them. The other thing I saw there was the lawlessness and the mistreatment of vulnerable people being taken advantage of. I saw it and so could everybody else. Then I saw how nobody acted, so I thought perhaps I should give some voice to them.”
The still unsolved murders there of Little John Means, Ronald Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk weighed on him. The alcohol-related illness and death of others haunted him.
“The alcohol coming out of Whiteclay has killed scores of Lakotas and we’re still waiting for that one white man or white woman, God forbid, who dies on the road between Rushville and Whiteclay.’
The documentary The Battle for Whiteclay shows LaMere at a hearing railing against “the double standard” that overlooks Native deaths.
“It means we feel there’s two classes of citizens here in this state. Would we allow the things in Whiteclay in western Omaha or southeast Lincoln? I don’t think so. Scores of our people … victimized, orphaned, many of our people murdered. God forbid that one young white woman, one white man, die at Whiteclay tonight. We’d shut the damn thing down in the morning, and the pathetic thing about that is we all know that’s the truth.”
LaMere feels that double-standard still exists.
“We want everything at Whiteclay to be just right, but we cannot even take care of the clear and simple. There’s one thing you know you can do under the law – you can shut them down, and they’ve done that, and they’re having problems keeping them shut.”
He refuses to be patronized because he’s learned from experience that playing the game doesn’t get results.
“You’ll pat me on the head and say, Frank, you’re a great guy, I appreciate what you’re bringing to us, but I know in the back of your mind you don’t want to change anything. You’ll even give me a permit to march or picket. But I bet you won’t do that for 20 years. You can handle a year and then say – this damn guy never goes away, perhaps we should sit and listen to him.”
LaMere regrets the one time he took things for granted.
“I made a mistake many years ago. I raised the issue of Whiteclay. We got a lot initiated with then-Gov. (Ben) Nelson. He put together groups of officials from Sheridan County, Pine Ridge, state agencies, and we talked about the lawlessness issues up there. So we got something in the works a long time ago and I appreciated that process. I made the mistake though of thinking it’s a no-brainer. I thought all I have to do is bring this back to Lincoln and Nebraskans will change it.
“I was too hopeful. Many Nebraskans would change it but those in power did not. Where there’s money involved, nothing is a no-brainer. People are going to weigh the money and the impact. Those with influence and monied interests are probably going to win out. That’s what I watched. Whiteclay is perhaps the poster child for greed, not in Neb. but maybe in the whole nation. It ranks up there with Flint (Mich.).”
For too long, he said, the attitude about Whiteclay was, “We know what we’re doing but it’s going to cost us money, it’s going to cost me to do my job in the public trust. Just leave it the way it is.” Because the problem was allowed to persist, he said, “Whiteclay will go down in our history as something we tolerated and that we will forever be ashamed of, and we’re only going to understand that when the Supreme Court makes that final decision to shut ’em down. Then we’re going to take a look at what we’ve truly done.”
Meanwhile, LaMere won’t rest easy. When well-meaning people offer condolences about Lexie and lament her unfulfilled promise, he said he accepts their sympathy but corrects them, saying, “There’s no unfulfilled promise – it’s more for you to do, it’s more for me to do.
“That’s how it is. That keeps me going. That’s the way I’ll be until I’m not here anymore.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.