Link to: Pine Ridge vs. White Clay Photo Gallery 1999
Link to: Background on protests in White Clay, NE
Native People Struggle For Justice, Where Do You Stand?

Last Call on Pine Ridge

By Joe Duggan
The Lincoln Journal Star
Thursday, August 5, 1999

In White Clay, Nebraska, death is on the house. The Lakotas have had their fill.

White Clay, Nebraska�A dusty little rural slum with 10 crumbling buildings, population 22. Bleached signs creaking on rusty hooks in the scant breeze. Walls sagging under the weight of a merciless sun, paint blistering. An empty pop can rolls down the main drag, clinking along past paper sacks flattened in the gutter. Overhead, a buzzard silhouettes the thermals of a cloudless sky. Crickets chirp in the weed-lined street as George Strait moans a top-10 croaker through the gills of a single-speaker AM radio. Flies buzzing. Wind exhaling another empty morning. And the sun beats down�

Around noon, a brace of spit-shined Nebraska state police cruisers file in, staging themselves throughout White Clay, A/C warding off the scalding sun behind dark glass. Looking towards Pine Ridge, two miles away, heat risers swirl in eddies on the baking asphalt. First the chants are heard, a funeral dirge wailed to the steady pounding of a drum. Then like a mirage, a thong of Lakotas appear on the vaporous horizon led by two tribal police units. Stop for prayers. Onward. Stop for prayers. Onward. Children. Elders. Fighters. The people. Hokahey!

The troopers in White Clay check their weapons. They've gone over the tactical formation a dozen times. The word is out to hold back on force until the last possible moment. We don't want an outbreak like last week, Jim. Federal orders. Let's keep our cool on this one. Eyes on the road. Waiting.

The protesters, a wall of flesh, cross the Pine Ridge reservation border and the Nebraska state line in the same step. 200 yards to go. Prayer stick held high. The war cry goes up, Yooowwwwoooooppp Woooop Woooop! The coup stick is thrown skyward. They head for the primary target, a local watering hole called Arrowhead Inn, and the first eviction notice is taped to the wall:




The coup stick strikes the air. 200 fists are raised. The war cry goes up again.

VJ's Market is next. The eviction posting is repeated a half dozen times as the cops sit dumbstruck; white knuckles grip fast the steering wheels. They don't realize they've just been shamed in the Lakota manner of counting coup. They don't realize they've been defeated. That the joke is on them. This is a victory for the Oglala Lakotas. Another battle won in the long war of endurance against white lies, violence, hatred, racism, oppression, murder.

Bodies by the road

"It has to stop," says Tom Poor Bear, cooling off his sweat-beaded brow with a soft drink after the sweltering march. "Indian people are found dead all over here and nobody does anything about it. If these were two white people found murdered here, this place would be swarming with law enforcement."

Poor Bear is a brother of Wilson Black Elk, 40, one of the latest victims found murdered just yards inside the Pine Ridge Reservation line. On June 8, the mangled bodies of Black Elk and Ronald Hard Heart, 39, were found side by side in the waist-deep grass of a roadside ravine, brutally beaten to death. After seeing little or no investigation of the murders, Poor Bear put in a call to the American Indian Movement (AIM), asking for assistance in getting action on the uninvestigated murders.

"Indian people in his country are still hunted," says Russell Means, co-founder of AIM and a resident of Pine Ridge. "In the last five years, there has been over a dozen uninvestigated murders of Indian people who has been beaten to death on Pine Ridge. The coroner always says cause of death was, not trauma to the head, but exposure. And they're buried without fanfare."

The coroner in question is a forensic pathologist from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, whose jurisdiction covers Sheridan County and White Clay.

"This guy has a bad track record of doing a thorough autopsy," says Poor Bear. "Take Anna Mae Aquash for instance, a very strong Indian woman. She was found murdered on the reservation (1976), and her body was sent to Scottsbluff for autopsy. The pathologist ruled she died of exposure. So we exhumed her body, sent it to Rapid City for a second opinion, and found out she was shot in the back of her head. And also a man named Bishnette who was killed by a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) officer and sent to Scottsbluff for autopsy. They ruled he was killed with one shot. We exhumed his body, and he was shot eleven times." Poor Bear spends the next few minutes running down a list of names from memory of Lakotas murdered and quickly buried with the coroner's catch-all "exposure" rulings.

The uninvestigated death in White Clay date to the 1972 fatal beating of Raymond Yellow Thunder, whose death spurred a 71-day siege of the Wounded Knee hamlet led by the newly formed American Indian Movement. "Yellow Thunder was beaten and thrown into the American Legion half naked," says Poor Bear, who also took part in the Wounded Knee siege. "and later on he was beaten to death by two brothers and found dead in an abandoned car. These people just got slaps on the wrists and walked away."

Mere manslaughter charges have become the staple consequence in reservation border towns for killing Indians. Only two men have been convicted to date in South Dakota of any of the killings.

"Everyone who kills an Indian here gets exonerated by all-white juries," says Means. "The racism is endemic in the conscious and subconscious of America. But nobody cares. We're out of sight, out of mind."

Enter Charlie Wade

White Clay, an unincorporated town, enjoyed upwards of $4 million in liquor sales last year, 99 percent which was poured down Indian throats. That's approximately 2,800 cans of beer sold everyday to Lakota patrons, who are forbidden by federal law to purchase and consume alcohol on the reservation only two miles away. Day in and day out, carloads of Indians stream into White Clay to purchase groceries and cold six-packs from white business owners hawking the forbidden wares. But what to make of these staggering figures?

"I'll tell you like I told any other reporter," says Terry Robbins, sheriff of Sheridan County Nebraska. "The United States tried to go through a prohibition and they found out years ago it didn't work. If you've got demand, businesses pop up."

As for the murders, protesters and families of the recently slain suspect a local Sheridan County deputy sheriff who patrols White Clay. From the descriptions, the man is a walking, talking Charlie Wade incarnate, straight off the set of John Sayles' controversial film, Lone Star.

"He has a history of verbally and physically abusing Indian people," says Poor Bear. "He comes into White Clay and puts on his big black gloves, lead-lined, and he physically hits the Lakota people. Personally, I feel he should be one of the top suspects in this."

Poor Bear adds that AIM has witnesses and statements from Lakotas who have suffered the man's abuse.

"He's admitted to beating Indians in his custody when he has arrested them," says Russell Means. "However, he's still deputy sheriff."

If this deputy sheriff were, in fact, implicated in the murders, what action would the Sheridan County sheriff take?

"Well," says Sheriff Robbins, "first the investigation would have to show there was some implications, and as far as I know there's not been any implications. All I know is that's just a rumor. It don't help matters when they put it in the paper and on TV. They're just a-fuelin' the fire."

Weeks before the bodies were found, according to a second brother of the slain man, threats were made to Wilson Black Elk. He owed a tab to a White Clay bar owner, who threatened to "get my boys to handle it," if the bill weren't paid promptly. Who are "my boys"?

"Skinheads from Rushville," the brother says, "or else the deputy sheriff." Distrust lurks behind the warm eyes of Lakotas, who are calling the string of murders serial killings. They fear that both the Sheridan County authorities and the entire population of White Clay are covering up the slayings.

"Sheridan County does have a history of racism. There is white supremacist activity," adds Poor Bear, citing a White Clay proprietor as an example. "He is a known white supremacist who has come out and beat people in wheelchairs. His wife was known to pour hot water on people who stand in front of his store."

And the fire rages�

The Eagle has Landed

Downtown Pine Ridge. Another sweltering day on the Rez. A cruel 110 in the shade. Big Bat's gas pumps are jammed with brand new pickup trucks and beat-up sedans, fender wells rotted out. Down the street, a few people are tacking starched new flags to trees, a rare novelty in this island of Indian Country. A charter coach rolls up to a Tribal Police car to ask directions. The bus is stuffed with Secret Service agents, snipers, uniformed goons armed to the teeth, plain clothes Indian infiltrators to mingle with the locals. Then, in rolls the press, an army of stressed-out catch-the-next-clip news junkies. Lakota elders sit on their porches inwardly giggling at the display rolling out before their eyes. The circus is in town. A three-ring sensual feast of lugubrious politicking.

Presidents avoid Indian issues like it is a plague, so Bill Clinton's July 7 stop at Pine Ridge had a special ring to it. A certain irony for Mother America's forgotten children, the Oglala Lokota. Clinton's Pine Ridge stopover on his speed-tour of severely impoverished areas marked the first time in history that a U.S. President made an appearance on an American Indian Reservation.

As the Commander in Chief's official Chinook chopper touched down, a battalion of slack-jawed cameramen rushed forward clawing at each other in an ignorant frenzy. The national press pushing the inexperienced local reporters aside with a huff of the lungs, "excuse me." Shove. Like wolves on steaming meat. What a thrill to get so close to the man that you can reach out and slap him.

More Snake Oil, Mr. Bill?

After a storm of pat-downs, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, placements of snipers, suspicious looks, and confiscated pocket knifes, the event at Pine Ridge High campus gets under way. 2,000 heads, including 100 tribal leaders from around the country look up, watching with hungry eyes, wondering what's on the menu. More broken promises? Could it possibly be for real this time?

First the invocation from Arvol Looking Horse, keeper of the sacred white buffalo calf pipe. Then a speech from Harold Salway, President of the Tribal Government.

"Nearly 60 percent of the young people on the reservation live in poverty. Life expectancy for Oglala men is the lowest in the United States. We have more than 4,000 families waiting for homes, and our current housing stock is in serious disrepair. Twenty percent of Oglala houses lack basic plumbing. The unemployment in our community is recorded as high as 73 percent plus. But we have seen this rate soar higher and higher and harder in worse times."

Not to mention the alcohol epidemic, a startling high school drop-out rate, or one of the highest infant mortality rates in the western hemisphere. Pine Ridge is well-known as the most economically distressed locale in North America. Racked with these severe living standards, this shadowland of progress has been continually swept aside by the governmental hand. Discontent here is spiraling upward. But Clinton offers relief. On this tour, armed with an entourage of senators, Jesse Jackson, and a string of high-profile money moguls, the president promises growth in depressed areas with his New Markets Initiative. The idea is to issue major tax breaks to fortune 500 companies willing to invest.

"When we are on the verge of a new millennium when people are celebrating the miracles of technology�" The polished pork 'n' beans drawl rolls over the sacred feathers of the elders' head dresses. "�and the world grows closer and closer together, and our ability to learn from and with each other, and make business partners with each other all across our globe, and there's still reservations with few phones and no banks, when still three or four families are forced to share two simple rooms. When these things still persist, we cannot rest until we do better. And trying is not enough. We have to have results."

Cheers, whistles, howls. Go Bill!

To the west of the field, 10 individuals are holding up "Free Leonard Peltier" and "Honor the 1851 Treaty" signs, waving them at opportune moments when Clinton's glance falls in that direction. Not even a wince. During a silent spot when Clinton catches a breath, a brave woman yells out, "Hey Bill, why don't you let Leonard go free?" Not even a blink. The event rolls on. The sweat pours down. The cameras click away in mania of break-neck shutter speeds.

"Thank you all for coming. Good-bye."

Another stick figure with a tall hat for the Lakotas buffalo hide dairy in the long parade of time.

The next day, all those starched new flags dangling from the trees on the main street the day before had disappeared.

As Long as the Grass Grows

"We want answers and we'll march until we get them," says Russell Means. He's not surprised that Clinton stuck to the agenda without addressing Peltier's release, the broken treaties, the rash of uninvestigated Indian deaths. "I'll get arrested again, and again, if I have to."

Means, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourte, founding members of the American Indian Movement, were three of nine arrested during the second "March for Justice" held on July 3. A clash with hundreds of Nebraska state police, decked out head-to-toe in the latest in armor technology, trying to form a human barricade to prevent protestors from entering White Clay. The nine were released soon afterward-orders from a Sheridan County judge who, Means feels, got shaky at the thought of a throng of angry Indians swarming the streets of Rushville.

"They figured out there's this thing called the Constitution," says Means with a chuckle, addressing 200 ralliers at the July 7th march. "Today they won't be trying to stop us."

Besides the murders and the alcohol sales, protestors refuse to acknowledge Nebraska's claim to the White Clay area. Nebraska is trespassing on Indian land, they say. The Lakota case against Nebraska and the U.S. Government is a complicated web of American deceit dating to the 1851 and 1868 treaties, which describe Lakota title to lands ranging from the Yellowstone River in the north, the Missouri River to the east, and the North Platte River to the south-an area nearly 100 times larger than the current reservation.

In 1874, George Armstrong Custer trespassed into the Black Hills on the infamous Bozeman Trail, the only biway to the north, which happened to run straight through Lakota lands. His mission? To spread propaganda about recent discoveries of gold to money-hungry Easterners. What better way to acquire Indian lands than to evoke a gold rush with mobs of whites racing into the area, swarming through Indian lands. The military would naturally be obliged to "protect" the white gold diggers with force, using the clash to deliver an onslaught of crushing blows to the Lakota. As planned, this happened, spawning the 1876 Great Sioux War. And the rest is history. The treaty was violated by both the gold diggers and the government who promised to protect the Indians against white trespass.

As a result, the federal government raked off more than three-quarters of Lakota lands, quickly opening them for white settlers. Not surprisingly, the lands taken included the gold rich Black Hills, and all land near the valuable rivers.

In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission was formed, permitting American Indian Nations to sue U.S. government for land "takings" both legal and illegal. If an Indian Nation could prove a "taking" occurred, that nation was entitled to compensation for losses suffered. In the early 1970's, the Lakota sued, a "taking" was demonstrated, and the Claims Commission awarded a measly $17.5 million-the 1877 dollar value of the stolen property. "In your dreams!" said the Lakotas. "We want our land back."

Enter 1979. The U.S. Government crawled forward, admitting error in its earlier calculations. "Yes, you people deserve interest on that $17.5 million. In our calculations, the new figure comes out to a round $105 million." A steal. "Forget it!" said the Lakota. "It's the land we want."

Today the sum still sits untouched in a federal bank. The figure has grown to a hefty $500 million since the 1970's, but the Lakotas adamantly refuse to take the money. By doing so, they reason, it would seal the shady deal.

"Americans cannot conceive of that type of thinking or that value system," says Means. "That we'd rather suffer the misery of poverty than to sell our holy land. You would think the world would look at us in wonderment and awe instead of killing us."

The Coup Is Counted

After the rally, the file of Oglala marchers ease down an embankment to "Camp Justice," a bivouac of protest with two massive tipis towering in the velvet sky. A tub of Indian soup simmering on the fire, cold drinks, and good friends. The world is circulating that another Lakota, known by all, was found yesterday floating face-down in Rapid Creek, a mile from Rapid City. More stories circulate in whispers. Yet another Lakota man was found yesterday beaten to death and stuffed into a garbage can in Mobridge, a small town of Northern South Dakota. Apparently, four rich white kids were apprehended in the murder. Their bonds were $250K, but they were released the same day. Suspicions run high. The numbers pile up. It never ends out here.

Through the buffalo grass you can see the spot were the bodies of Black Elk and Hard Heart were found. A small triangular fence enshrouds the site, tied with red prayer cloths and piled with sage and food offerings so the departed spirits will have full stomachs on their journey into the next world.

Tipis and human gatherings are not foreign to this shaded knoll. In the late 1800's White Clay was known as the Red Cloud Agency, where Chief Red Cloud and his band resided during the winter months. His ponies were undoubtedly tied to the same trees that the marchers shade themselves under this very moment, the fir, the willow and dogwood.

"Red Cloud would be proud of us today," someone says.

Camp Justice will serve as a resting place, a center of protest until the murders, the alcohol sales, and the treaty violations are answered for. It stands as a testament that through decades of racial abuse and deceit, the Lakotas share a lasting unity. A rare and enduring strength. AIM and the Oglala people plan to stage marches every Saturday until their demands are met.

"I'm a great believer," says Means, "in what Felix Cohen said in the 1920's. 'The American Indian is the miner's canary of freedom in this country.' I'll tell you, the miner's canary is dead. But with these marches to White Clay, maybe the miner's canary is being revived. We're twitching. This is a rebirth of a nation whose sole reason for existence is to be free. And that's what we're gonna be again."


The United States of America is a country that claims to be a country where truth and justice are supposed to be the "American way." But this has never been true for the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Indigenous peoples have learned that even basic human rights are not to be expected in this United States of America. As longtime American Indian Movement leader William A. Means once noted, "there is no justice for Indian peoples, only just us."

In the 1970's the American Indian Movement stood up when Lakota's Wesley Bad Heart Bull and Raymond Yellow Thunder were murdered without substantive investigation and charging by law enforcement. At least 62 AIM members were murdered without investigation in South Dakota between 1972 and 1977. Killing an American Indian remains less of a crime in the United States than killing a moose out of season. No one outside of the Indigenous peoples paid attention to the killings of Randy Headbird, Mike Berry, Leroy Jackson, Gabby Daniels or Ronald Beartrack to name a very few hate crime murders. And now in Rapid City, SD at least eight Native people have been murdered. In Mobridge Robert Many Horses was killed in a clear hate crime. In White Clay, NE the murders of John Means, Wallace Black Elk Jr., and Ronald Hard Heart have caused the Oglala Nation to stand up and demand justice. The people are sick of burying their relatives, sick of having their treaty rights ignored, sick of their religion being exploited, sick of imposed poverty and sick of being sick.

As we speak these things continue. No one has been arrested in Rapid City, and there are no suspects. The same in White Clay, so inevitably the killings will continue. Attacks against the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples continue as well. South Dakota is illegally claiming lands on the banks of the Missouri River, in violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Lakota Nation. The US Government is still trying to force Dine people off of their homelands in Big Mountain, AZ. The Western Shoshone continues to have lands stolen from them. Indian peoples first economic venture continues to be under assault as the state and federal governments use the attacks as a means to further erode Indigenous National sovereignty.

All of this occurs from a government whom you pay to do these things to Indigenous peoples. Therefore if you do not support the murder of Indian people, the theft of Indian peoples lands, the mercury, nuclear and toxic contamination of Indian peoples and lands, the violation of Indian peoples civil, human, treary, sovereign and relious rights-THEN YOU MUST START DOING SOMETHING TO STOP IT. Write letters opposing anti-Indian activities, contact your local news outlets and get them to cover Indian issues, join an Indian support organization. DO SOMETHING. Otherwise you will continue to lend tacit support and approval to the genocide against Indigenous peoples. And the choice is your to make.

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