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.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.