On a hot August day in 1997, South Sioux City native Frank LaMere was driving back from a sacred ceremony at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, with his cousin, Fred LaMere of Sioux City, when he drove through the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska (population 14).
In an interview at a local coffee shop a few weeks ago, Frank LaMere described for me the scene they encountered as "unimaginable." He saw 60 to 70 Native Americans from the Pine Ridge Reservation just two miles across the South Dakota border congregated around four liquor stores - many extremely intoxicated, some passed out in the street.
"As a Nebraskan and Native American, I was deeply offended," LaMere, who vowed that day to do something about it, told me.
At the time, LaMere had no idea the scourge known as Whiteclay would occupy the next 20 years of his life, become a national story and lead to a landmark civil rights decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Citing public safety and law enforcement concerns, the Nebraska Liquor Central Commission voted unanimously on April 19, 2017, to suspend the licenses of the four liquor stores in Whiteclay, according to a Sept. 30, 2017, Omaha World-Herald article. On Sept. 30, 2017, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the decision, shutting the doors of the liquor establishments for good.
The four liquor stores made a ton of money selling almost exclusively to Ogallala Lakota Indians from the Pine Ridge Reservation, which bans alcohol. In 2010, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission and as reported in the Lincoln Journal Star on Feb. 10, 2012, Whiteclay's four liquor stores sold an estimated 4.9 million 12-ounce cans of beer, or 13,000 cans per day, for gross sales of $3 million. Crime was rampant, with the closest law enforcement 22 miles away. LaMere wants the Nebraska governor's office to open files on what he said were at least five unsolved murders in Whiteclay within the last 20 years.
"Whiteclay was liquid genocide that was put up with because of greed," LaMere said in our interview.
Obviously, LaMere is pleased with the shutdown, but said it "really hasn't soaked in yet." He feels the victory was accomplished because "we elevated the discussion." LaMere minimizes his own role, instead citing the efforts of hundreds of people, including Nebraska trial attorney Dave Domina.
The issue raised LaMere's already established profile as an activist and leader for Native causes, including vigilance in efforts to keep Native children in their homes with Native families. Those efforts led to the creation of a Native American unit within the Iowa Department of Human Services. Alcoholism is rampant on the Pine Ridge Reservation, with an estimated one out of four children born with fetal alcohol syndrome - another issue LaMere is passionate about. When he talks about the urgent need to address the problem, he is emotional. LaMere recently led the 15th annual march in Sioux City to honor lost Native children and helped sponsor a three-day workshop at Briar Cliff University to address issues involving Native youths, including the issue of fetal alcohol syndrome.
LaMere's political accomplishments have been equally impressive. He currently serves as first vice-chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party as well as a delegate to the national party. He has attended every national Democratic convention for the past 20 years.
LaMere's life has not been without tragedy. He lost a brother in Vietnam and a sister in a car accident in 1987. Five years ago, he suffered a stroke from which he has some residual problems. The most difficult tragedy was losing his beautiful, intelligent and charismatic daughter, Lexie, to leukemia at 20 years of age four years ago. A Creighton University student, Lexie was successful in high school at getting a resolution on Whiteclay passed at the state Democratic convention. Her loss has been difficult for Frank and his wife, Cynthia, as well as their other three children.
LaMere tries to turn tragedies into positives. He told me the stroke has made him even more empathetic and Lexie's passing and feeling her presence has made him work even harder on issues affecting Native Americans.
“Lexie taught us much in the days before she walked on ... how to live and even how to die,” LaMere wrote after her death in 2014. “I’m standing on her shoulders."
Next week: Linda Holub
A Sioux City resident and local attorney, Al Sturgeon is a former Democratic state representative and senator. He is the father of six children.