WINNEBAGO — The sky was a pale blue, streaked with clouds of white and the sun shone brightly and harshly the day Frank LaMere was laid to rest.
As his friends and loved ones gathered around his casket for the final time, the sound of a drum beat could be heard from the hill above as Ken Billingsly of Standing Rock began to play an honor song for the LaMere family.
“Part of our clan system is families and clans have songs that are theirs. They’re family songs. That’s what they sang,” said former Winnebago Tribal chairman John Blackhawk, a longtime friend of LaMere, a prominent Native activist who died Sunday at age 69.
John Blackhawk took the vibrant blanket that had rested on the top of LaMere’s casket and hung it across his shoulder. Like the drum beat, it, too, was a piece of the traditional ceremony, a living message for those that loved LaMere to move on, to continue fighting like he did, Blackhawk said.
“This is a call for all of us to try and fill his big, big shoes,” Blackhawk said. “And it’s not just going to be a couple of us, it’s going to be more than that, because those are big, big shoes. It’s time for us to step up. It’s time to take on those issues that (Frank fought for.)”
LaMere, a Winnebago member who lived in South Sioux City, was an active man in his time. He fought for the rights and civil liberties of Natives, specifically crusading for greater protection and health for his family and community.
In September 2017, LaMere won his long-fought battle against liquor stores neighboring the Pine Ridge reservation. LaMere believed the four stores that served on average 3.5 million cans of beer per year in Whiteclay, a town of few full-time residents, were an example of one of the great incendiaries of alcoholism.
LaMere also fought against police brutality, most recently in the case of Zachary Bear Heels in Omaha.
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He was the type of person that would fight for anyone that needed him, no matter when the call came in, Blackhawk said. He was always there for others, he said.
To Blackhawk, LaMere’s impact was clear on Wednesday as hundreds of individuals crowded the pews and entry ways of the St. Augustine Church in Winnebago. Cars from states near and far lined the neighboring streets.
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“He gave voice to those that didn’t have a voice,” Blackhawk said. “He was always proud of the fact that that’s what he was taught.”
As individuals left Winnebago Cemetery on Wednesday afternoon, most filed in line behind LaMere’s family. Billingsly and the other players put down their drums as family and friends took handfuls of dirt and placed it onto LaMere’s coffin. With it came the end of the ceremony, an end that Blackhawk believes will not only put Frank LaMere to rest, but also the pain that many have felt in losing him.
“They know that that journey is theirs to make now,” Blackhawk said.
Frank LaMere through the years
Nebraska Liquor Control-Whiteclay
Indigenous Peoples Day
Whiteclay Supreme Court
Full coverage of LaMere's life and activism is chronicled on Indianz.com.
Don Walton of the Journal Star and Earl Horlyk of the Sioux City Journal contributed to this report.