Riding through town on a hot day 22 years ago, seeing 50 people drunk beneath the sun — some passed out, some fighting, some peeing in the street — Frank LaMere formed his first definitive conclusions about Whiteclay.

He turned to his driver that day, an elder and fellow visitor from Winnebago country in northeast Nebraska.

"I said, 'Fred, someone needs to do something about this shit,'" LaMere once recalled for a reporter.

The reply: If LaMere wanted something done, he'd need to do it himself.

Two years later, when protesters marched in response to the deaths of Wilson Black Elk Jr. and Ronald Hard Heart just outside Whiteclay, and state and federal lawmen blocked the highway in their path, LaMere and a friend were the first to cross the barricade.

Nine people were arrested that day, including LaMere: "That's the beginning of it."

In the decades following, LaMere became the most outspoken, persistent opponent of Whiteclay beer sales.

Millions of cans of beer and malt liquor were sold each year in the tiny, unincorporated village in northwest Nebraska, home to about eight permanent residents. Much of that beer ended up on the nearby South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.

LaMere and other activists were successful in stopping sales in April 2017 when the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission denied renewal of the four beer stores' licenses.

"We did not let it go," he told a reporter. "I had resolved that I would never go away, and I have not.”

That strong voice, well-known for bringing attention to myriad concerns related to Natives, died Sunday night, his family said in a post on Facebook.

LaMere, 69, had recently undergone surgery for bile duct cancer.

"Our father Frank LaMere crossed over to the other side of this river of life," son Manape LaMere wrote.

Most recently, Frank LaMere brought attention to the grand jury investigation into the death of Zachary Bear Heels, an Oklahoma man who had schizophrenia and was bipolar and who died within minutes of a confrontation with Omaha police in 2017. 

Bear Heels, 29, died after police punched and repeatedly shocked him with a Taser. A coroner determined that Bear Heels died of "sudden death associated with excited delirium, physical struggle, physical restraint and use of a (Taser)."

After one Omaha police officer was found not guilty of assault by a jury and the Douglas County Attorney's Office dropped charges against another, LaMere called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Bear Heels' death.

"People should ask. 'Good God, what are they doing in Omaha, Nebraska,'" he said.

Last month, LaMere received an honorary doctorate from Nebraska Wesleyan University in recognition of his work.

In delivering the university’s commencement address, Bishop Brian Maas of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Nebraska Synod urged graduates to look at LaMere's example.

“Consider Frank LaMere and so many others who watched for years the tragedy that was Whiteclay, Nebraska; lives ruined by easy access to alcohol, who were told, ‘There’s nothing you can do. It’s perfectly legal,’ yet who were bold to ask persistently, ‘But is it right?’” Maas told the students.

John Maisch, the director and producer of "Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian," a documentary on Whiteclay, said Nebraska lost a true civil rights leader.

"Frank worked to give a voice to the voiceless. His work to elevate the discussion on issues such as Whiteclay, Native child welfare, and the environment will carry on through all of us," Maisch said.

"He was a warrior," state Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon said.

Brewer, a Native state senator, worked with LaMere on resolving the longstanding issue at Whiteclay and in achieving Brewer's successful legislative effort to install a statue of Chief Standing Bear in National Statuary Hall in the nation's Capitol.

"We may have seen things differently politically," Brewer said, "but we were as close as could be on important issues."

LaMere was a Democrat; Brewer is a Republican.

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LaMere was actively engaged in national politics, having served on the Democratic National Committee from 1996 through 2009, while also serving as a delegate at multiple Democratic National Conventions.

He was first associate chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. 

LaMere passed on his love of political activism to his daughter, Lexie Wakan LaMere, who did not miss a Democratic National Convention before she died at age 21 following a battle with leukemia on Jan. 3, 2014.

As an annual panelist at Cornhusker Boys State, LaMere had an impact on thousands of high school juniors who now are adults living in communities all across the state.

"Frank always challenged us to always try to view the world from multiple perspectives, to embrace the discomforts of learning, to overcome obstacles which seem insurmountable and to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves," said Aaron Zabawa of Lincoln, educational director and co-chief counselor of Cornhusker Boys State.

"His biggest challenge to us, and one that will endure: 'Be good to one another.'"

"Frank taught us all to be stronger leaders with big hearts," Democratic State Chairwoman Jane Kleeb of Hastings said.

"We carry Frank with us now in all of the fights to rebuild democracy and protect Mother Earth."

Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Lincoln issued a statement saluting "our friend, Frank LaMere."

"His passion for Native American issues, his love of politics and his desire to help those most in need showed through in his extraordinary life," Fortenberry said.

A vigil was scheduled at the Lincoln Indian Center Monday evening, beginning at 7 p.m. Following a wake in Winnebago on Tuesday, funeral services will be 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Augustine Church in Winnebago. 

Photos: Frank LaMere through the years

 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.


Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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