A Native American activist who was instrumental in the crusade against beer sales in Whiteclay, Nebraska, and who spoke out against the in-custody death of a Native American man in Omaha has died.
Frank LaMere, of South Sioux City, Nebraska, died Sunday night, his family said in a post on Facebook. He was 69 and recently underwent surgery to address bile duct cancer.
“Our father Frank LaMere crossed over to the other side of this river of Life,” his son Manape LaMere wrote.
Frank LaMere was known across the state and region for lending his voice to various causes to help his fellow Native Americans. LaMere was a member of the Winnebago Tribe.
John Maisch, who created the documentary “Sober Indian Dangerous Indian” featuring LaMere, said Nebraska has “lost a true civil rights leader.”
“Frank worked to give a voice to the voiceless,” Maisch said. “His work to elevate the discussion on issues such as Whiteclay, Native child welfare and the environment will carry on through all of us.”
For 20 years, LaMere had called for the closing of beer stores in Whiteclay. The stores were blamed for fueling alcoholism and alcohol-related problems on the adjacent and officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. LaMere and other activists were successful in stopping sales in April 2017.
“It will take a generation for us to truly understand the deep wounds that we have inflicted upon the Lakota people at Whiteclay,” LaMere said on the first day the stores closed. “It will take a lifetime to heal them.”
Ben Nelson, the former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, described LaMere as a “tireless” worker who was able to make a difference for not only his fellow Native Americans but people from all walks of life. LaMere, Nelson said, used friendship to build a following and find common ground.
“When he brought an issue to you as an advocate, it wasn’t an ‘Either (do this) or else,’ it was a ‘Can we work together on this?’ ” Nelson said. “Even when we couldn’t agree on something, he was always aware there was another day, another time and another issue.”
Most recently, LaMere voiced concerns about the interaction between Omaha police officers and a mentally ill Native American man from Oklahoma in June 2017. Zachary BearHeels died after police punched and repeatedly shocked him with a Taser. A coroner determined that the 29-year-old 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 BearHeels’ death.
“People should ask, ‘Good God, what are they doing in Omaha, Nebraska,’ ” LaMere said.
LaMere was born in 1950 as one of 13 children of John LaMere, a combat veteran, and Matilda LaMere. His brother Anthony died in Vietnam in 1971.
LaMere married Dawn Holliday and later Cynthia Rouse. He had four children, including daughter Lexie Wakan, who died in 2014.
Nelson described LaMere as a friend and mentor who counseled Nelson when he lost his own daughter.
“He was an exceptional person,” Nelson said.
In addition to his advocacy for those on the Pine Ridge Reservation, LaMere was known for pushing for reform of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, seeking federal loans for the Santee and Winnebago Tribes to buy back reservation land, opposing the Keystone XL pipeline on Ponca land and advocating to keep Native American children with their families and out of the foster care system.
“If there was injustice anywhere in Indian Country, Frank LaMere likely had a voice in demanding better treatment and justice,” Winnebago Tribal Chairman Frank White said in a statement. “The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska as well as Indian Country in general has lost one of their staunchest advocates with his passing.”
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday, “Frank was a vocal advocate for the Native American community and he will be missed.”
LaMere was reelected last year as the first associate chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. He served seven consecutive times, from 1988 to 2012, as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. At Nebraska Wesleyan University’s commencement in May, LaMere received an honorary law degree and was recognized for his advocacy work in human and civil rights.
“Dr. Frank LaMere would often tell me, ‘We do our best for the most people’ and would immediately follow up with ideas for actions in the streets and in the halls of government,” said Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb. “Frank was the heart of our Democratic Party and many grassroots fights across our country and nation. We lost a hero today who had unfinished business that we must now complete.”
Funeral services for LaMere are pending.