Leo Yankton, left, listens as Winnebago activist Frank LaMere speaks at a rally for Native justice in Lincoln, Nebraska, on May 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

'We do not go away': Native community protests racism and aggression

Native community vows to hold Nebraska responsible
'You know why? Because we do not go away'
By Kevin Abourezk

Native people are continuing to call for justice following a series of incidents they say demonstrate racism and aggression on the part of Nebraska law enforcement and state officials.

Nearly 65 Native people and supporters gathered on the steps of the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln on Saturday seeking accountability for actions against Native people.

Leo Yankton, a 42-year-old Oglala Sioux man, said police aggression has cost at least one life in the past year and left several Native people in Nebraska wounded with broken limbs and gunshot wounds.

“At times, it has felt like open season on Native people, as we have become the targets of overzealous police officers who see us as expendable and powerless and state officials and federal agents who see our hard-won revenue sources as treasures to be plundered,” he said.

Protesters hold signs at a rally for Native justice held at the Nebraska State Capitol on May 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Yankton – a co-host for Indianz.Com’s Indian Times podcast – organized Saturday’s rally after his cousin, Lavan Yankton Jr., was run over by a police SUV on April 27 after running from police.

Lavan Yankton was wanted on three warrants – including two for domestic assault and one for failure to appear in court – and was found by police that morning.

Leo Yankton said he sued the Lincoln Police Department after an August 2017 incident in which two officers entered his home looking for Lavan Yankton but found instead his 14-year-old cousin, who they marched outside wearing only her underwear.

He said the two officers became irate when he questioned them about why they were detaining his cousin, and they handcuffed him and cited him for interfering with a police investigation, a charge that was later dropped.

“And so it was that nearly eight months after that incident the Lincoln Police Department finally caught up to my cousin Lavan in an alley in south Lincoln,” Leo Yankton said. “Just as Lavan had feared, his arrest didn’t come without great pain.”

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Calling for Justice in Nebraska

Leo Yankton also shared the story of Zachary Bear Heels, a 29-year-old Rosebud Sioux man who died after Omaha police officer Scotty Payne shocked him a dozen times and officer Ryan McClarty punched him 13 times.

Bear Heels, who was unarmed but suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had been acting erratically on June 5, 2017, when police were called.

Payne and McClarty now face assault charges.

“A man – known to be mentally ill – is beaten and Tased by officers until he dies,” Leo Yankton said. “Two other officers stand by and watch, and the worst charge any of them face is assault?”

Children hold signs at a rally for Native justice held at the Nebraska State Capitol on May 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

He also shared the story of a 44-year-old Rosebud Sioux woman, Destiny Whitemagpie, who had her arm broken after police came to her apartment investigating a domestic disturbance involving her and her boyfriend.

The officers arrested Destiny’s boyfriend and attempted to arrest Destiny, who asked them why she was being detained. One of the officers began pushing Destiny’s arm up behind her back with such force that it broke her elbow, he said.

“And so it was that this Lakota mother on her way to work one morning had her arm broken by the very officer who had come to her apartment to ensure her safety,” Leo Yankton said. “All because she asked him why she was being arrested. It seems Lincoln police don’t like being questioned. Believe me, I know.”

Michelle Free LaMere, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, said she witnessed the January 30 raid by federal agents on the offices of Ho-Chunk Inc., her tribe’s economic development corporation.

She said she watched agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives load dozens of boxes of documents and products related to the corporation’s tobacco distribution enterprise into U-Hauls and semitrailers.

Michelle Free LaMere, a Winnebago tribal citizen, speaks at a rally for Native justice held Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska, on May 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The Winnebago Tribe has said it believes the state of Nebraska requested that the ATF conduct the raid in order to provide the state advantage in a tax dispute between the state and the tribe related to tobacco sales.

“Because of their actions there, they scared away a lot of the distributors so the sales went down,” Free LaMere said. “People lost their jobs.”

She called on Native people to seek political office and vote.

“We need to get on the schools boards,” she said. “We need to get on the county commission boards. We need to start running for office outside the reservation.”

Michelle Free LaMere, right, and her daughter hold up the flag of the Winnebago Tribe at a rally for Native justice held at the Nebraska State Capitol on May 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Michelle Free LaMere, left, and her daughter take part in a rally for Native justice held Saturday at the Nebraska State Capitol on May 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Karin Eagle, a media relations specialist for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said she has long feared allowing her son to walk the streets of Rapid City, South Dakota, a city that she said has become notorious for the aggressive behavior of its police toward Native people.

“I told my son how to walk down the streets, who to walk down the street with, how many people are allowable to walk down the street with,” she said. “I was told it’s not that bad. I said, ‘I buried two relatives within five years because the police weren’t that bad.’”

She said she traveled with her children to Lincoln from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in order to show solidarity for those being oppressed and harassed by Nebraska authorities.

“Back home on your reservations, you better believe people are listening,” she said. “They’re paying attention now to what’s happening in Nebraska.”

Frank LaMere, a Winnebago activist, said he has worked in recent months to ensure Nebraska leaders don’t forget what their police and political leaders have done to Native people.

“Nothing changes unless somebody is made to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Nothing changes until we make ourselves uncomfortable.”

And he criticized Nebraska for allowing itself to be used by major tobacco corporations to intimidate the Winnebago Tribe into giving the state a portion of its tobacco and distribution revenue. He said the raid on the tribe’s economic development corporation in January was the result of the state and big tobacco companies seeking to force the tribe to participate in an agreement between 46 states and the five largest tobacco companies.

“We took them on at Whiteclay for 20 years. We did not go away,” he said. “We took on big alcohol and we kicked their ass.”

“Now Nebraska gets together, jumps in bed with big tobacco, and we’ll kick their ass, too, if we have to. You know why? Because we do not go away.”


Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

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