Frank LaMere, an activist from the Winnebago Tribe, receives an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University at a commencement ceremony in Lincoln on May 11, 2019, Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Native activist receives honorary degree for work in border town

LINCOLN, Nebraska -- On a hot, dusty day in July 1999, Frank LaMere walked across the Nebraska-South Dakota border and was arrested.

Along with six fellow activists and tribal leaders, including the late Russell Means, LaMere was handcuffed by state police and taken to jail. The seven men had been protesting the sale of alcohol by four beer stores in Whiteclay to residents of the nearby dry Pine Ridge Reservation.

Nearly 20 years later, LaMere took a much different walk.

On Saturday, the 69-year-old Winnebago man stepped across a stage to receive an honorary degree for his efforts to shut down the beer stores in Whiteclay.

Jennifer LaMere adjusts her father Frank LaMere's robe just before commencement services at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln on May 11, 2019, when LaMere received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Nebraska Wesleyan University President Fred Ohles bestowed the honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon LaMere. A few minutes later, Bishop Brian Maas of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America delivered the university’s commencement address.

Maas urged the more than 500 graduates to ask difficult and important questions of the world and to seek to improve the lives of those less fortunate.

“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.

“The challenges surrounding Whiteclay have only begun to be transformed, but transformation has begun because people have dared to ask questions. The world waits for more such question-askers. Be those people.”

Fred Ohles, president of Nebraska Wesleyan University, looks on as Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) shakes hands with Frank LaMere following the conclusion of commencement services in Lincoln on May 11, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
A congratulatory note to Frank LaMere from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska). Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Reflecting on the event later Saturday, LaMere noted the irony of being labeled a criminal by Nebraska authorities 20 years ago and later being honored by Nebraska educators – all for the same work.

He said being granted an honorary degree for fighting to stop the flow of beer to the Pine Ridge Reservation demonstrated a paradigm shift in the way people have long thought about the effort to shut down Whiteclay’s beer stores.

“I’ve said many times that the Whiteclay effort, our win there, was a human rights and civil rights victory,” he said. “We just have not had time to look at it and celebrate it, but that’s what it is.”

At a reception prior to Saturday’s commencement at Wesleyan, members of the university’s Board of Governors congratulated LaMere and thank him for a lifetime spent seeking justice for Native people.

Besides his efforts in Whiteclay, LaMere has served as an advocate for Native people who have lost loved ones to violence by police and to Native parents whose children have been taken from them by state child welfare officials. He has long fought for reforms in the child welfare system, which he has argued is often too quick to remove Native children from their homes.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for this world,” one woman told him at Saturday’s reception.

Wesleyan President Fred Ohles said the university had considered bestowing an honorary degree upon LaMere for several years – even naming him as the most deserving person for such a degree. With his July retirement as Wesleyan’s president looming, Ohles decided it was time to do it.

“I said we have to honor Frank and we did it,” Ohles said.

Two feathers can be seen in Frank LaMere's mortar board after commencement at Nebraska Wesleyan University, where LaMere received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree on Saturday, May 11, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Yet, Saturday was bittersweet for LaMere, whose close friend Alan Jacobsen – a longtime ally in his fight to close the Whiteclay beer stores – was being laid to rest in a cemetery only a few miles from Nebraska Wesleyan.

LaMere said he’s hopeful that history, like leaders at Nebraska Wesleyan, will take a favorable view of those who dared to question the morality of alcohol sales in Whiteclay.

“It was a good day at Nebraska Wesleyan University,” he said. “I will remember this the rest of my life. It was a very meaningful day, a very powerful day.”

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