Frank LaMere, an activist from the Winnebago Tribe, speaks inside the Siouxland Center for Active Generations in Sioux City, Iowa, as part of the Memorial March to Honor Our Lost Children on November 22, 2017. The march began in response to the deaths of three Indian children in foster care. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Indian Country and allies say goodbye to 'hero' Frank LaMere

As his friend lay dying, Dennis Carlson sat beside his bed and listened to him one last time.

The two men had climbed mountains together, fought for justice in dusty, forgotten places, and talked for hours over strong coffee and warm food.

He had listened to Frank LaMere speak dozens of times, before crowds of college students, peace activists and tribal advocates. He had seen him leave his audiences in tears and energized for whatever fight lay ahead.

He knew his friend could galvanize any crowd, but he never heard LaMere give the same speech.

And he didn’t disappoint on their last day together.

“He knew what he was facing, and he faced his illness with the same courage he showed in other aspects of his life,” Carlson said. “He was full of love for his God, and he was full of love for his family. He told me he had no regrets whatsoever. He talked about how wonderful his life was.”

On Sunday, longtime peace and justice activist Frank LaMere – a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska – died after a brief battle with cancer. He was 69.

LaMere had spent a lifetime fighting for change to improve the lives of Native people and is considered by many to be the driving force behind the movement to close the beer stores in Whiteclay, an effort that culminated in the April 2017 decision by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to not renew the town’s four liquor licenses.

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 was outspoken in recent years following the June 2017 death of Zachary Bearheels, a 29-year-old Lakota and Kiowa man.

Bearheels had been shocked 12 times and punches 13 times in the head by Omaha police before dying of what medical officials alleged was “excited delirium.” In December, an Omaha jury cleared one of only two officers charged with assaulting Bearheels of any wrongdoing, and Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine later dropped charges against the second officer.

“Something is wrong here,” he told Kleine. “They beat this man to death and they electrocuted him and we’re not going to do anything.”

LaMere had long fought for reforms in the child welfare system, which he had argued was too quick to remove Native children from their homes. Each year for the past 16 years, LaMere led Native people in a march in Sioux City, Iowa, to commemorate the loss of Native children to the child welfare system and to violence in their foster homes.

On May 11, LaMere walked across the stage at Nebraska Wesleyan University to accept an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his work shutting down the Whiteclay beer stores.

Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, far right, speaks to the family of Zachary Bear Heels outside the bus station in Omaha, Nebraska, where the Native man first arrived on June 5, 2017. He later died after being beaten by police officers. A prayer walk took place in his honor on December 8, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

'We lost a hero'
Numerous tribal leaders expressed grief Monday over the death of LaMere.

“If there was injustice anywhere in Indian Country, Frank LaMere likely had a voice in demanding better treatment and justice,” said Frank White, chairman of the Winnebago Tribe. “The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, as well as Indian Country in general, has lost one of their staunchest advocates with his passing.”

The Winnebago Tribe also was mourning the death on Sunday of Curtis St. Cyr, the tribe’s 60-year-old tribal council vice chairman, who died suddenly. A renowned blues musician, St. Cyr served on the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Commission and Tax Commission, and had played a key role in the tribe’s takeover of its hospital from the Indian Health Service in recent years.

“My uncle Curt and my father will travel together on the other side,” wrote LaMere’s son, Manape, in a post on social media on Sunday night. “My humblest condolences to the Hocakra Winnebago Nation for these transitions to spirit by these Bear Clan men. We'll celebrate their lives as bear clan does.”

A wake service for LaMere was scheduled to begin Monday night at St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, with a funeral mass planned to begin at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the church, located on the reservation in northeastern Nebraska.

LaMere is survived by wife Cynthia, sons Manape and Hazen, and daughter Jennifer.

Traditional wake for Frank LaMere will begin at 6pm Monday till the dawn of Wednesday morning @ St. Augustine school gym in Winnebago Nebraska. The funeral mass will be 10am Wednesday at St. Augustine church.

Posted by St. Augustine Indian Mission on Monday, June 17, 2019

The Nebraska Democratic Party also expressed its sadness over the death of LaMere, who served as the party’s first associate chair. LaMere was the longest serving Native member of the Democratic National Committee and founded both the Nebraska Native Caucus and the National Native Caucus of the Democratic Party.

“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 Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “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.”

Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., the Winnebago Tribe’s economic development corporation, said LaMere’s legacy of fighting for changed paved the way for the success of younger Native generations.

“His decades-long dedication to Native rights steadily changed people’s minds,” Morgan said. “Leaders like Frank kicked in the door so people in my generation could walk through it. He will be missed but not forgotten.”

One of the nation’s first Native congresswomen, Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, tweeted: “The passing of Frank LaMere, my good friend and hero for Indian Country, who fought for justice and a voice at every table, will leave a void that none of us can easily fill. His activism and kind and generous heart will be missed.”

Tony Wood, left, and Frank LaMere, citizens of the Winnebago Tribe, are seen in front of a banner during the 16th Annual Memorial March to Honor Our Lost Children in Sioux City, Iowa, on November 21, 2018. The march began in response to the deaths of three Indian children in foster care. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

'I like to think about what she would want me to be doing'
In April 2014, Deveron Baxter climbed the highest mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota with LaMere and others who opposed the beer sales in Whiteclay.

Later, at the Wounded Knee Memorial on the Pine Ridge Reservation, LaMere spoke to Baxter about the importance of their journey.

“He said that nothing is ever a coincidence,” Baxter said. “There’s a reason behind everything. He always inspired me to fight for change and showed me how to do it as well.”

Later in Lincoln, Baxter spoke before the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, arguing for the closure of the beer stores in Whiteclay. Today, he serves as chairman of the Lincoln Indian Center.

He said he was proud to stand beside LaMere before Nebraska state leaders to argue for change.

“I think it echoed hope across the Native community,” he said of the decision to close the beer stores. “He did so much when it came to that.”

In January 2014, LaMere’s daughter Lexie Wakan died after a battle with leukemia. After her death and before the closure of the beer stores, LaMere would often invoke his daughter’s name in speeches before audiences gathered to learn about Whiteclay.

He would share his beliefs about what would happen after his death. LaMere said he believed he would travel to the spirit world and see his loved ones who had died before him, including his daughter.

“He hoped that she would say, ‘This is my father. This is what he does. He tried to give voice to those who had no voice. He did the best he could,’” said John Maisch, a longtime friend of LaMere’s and director of the film “Sober Indian/Dangerous Indian,” which documented the lives of the men and women who drank in Whiteclay.

All: We lost our friend, Frank LaMere, tonight after a short but valiant battle with cancer. Frank joins his youngest...

Posted by Sober Indian Dangerous Indian on Sunday, June 16, 2019

Maisch, whose mother suffered a debilitating stroke not long after Lexie LaMere died, said he had been struggling with his own grief over his mother’s suffering. At the same time, LaMere seemed to carry himself with great poise, despite losing his daughter and suffering a stroke of his own.

During a visit by LaMere to his home in Oklahoma City, Maisch asked his friend how he found the strength to continue his work after losing so much.

“He said, ‘You never really move beyond that. What helps me take on the day is every day when I wake up and I think about Lexie, I like to think about what she would want me to be doing on her best day,’” LaMere told him.

Our loved ones who’ve died don’t want us to suffer in their name, LaMere said. They want us to enjoy our lives and fight to make positive change in the lives of others along the way, he said.

In July 1999, LaMere joined six other Native activists and tribal leaders, including the late Russell Means, in walking across the Nebraska-South Dakota border in violation of an order by the Nebraska State Patrol to remain on the South Dakota side. All seven men were handcuffed by state police and taken to jail.

Not long after the beer stores closed in April 2017, Project Extra Mile – a Nebraska nonprofit that seeks to reduce alcohol-related injuries and diseases – honored LaMere for his work.

At the banquet, LaMere made it clear that the closing of the beer stores was just the first step.

“He would always say, ‘That was just the beginning The first act isn’t as important as the last act. Let’s see who sticks around. They will be the real heroes,’” Maisch said.

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

'Frank educated them'
With LaMere’s passing, many in Indian Country have expressed concern about who might be able to replace LaMere in advocating for Native rights.

Maisch said no one person could ever hope to accomplish as much as LaMere did.

Still, Native people and their allies have no choice but to continue seek to fulfill the many social justice efforts LaMere began in his life, Maisch said.

He said LaMere would often talk about how others would call him and ask him how he planned to address the latest wrong committed against Native people. “John, people know what to do,” he would tell Maisch. “They shouldn’t just wait for me to do it. They’re empowered and they can do it.’”

“Now really we don’t have a choice,” Maisch said. “We have to pick up where Frank left off and where we left off with Frank and go forward.”

Bryan Brewer, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, was among those who marched beside LaMere from the Pine Ridge Reservation to Whiteclay several times.

He said LaMere did what no one in Pine Ridge could – make those in power listen to the Lakota people’s pleas to close the Whiteclay beer stores. One of the most successful strategies LaMere employed was to get non-Natives involved in the effort to close down the beer stores, Brewer said.

“When the people in Nebraska got involved, that’s when things started happening,” he said. “Frank educated them, and people started speaking up and there was a lot of support.”

“Frank and those people did it. They actually closed Whiteclay.”

Among those non-Natives enlisted by LaMere and Maisch to fight for the beer stores’ closures was Nora Boesem, a South Dakota mother to numerous Lakota children suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Boesem spoke before Nebraska liquor regulators and anyone else who would listen about the challenges of raising children suffering from an entirely preventable disease, many of whose parents had drank on the streets of Whiteclay.

Her testimony about the innocent victims of Whiteclay’s massive alcohol sales was pivotal in influencing Nebraska state leaders to seek the closure of the beer stores.

Boesem said LaMere convinced her to speak out against Whiteclay’s alcohol trade by telling her that it was important for her children to know she had fought for them, even if they weren’t successful in closing the beer stores.

“That’s a gift that Frank gave me that I can at least have my children know I fought for them,” she said.

She said she also learned to be willing to step out of your comfort zone in order to make others uncomfortable. It was a lesson she learned in a particularly unnerving incident when she, Frank and others were escorted out of the governor’s office by the Nebraska State Patrol after a particularly contentious encounter with the state’s chief executive.

“He always said, ‘If you haven’t been difficult, if you haven’t made someone mad, you’re probably not doing all you should be doing,’” she said. “It’s easy to sit in a room and talk about how important something is but when you have to really walk over that line and make that decision that could change your life, how many people will do it?”

“You really do have to be willing to cross that line and take the step to show that it matters that much.”

Dennis Carlson, the retired counsel for discipline of the Nebraska Supreme Court, said he met LaMere not long after driving through Whiteclay in the summer of 2015. The two met at a university’s screening of “Sober Indian/Dangerous Indian.”

It didn’t take long for LaMere’s charisma and passion to convince Carlson to join the effort to get the Whiteclay beer stores shut down.

In fact, the morning after the film screening, he joined LaMere at a meeting at the Nebraska governor’s office.

He said he realized very quickly that LaMere’s public persona wasn’t just a façade.

“The compassionate, the caring, the always giving person that the public is familiar with, that’s exactly the way Frank was when you had a private conversation with him,” Carlson said.

LaMere demonstrated a deep spirituality that he reflected in everything he did and every word he said, Carlson said. He would begin every meeting with a prayer and often invoked the creator’s blessings toward whatever challenge he was facing, Carlson said.

“Frank was driven by his moral compass, which in turn was driven by his spirituality,” he said. “Frankly, I’ve never met anybody like him.”

Often, as he and Carlson others waited for people to show up for one event or another, someone would express concern that no one was coming.

Calmly, LaMere would tell them: “The people that are supposed to be here will be here. It’s going to be okay.”

'We’re going to keep it going'
Matt Ohman, executive director of Siouxland Human Investment Partnership, a nonprofit in Sioux City, Iowa, that LaMere had worked with for nearly a decade, said LaMere was pivotal in bringing together leaders from many nonprofit and government agencies to help improve the lives of Native people in Sioux City.

Among those he built relationships with were Iowa Department of Human Services leaders, whom LaMere had heavily criticized following the deaths of several Native children in non-Native foster homes over 16 years ago.

“There was a lot of anger,” Ohman said about the deaths of the Native children. “It’s a testament to Frank because he used that to really develop a relationship with the Department of Human Services here, and now they are some of the biggest allies to the Native people.”

LaMere’s latest effort involved seeking Indian Health Service funds to build a detox center or halfway house for Native men in Sioux City. He and Ohman had traveled several times to Washington, D.C., to try to convince Congressional leaders, including Rep. Steve King of Iowa, to support efforts to fund the project.

Ohman said language has been included in the Interior appropriations bill now being considered by Congress to provide funding for treatment programs for Native people in Sioux City.

Last Tuesday, Ohman and other representatives from his organization visited with LaMere in his hospital room in Omaha.

“His body had been through so much, but he was in good spirits,” he said. “His biggest concern was, ‘I’ve got so many thing going on right now, there’s so much work to do and here I am.’”

“I just assured him, ‘Hey, we’re not going to let the momentum die on any of these things while you’re recuperating. We’re going to keep it going and make sure all of this stuff keeps moving forward.’”

Tributes to Frank LaMere

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