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. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Frank LaMere: Native people are still fighting for our own rights

A raid on the Winnebago Reservation

By Frank LaMere

On January 30, scores of agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who were armed and wearing body armor, converged on Ho-Chunk Inc. in Winnebago, Nebraska.  I am not quite certain why.

Was it to face down drug lords and murderers, to stop a plot to overthrow our democracy or to settle a simple tax dispute?

 Any way you see it, it was an overreaction! It was provocative, it was needless, but above all it violated the sovereignty of the Winnebago people.  Is this what you think of us I would ask?  One can be subtle or in my face, but in either case I know the answer!

I have heard of no public outcry in response to the outrageous and misguided assault on the sovereign Winnebago people.  Not from the congressional delegation. Not from state senators, public officials, my fellow Nebraskans or any Americans for that fact. It seems like it is always the Indians versus their neighbors or my Winnebago people versus the whole world!

We have always faced those odds but because we want to live, to grow and to flourish we do. Our forebears faced them, and we have to face them. But why must our children and the generations to come have to suffer from “old attitudes” and old ideas that the dominant culture has about us?

The ATF came to secure some records to seemingly strengthen their legal position in a tobacco case that is many years old and where a dispute about tribal sovereignty has arisen. The question of whether or not other governments can tax what our people manufacture was the issue.  ATF came to enforce the Constitution!

The raid must have been impressive! Scores of armed agents stormed the offices of Ho-Chunk Inc., the tribe’s economic development arm, in a dramatic show of force…to carry out boxes? The Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney's Office and their cronies at the Nebraska State Capitol and at Phillip Morris will surely issue awards and citations for those involved in the “lightning raid." Training tapes will certainly be made.

Federal agents in unmarked black sports utility vehicles can be seen parked at the headquarters of Ho-Chunk Inc. on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska on January 30, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

They certainly showed the receptionists and custodians who had arrived early who was boss and showed all Nebraska that they will go to great lengths to protect and defend Big Tobacco and their Nebraska cronies, err...I mean the U.S. Constitution.


Ironically, on the same night that ATF still occupied a building on sovereign Winnebago Indian lands my son called me from Washington, D.C., where he stood at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial looking for the name of his uncle, my brother Anthony John LaMere. Tony was killed in action on July 1, 1971.  I told him to find Panel 3 West Line 96 and to put down tobacco as is our custom.

 I asked to offer a prayer for Tony and to tell him it is still a hard way for those of us Native people of this side of Mao-una’s creation.  I did not tell him of the ATF raid, but I asked that he sing a song for his uncle and for the 300 other Native warriors who names are etched on that wall.  

Anthony John LaMere died walking the point position on a combat patrol.  He too died defending the Constitution!  He carried no boxes of records.  How could I not think of that without shaking my head?  

Someone told me that there were fully 50 ATF agents who converged on Winnebago. I and others know little right now but my sense tells me that other federal and state officials were complicit in violating the sovereignty of our people!  I think they need to be ashamed of themselves and when we see them we will tell them so. There is no public outcry! It will begin here and now for many reasons, not the least of which is Nebraska’s complicity, always complicity in going after Indian people...even their own.

In 1999, ninety of Nebraska’s finest and forty federal officers met 2,500 Lakota people who were marching to Whiteclay, Nebraska, to pray and to call for an end to the lawlessness and murder in that village. Whiteclay existed only to sell beer onto the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where there is no legal place to drink it.

They arrested Russell Means, myself and seven others on that hot July day and I never knew why until much later!  We wanted all to sober up, to get well and to bring our families back together.  I thought we should have all been given awards for trying to make things better! 

Instead we were manhandled, arrested, but never convicted of anything but walking across the Nebraska border. I was more hopeful then and more naive.

We would all come to know that like Winnebago who is taking on Big Tobacco, we were taking on Big Alcohol.  It took us 20 years, but we did not go away, and we did not lose. Even when we constituted a majority of one!

Speaking of Whiteclay, we have come to know that the beer sellers there have seemingly done an “end run” on state and federal taxes that has resulted in a potential tax claim of $600,000 over a recent two-year period.  Take that times the 20 years I have watched, and it is not a great leap to think that an audit there of four white beer sellers would dwarf that amount of tax dollars that are in dispute at Winnebago.

Did we send a SWAT team there or send a letter in the mail!  We all know the answer to that!

In 2016, thousands of Native and non-Native “water protectors” went to Standing Rock to protect our Mother Earth.  “Mni Wiconi” they said!  “Water is life.”

They stood up for all Nebraskans and all Americans. Because of that they were attacked by dogs and had water hoses turned on them.   I came to know that our Governor had sent members of our State Patrol to go fight those Indians and supporters who opposed the TransCanada Pipeline.

Winnebagos were at Standing Rock. So was my son.  I am angry that Nebraska was complicit.

We are always complicit when going after our own!
. Whether it be the Big Alcohol jackals preying on the vulnerable at Whiteclay, the Big Oil interests poisoning our life blood at Standing Rock and Keystone or Big Tobacco money changers taking away jobs at Winnebago for scores of families who have dependent children like we all do, the state of Nebraska always stands with the Big Guys against the rest of us!.

I am afraid of the money interests and those they send to intimidate us every time we turn around!  I do not want to be slapped! 

But you know what? When you slap me, I will not be afraid anymore!  Neither will Nebraskans who have had enough of the bullies.

ATF always engages in high drama.  They have become “drama kings." They used to work in the public trust. Their leaders, Nebraskans, or somebody needs to remind them of that.

Frank LaMere is a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe who resides in South Sioux City, Nebraska. This opinion is his own.

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