A plaque honoring the late Frank LaMere of the Winnebago Tribe was unveiled on August 4, 2020, in Sioux City, Iowa, at an event in which a halfway house for men was renamed in LaMere's honor.
Photo by Kevin Abourezk
SIOUX CITY, Iowa – More than 40 years ago, Jennifer LaMere awoke one morning, excited because her dad had promised to take her to the circus that day.
A few months earlier, her parents had divorced, and the anticipation of a day at the circus filled the young girl’s aching heart with hope. But as she went to wake up her dad, he told her he felt sick and wouldn’t be able to go.
Jennifer’s aunt decided to take her instead, and the two spent a wonderful day at the circus.
She didn’t think much about that day for nearly 40 years until April 2019, when her father, Frank LaMere, called his daughter to explain why he hadn’t taken his daughter to the circus that day in 1979.
“He told me that the reason he didn't take me was that he was hungover,” she said. “I never knew that until April of 2019.”
The late 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
Frank LaMere told his daughter the experience had changed the course of his life, and he decided to quit drinking that day. He spent the next 40 years until his death in June 2019 helping to change the course of others’ lives for the better.
On Tuesday, his friends and family paid homage to LaMere by attending a ceremony at Hope Street of Siouxland, a 10-bed halfway house for men in Sioux City. At the ceremony, Hope Street officials renamed Frank LaMere’s Hope Street House of Siouxland.
“I don’t care if you have one day of sobriety or if you got 100,000 days of sobriety, my father would be proud of you, for even that one day,” said Manape LaMere, Frank LaMere’s son, speaking directly to the men who currently live at Hope Street this week. “My father would be proud of you that you made a choice to come and give yourself a chance.”
Frank LaMere, a longtime Winnebago activist who fought for justice for Native people and became an icon in the national Democratic Party, helped establish Hope Street, which officially opened its doors on June 18, 2019, two days after his death.
Several men who now call Hope Street home said they might have lapsed back into addiction had the halfway house not given them a safe and supportive place to stay sober.
Richard Crosby, a Winnebago tribal citizen, said he is nearly six months sober and thanked Hope Street officials for giving him a third chance after he left the halfway house twice before and relapsed.
“I mean it this time,” he said. “I’m going to start at Little Priest (Tribal College) here at the end of the month.”
He said he grew up learning about Frank LaMere.
“He was always starting something, I mean in a good way,” Crosby said, laughing. “That’s awesome I guess. That’s cool.”
Jennifer LaMere said the halfway house fulfills a lifelong dream of her father’s to help others achieve sobriety and their highest potential as he had done. She said her father often said that Native people won’t be able to heal their broken communities until they heal themselves, one person at a time.
“This is everything that he worked for, and he would definitely be smiling down,” she said. “He would be proud.”
Matt Ohman, Siouxland Human Investment Partnership executive director, said Hope Street is just the first step in efforts to provide treatment and aftercare services to the homeless and addicted men and women on Sioux City’s streets.
He said he and Frank LaMere worked for three years to try gain Indian Health Service funding for those programs in Sioux City. Indeed, Sioux City was once home to an IHS-funded treatment center serving Native people until 2007, when the federal agency stopped funding the program because it wasn’t compliant with state and federal health and safety standards.
The loss of IHS funds in Sioux City hurt efforts to get Native people off the streets and sober, Ohman said.
“When that money went away, the problems in our community did not go away, especially with our Native American community and the homeless situation that we have here,” he said.
Without IHS support, Congress would have to approve appropriations for a new detox center in Sioux City, and it’s something Ohman and others have been seeking to make happen.
Just 2 percent of Sioux City’s population is made up of Native Americans, though they make up a disproportionate percentage of those suffering from alcoholism. In 2017, 52 percent of those arrested in Sioux City for public intoxication were Native American.
That statistic inspired outgoing Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to volunteer his support to gain federal funding for a Native treatment center in Sioux City.
The controversial King – who lost his reelection bid in June after losing in the Iowa primary to fellow Republican Randy Feenstra following racist statements that King made that drew condemnation within his own party – said LaMere’s efforts to empower Native people and hold accountable those who reneged on their promises to them inspired King to get involved.
“Frank would be very happy to see you all turn out here today, to see the progress that’s been made,” King said this week in Sioux City. “He would also be admonishing us that there’s more work to be done and lots of it.”
He said he plans to spend his remaining months in office seeking the return of 1,643 acres of federal land taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1972 from the Winnebago Tribe, an endeavor that Frank LaMere convinced him to support.
He said the Army Corps' decision to take the land by condemning it violated an 1865 treaty with the tribe that established the tribe’s boundaries.
While a federal court later ruled the Army Corps had violated the treaty, the tribe’s efforts to regain it through legal action failed to meet the statute of limitations. And now it would take an act of Congress to return the land to the tribe.
A bill introduced by King in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Winnebago Land Transfer Act of 2019, would transfer the land to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to be held in trust for the tribe.
“We have cleared the path to get it passed,” he said of H.R.184. “I hope we can have a real celebration when that happens, too.”
King said he learned a lot from LaMere and misses his friend today.
“I saw something within him,” he said. “It wasn’t just what he said but it was how he carried himself and it was how he set his priorities and it was how he challenged other people.”
“I saw Frank as a statesman, the voice for Native American people and a man with a heart.”