Tribal police break up attempted beer blockade, arrest three 6-28-07

- Tribal police Thursday shut down a volunteer blockade aimed at keeping beer out of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcoholism is rampant, and arrested three organizers who refused to leave.

Only a few vehicles had been checked for alcohol by the time Oglala Sioux tribal police told the volunteers to stop because of safety concerns. After several minutes of arguing, police arrested actor and American Indian activist Russell Means; Duane Martin Sr.; and Frank LaMere, a Winnebago activist.

Martin was arrested after it appeared he fought with officers over a spear he was carrying. He spoke in Lakota as more than a half-dozen officers wrestled him to the ground.

The three were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice, said tribal police Chief James Twiss.

“You can ask only so long before you have to arrest them and get them into custody,” Twiss said.

“It looked like the violence was initiated by tribal police,” said Mark Vasina of Nebraskans for Peace. His group and Martin's Strong Heart Civil Rights Movement staged the blockade.

About two dozen people were at Thursday's blockade, but only four or five actually were stopping vehicles. About half the people there were reporters.

As many as 20 tribal officers were called in to break up the blockade, while about a dozen Nebraska law officers stood by in Whiteclay.

Alcoholism is rampant on the reservation, which bans alcohol, and the volunteers had hoped the blockade would help curtail bootlegging. Four stores in Whiteclay, a village just outside the 16,500-member reservation, sell about 4 million cans of beer a year, mostly to American Indians.

Blockade workers, wearing bright green construction vests, had planned to stop vehicles, ask occupants whether they had any alcohol and confiscate it if they did. They attempted a similar blockade last year, but it was abandoned when police raised safety concerns, and both sides agreed to work together to address the problem.

Beer cans litter reservation roads and the streets of Whiteclay. People loiter outside the stores. Some try to trade tools, electronics and other things for beer.

“I'm tired of my people dying. You've got 18-, 19-year-olds trading alcohol for sex,” said Martin, whose fellow organizer, Means, was a leader of the American Indian Movement and led the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee, S.D. Means ran unsuccessfully for the Libertarian nomination for president in 1988.

Martin had indicated organizers didn't need support from the tribal government, citing support of the Oglala Sioux's traditional leader, Chief Oliver Red Cloud. But organizers had wanted law enforcers to take over the blockade to ensure it remained nonviolent.

Twiss said that he empathizes with the group's mission but that he has to follow tribal law. He added that tribal police conduct at least 15 sobriety checkpoints on the reservation each year and plan to do one starting Friday through Wednesday - including the road between Whiteclay and the reservation.

Earlier, acting tribal police Capt. Wilmer Youngman said the searches the volunteers planned went beyond the authority of police. “We can't even search vehicles” without having probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, he said.

Twiss said he told the organizers a year ago they needed to change tribal law and make the blockade legal - but they didn't. “They had a whole year to do something legislatively,” Twiss said.