Prayer, remembrance and peace embodied in walk

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WHITE CLAY, Neb. - After more than a year, the brutal deaths of Wilson Black Elk and Ronald Hard Heart remain unsolved. To commemorate the anniversary, 150 men, women and children marched to White Clay, Neb., from Pine Ridge, S.D.

Underlying the event was the marchers' frustration with no discernible progress in the investigation of the murders. The bodies of Black Elk and Hard Heart were found in a field outside White Clay, just inside the southern boundary of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The event was peaceful throughout, a fact that was no accident, said organizer Tom Poor Bear. Two weeks before the walk, Poor Bear invited members of the Nebraska Highway Patrol, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Police and other agencies to Camp Justice, near where the bodies were found, to participate in planning.

"There were so many cop cars down here people thought they were raiding us," Poor Bear said, joking.

The event was in marked contrast to the June 26 protest march of nearly a year ago that was marred by arson and the raid on VJ's Market in White Clay. To keep the focus on their cause, Camp Justice officials included area law enforcement agencies early, but Poor Bear said he was disappointed in Nebraska law enforcement agencies. "They still saw fit to station 50 SWAT team members just outside the town. We knew they were there."

In a ceremony at the center of town at the end of the walk, Poor Bear, a relative of the murdered men, vowed to continue until the killers are found. Marchers returned to Camp Justice for a ceremonial unveiling of a concrete monument erected by supporters of the camp.

A buffalo skull atop the monument has special significance to Poor Bear.

It was given to him by Native American Inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary last September. The skull was used by inmates during ceremonies at the prison for the last 22 years. He was asked to "return the skull to Mother Earth."

Local spiritual leaders told Poor Bear the skull should go atop the monument.

After prayers at the monument, and in response to an invitation from members of Camp Justice, several Nebraska Highway Patrol officers ate lunch at the camp. "We felt it was important that these people sit down with us and get to know who they were dealing with better. This way they got to see us pray, and share our bread," Poor Bear said.

The past year has seen several marches on White Clay. At issue is the town's continued sale of alcohol to Native American customers and a dispute over whether or not the town is within the original boundaries of the reservation.

Still, Poor Bear says the main dispute is over the murder investigations. "For one year we've been consistent in applying pressure to Janet Reno's office for her to get more involved. She's aware of the case, but I feel she must have resources available to get down here other than the FBI."

U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Ted McBride said that every available lead has been "rigorously pursued" and the case is ongoing. "We invite anyone who may have further information to please contact us."

Asked what the next move for Camp Justice will be, Poor Bear said, "We haven't really sat down to strategize just yet. For the moment, we're going to let a little time go by after the march, then we'll get together and decide where to go from here.

On Aug. 31, Poor Bear and six other defendants go on trial in Lincoln, Neb., for charges stemming from one of last summer's marches. Poor Bear faces three counts - obstructing a police officer, failure to comply with a lawful order and trespassing. The other six face only the first two charges.

Camp Justice members have filed a lawsuit against the state of Nebraska over continued sale of alcohol and the boundary dispute.

"We continue with our lawsuit against the state of Nebraska and prepare ourselves for court in August," Poor Bear said.