By Stephanie Woodard
This story first appeared in Indian Country Today in March 2012.
“I’m in severe pain,” said Brian Blue Bird, Oglala Lakota, from his hospital bed in a Greeley, Colorado, burn unit (shown left). He was airlifted there via helicopter on March 7 after being badly burned that day in a fire in Whiteclay, Nebraska, which adjoins the tribe’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. When Blue Bird arrived at North Colorado Medical Center, he was in serious condition, according to Helen Lohnes, the hospital’s nursing supervisor; he is now listed in fair condition, she said.
“The fire caught me,” said Blue Bird, 51, an Army veteran and bystander in Whiteclay who recalled running to get away from the flames, reportedly a prescribed burn set by the volunteer fire department from nearby Rushville, Nebraska. “My clothes became engulfed in flame, and I ran. I fell, got up and kept running till I made it to the road, when I blacked out. I woke up and realized someone was hosing me off, then blacked out again. Next time I came to, I was in the Indian Health Service Hospital. I blacked out again and finally woke up here in Greeley.”
The conflagration took place in an empty lot, shown right, near the abandoned buildings that form the northwestern boundary of the tiny town. “There are old wooden buildings and a wooden fence there,” said Blue Bird. “The flames must have jumped.”
After waking in the burn unit, Blue Bird wasn’t able to see or speak for several days, though he could hear. “My face and hands are burned, and my hair comes out in clumps,” he said. “I’m very tired, and I have no appetite.” Each day, the hospital staff has removed some of the many tubes that were running into his body, he said, and he was expecting to undergo a skin-graft operation. He expressed concern for a friend who had tried to extinguish the flames with his bare hands and also sustained burns.
On March 13, a week after the accident, Ray Nance, spokesperson for the Nebraska State Fire Marshal, said his office had not heard of the incident, prompting Mark Vasina, award-winning filmmaker and director of The Battle for Whiteclay, to say, “That just shows how out-of-sight-out-of-mind Native Americans are for the powers that be in Nebraska.” The following day, March 14, Nance confirmed that the office was aware of the accident, adding, “As a general rule, we do try to get out and like to be notified, but have no involvement or specifics on this one.” He said fire chiefs “make the call” as to the causes of injury in a fire. About any potential investigation, Nance said, “We [the fire marshal’s office] would hope there would be a learning process.”
A request has been made for a comment from the state fire marshal, and this story will be updated when it is received. Neither the volunteer fire department nor the Rushville sheriff, who patrols Whiteclay, responded to requests for a comment on the incident.
Whiteclay itself is an enclave of little more than four ramshackle carry-out beer stores (one is shown at left) that flout both Nebraska and Pine Ridge law by selling millions of cans of beer annually right on the border of the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Observers have long called the town a center of a wide variety of lawlessness—from rape and assault to sales to minors and food-stamp fraud. The tribe recently brought a federal lawsuit to try to control the flow of alcohol from Whiteclay to the reservation. “From whatever the cause, bottom line, Native Americans are getting hurt and dying in Whiteclay,” said a tribal official.
Blue Bird’s sister Carla Cheyenne, also Oglala, went to Greeley to spend several days with her brother after he arrived at North Colorado Medical Center. “He told me he could hear his hair sizzling and see that his shirt and boots were on fire,” she recalled.
Brian Blue Bird’s wife, Patty White Bear Claws, Oglala (shown at top with him at the hospital), said the situation upset her badly. “It was a windy day. What were they doing setting a fire on such a day?” A national online weather service reports gusts as high as 44 miles per hour for that day in Whiteclay. “I told him, next time they’re going to kill one of you. They don’t care anything about Native Americans.”
Photo at top courtesy of Mark Vasina; 2 photos of Whiteclay by Joseph Zummo.