This story appeared in Indian Country Today in March 2012.
He may never have full use of his hands again,” said Patricia White Bear Claws, of her longtime companion, Bryan Blue Bird, Jr., who was severely injured in an early-March prescribed burn in Whiteclay, Nebraska. Set by the volunteer fire department from nearby Rushville, the blaze flared out of control and engulfed Blue Bird, a bystander. Both he and White Bear Claws are Oglala Lakota, from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which straddles the Nebraska–South Dakota border and adjoins the town of Whiteclay.
“I can’t make a fist anymore,” said Blue Bird, 51, an Army veteran. “In addition to my hands, my face and other parts of my body were burnt, and my hair, eyebrows and mustache are gone.”
Blue Bird has filed notices of claims against the Rushville Volunteer Fire Department and Sheridan County, Nebraska, where Rushville is located. According to his attorney, Thomas White, of White & Jorgensen, in Omaha, complaints against Nebraska governmental bodies go through a two-step process: first, a notice of intent to file a claim; then six months later, the filing of the lawsuit itself (assuming the parties involved have not already settled the issue).
The Sheridan County Attorney’s office has not at this point received an indication it will be handling any lawsuit that emerges, said Jamian J. Simmons, deputy county attorney: “We handle certain county legal matters, but they may be making other arrangements.”
Neither the Rushville fire chief, Dwaine Sones, nor the Sheridan County sheriff, Terry Robbins, responded to requests for comments. However, Robbins, who was present during the fire, told the Omaha World-Herald the firefighters set the blaze in order to burn off thick grass from Whiteclay vacant lots and thereby reduce fire risks to local businesses. Robbins also said the team had checked the area prior to getting underway.
Mark Vasina, director of the award-winning 2008 film, The Battle for Whiteclay, went to the town to examine the fire site and talk to witnesses. Vasina said he was surprised they hadn’t seen Blue Bird, since he was close to the main north-south road through town when the fire caught up to him. White Bear Claws concluded the firefighters couldn’t possibly have looked carefully.
Vasina said it also appears that a bystander and fellow tribal member, Darrell Walking, pulled Blue Bird from the conflagration, rather than the firefighters or sheriff. Walking, who had no protective gear when he rescued Blue Bird, sustained serious burns as he attempted to put out the flames with his bare hands and was later treated at the Indian Health Service hospital in nearby Pine Ridge village. There are indications the Rushville fire department eventually doused Blue Bird with water, though not until after the rescue by Walking, according to Vasina.
Another tribal member, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said the fire crew’s apparent hesitation to help Blue Bird was an example of the attitude toward Native Americans in Sheridan County, especially in Whiteclay: “He was an Indian, so they let him burn.”
Ray Nance, public relations representative for the Nebraska state fire marshal, said his agency is “not involved” in investigating the incident; shortly after the accident, he told Indian Country Today Media Network that the fire marshal’s office “generally” likes to look into such situations. In 2011, the fire marshal reportedly spent 11 weeks investigating fatalities resulting from a prescribed burn in Trenton, a town in southern Nebraska. Nance said he had “nothing further to add” about the Whiteclay incident.
The businesses the prescribed burn was intended to protect include four carry-out beer stores that flout both Nebraska and Pine Ridge public-nuisance and bootlegging statutes by selling more than four million cans of beer annually on the border of the dry Pine Ridge reservation. Frank LaMere, Winnebago, who has long worked to control Whiteclay alcohol sales, has said the bordertown’s rampant lawlessness includes murder, rape, assault, alcohol sales to minors and trading beer for sex. In February, the manager of a Whiteclay grocery store told the investigative news website 100Reporters that exchanging booze for sexual favors was “how society works.”
The Oglala Sioux Tribe recently brought a federal lawsuit to halt illegal alcohol sales in Whiteclay. White is the attorney for that claim as well.
After the accident, Blue Bird was taken to the emergency room of the Pine Ridge IHS hospital, then airlifted to the burn unit of the North Colorado Medical Center, where he arrived in serious condition and received specialized care and skin grafts. He’s now back home in Pine Ridge village, facing ongoing medical care and physical therapy for the burns, including 630-mile round trips to the Colorado hospital.
The staff at North Colorado Medical Center taught White Bear Claws to change Blue Bird’s bandages and take care of the burns, he said, adding, “I’m trying to hang in there.”
“It’s not just the physical effects of the burns,” said his sister, Carla Blue Bird Cheyenne. “That’s bad enough, but the recovery process is hard emotionally as well.”
Blue Bird will need an operation on a shoulder that was surgically repaired at a Veteran’s Administration hospital in February but re-injured during the fire, said White Bear Claws. “I must have popped the pin they put in when I fell trying to outrun the fire,” explained Blue Bird. “I’ll be seeing doctors a lot for awhile.”
White’s preliminary investigation of the incident uncovered what he termed “disturbing” possibilities that he will explore during depositions for the lawsuit: “It appears the Rushville Volunteer Fire Department set the fire deliberately; it is not clear at this time that they had a permit; the blaze occurred on what was apparently a ‘red flag’ day, with high winds, dry ground conditions and low humidity, when such fires are normally not allowed because of the danger involved; the firefighters claim to have checked the area prior to starting the burn, yet Blue Bird was burnt in the fire.” Finally, those officially involved with the burn appear not to have moved immediately to rescue Blue Bird, once it became clear that was necessary.
White said he doesn’t like to call any lawsuit “open and shut” ahead of time. However, he said, “This appears to be a very strong set of facts.”
c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph courtesy of Mark Vasina.