Thursday, June 21, 2012

Feds re-open investigations of Oglala Sioux deaths

The U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, Brendan Johnson, has announced the "re-examin[ation of] the circumstances surrounding dozens of deaths that occurred on or near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, many dating back to the 1970s when the reservation was embroiled in political violence."  The original investigations into many of these deaths ruled them accidents or suicides, but the Oglala Sioux had in May sent Johnson a letter seeking the re-opening of 28 cases.

Mr. Johnson announced that a panel, including his top deputy, would re-consider 50 cases spanning 40 years.  Once that process is complete, he will decide whether any given case presents enough unanswered questions to merit asking the FBI or another agency to assist.  The New York Times quotes Johnson:
If we get the information, the evidence we need for get a prosecution, I don't care how old the cases are.  I don't think it is going to be a short process.  Wit this many cases it might take as long as a year, maybe two years, but I want to get this right.
Many of the deaths occurred between 1973 and 1976, a period known as the "reign of terror" at Pine Ridge.  The American Indian Movement (AIM) was in a power struggle at that time with tribal president Richard A. Wilson and his Guardians of the Oglala Nation, a paramilitary organization known as GOONs.  The period was "marked by deadly ambushes at highway checkpoints and gunfights that on occasion lasted for days."  Many Oglala Sioux believe that federal authorities failed to properly investigate deaths from this period because federal agents were implicated in some of those Indian deaths.

But the cause of some more recent deaths will also be considered, including the 1999 deaths of two relatives of the tribe's current vice president, Tom Poor Bear.  Poor Bear's brother and cousin were found beaten to death in Whiteclay, Nebraska, which borders the reservation.  Their deaths remain unsolved.

Read Timothy Williams coverage of these events in the New York Times here and here.

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