Tensions raised by SD Indian killings


PINE RIDGE, S.D. {AP} It’s been nearly three months since two Sioux men were found slain in a culvert near the Nebraska line, and many Indians doubt authorities even care whether they solve the crime.

In fact, some Indian activists say the apparent standstill in the investigation only confirms their suspicion that white Nebraska lawmen helped kill Wilson Black Elk Jr. and Ronald Hard Heart or helped cover up the crime to make it seem as if Indians were responsible.

“It’s just two dead Indians to them,” Tom Poor Bear, who was Black Elk’s half-brother and Hard Heart’s cousin, said of the FBI. “If these were two white people who were murdered, this place would be swarming with FBI agents. They’d be turning over every blade of grass.”

The deaths have led to a violent protest and heightened long-standing tensions between whites and the Oglala Sioux from the poor and desolate Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The FBI says it is doing all it can. And the sheriff’s department in Sheridan County, Neb., denies having any role in the killings or discriminating against Indians.

But those statements do little to diminish the distrust on the reservation.

In a measure of how deep the distrust runs, the Sioux who believe white deputies were involved in the slaying can’t cite any direct evidence. They believe the men were killed in Nebraska and their bodies were dumped on the reservation to make it seem as if a tribe member did it. But investigators have not said whether the bodies were moved.

Many of the bad feelings are left over from the American Indian Movement’s 1973 armed takeover of a trading post at nearby Wounded Knee in a protest over the government’s handling of complaints about Indian affairs. In 71 days of unrest, two Indians were killed and a deputy marshal was wounded.

Distrust of law officers also runs high on South Dakota’s eight other reservations, where unemployment often is staggering and alcoholism widespread.

“There is deep-rooted racism in South Dakota, and it can’t be denied,” said Alfred Bone Shirt, who is on the Lakota Nation Human Rights Committee. Lakota is the name some Sioux call themselves.

Indians have held a series of protests over both the Pine Ridge slayings and alcohol sales in tiny Whiteclay, Neb., where a few stores do a brisk business selling beer and booze to Sioux. Alcohol is banned at Pine Ridge, just two miles from Whiteclay.

“All I want to do is have my brother rest in peace,” said Edward Hard Heart. “Right now his spirit is wandering around, and he won’t rest until we find out who killed him.”

Few details of the investigation have emerged. The FBI has shown autopsy results to the families but said releasing the results publicly might compromise the investigation. Poor Bear, who helped identify Black Elk’s body, said the man was severely beaten.

Mark Vukelich, the FBI agent overseeing the investigation, said his agency and tribal police are making every effort to determine who killed the men. A $15,000 reward for information has been offered.

“Because these remain in the unsolved category, they receive the highest priority,” Vukelich said. “I disagree that we’re not doing all we can.”

Vukelich would not say whether Sheridan County law officers are being investigated. “We are investigating all angles of this case,” he said. “That includes anybody who had any involvement in the crime scene.”

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