Tribe Seeks Reopening of Inquiries in ’70s Deaths
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS / THE NEW YORK TIMES / June 15, 2012
PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — Forty years after the siege at Wounded Knee by members of the American Indian Movement, the Oglala Sioux tribe has demanded that the federal government reopen dozens of cases it says the F.B.I. may have mishandled decades ago.
Tribal leaders say that as many as 75 people were killed on Pine Ridge during a three-year period of internecine violence that followed the 71-day Wounded Knee standoff with federal troops in 1973, a time that came to be known on the reservation as the “reign of terror.”
The federal government has declined so far to re-examine the cases.
The dead, many of whom were members of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, often had been shot or hacked, their bodies disposed of on remote parts of the reservation’s sprawling badlands.
“In many of these cases, the issue is not the lack of evidence and the attendant need for more,” the tribe wrote in a letter on May 23 to Brendan V. Johnson, the United States attorney for South Dakota. “Rather, in many cases the issue is the potential impropriety of those required to investigate and prosecute these deaths.”
The tribe says it believes that at least 28 deaths required an official re-examination, in part, “to determine whether the cases were closed for legitimate and conclusive reasons, notwithstanding the potential criminal implication of federal agents.”
The federal government, which has denied any role in the deaths, says most of them were not murders, but suicides, accidents or unintentional poisonings.
“If there’s ever any new information on these deaths, the F.B.I. will of course take a look at that information,” said Kyle A. Loven, an F.B.I. spokesman. Absent that, he added, “the F.B.I. does not have any intention of reopening these cases just to reopen them.”
But William Means, a former American Indian Movement leader, said that because the federal government has declined to make its case files public, relatives of the dead have been left in limbo.
“Justice is always important,” Mr. Means said. “The families have never had any type of explanation.”
The early 1970s was a dark, confused time on Pine Ridge, reflecting the turmoil in much of the rest of the United States. On Pine Ridge, the American Indian Movement’s attempt to oust Richard A. Wilson, the tribal president, led to sporadic warfare between AIM members and the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, a paramilitary organization known as GOONs, organized by Mr. Wilson.
The federal government was frequently forced into the role of peacemaker — and occasionally, combatant. At least two F.B.I. agents were among those killed at Pine Ridge during the violence, which was, at the time, propulsive.
From 1973 to 1976, the homicide rate on Pine Ridge was 170 for every 100,000 people, according to the tribe. By comparison, Detroit, which was among the nation’s most violent big cities, had a rate of about 50 per 100,000 in 1974.
An F.B.I. review in 2000 of 57 deaths during the era of the reign of terror concluded that many deaths deemed suspicious by the tribe had not been murders. Among them was the case of John S. Moore, an American Indian Movement supporter found in December 1974 with stab wounds to his face and neck. A coroner ruled the death a suicide, a decision the F.B.I. has not challenged.
But Lisa R. Shellenberger, a lawyer for the tribe, said the 1975 murders of the F.B.I. agents on the reservation had “bred deep mistrust” between the Oglala Sioux and the F.B.I., which she says may have affected the quality of the original criminal investigations and colored subsequent inquiries. Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement member, was eventually convicted of the agents’ murders.
The tribe’s recent list of 28 deaths include cases that span a period from the politically volatile 1970s to recent years, when the vast majority of homicides on Pine Ridge have been related to alcohol consumption. The reservation remains inundated by violent crime, with a rate at least five times higher than the national average.
Tom Poor Bear, the tribe’s vice president, is among those whose lives have spanned Pine Ridge’s bloody eras: He was wounded on the reservation in the ’70s, shot in the head by people he describes as “political opponents.” Mr. Poor Bear did not report the shooting to the authorities, believing that crimes committed against AIM members would not be taken seriously by the F.B.I. or by the tribal government, which he says were closely aligned. Twenty-five years later, in 1999, his brother and a cousin were found beaten to death, a case the tribe wants reopened. “Our people are being murdered,” Mr. Poor Bear said, “and nothing is being done.”
Among the other cases the tribe wants reopened is the 1975 death of Hilda R. Good Buffalo, another American Indian Movement supporter, who was discovered dead inside her home — also with a stab wound in her neck. According to the 2000 F.B.I. review of the case, investigators also found evidence that a fire had broken out in her house. Her death, the F.B.I. report said, had been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, acute alcoholism “and other factors.”
The next spring, in May 1976, Julia Pretty Hips, an American Indian Movement member, was found dead outside a Pine Ridge school. She died of pneumonia caused by carbon tetrachloride poisoning, according to the F.B.I. (Carbon tetrachloride was once commonly used for dry cleaning and in fire extinguishers, among other things.)
In May 1975, Ben Sitting Up, another American Indian Movement member, was killed by a blow from a hatchet. But after federal agents identified a suspect, the killer “was not prosecuted because of impairment caused by a mental condition,” according to the F.B.I. case review.
The F.B.I. however, has not disclosed the nature of the suspect’s impairment, why the suspect’s ability to stand trial was not left for a court to decide or whether the suspect was a threat to kill again.
Tribal leaders say the case of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a high-ranking American Indian Movement member, illustrates the sloppiness of death investigations on Pine Ridge.
Ms. Aquash’s decomposing body was discovered in a field in 1976. A coroner ruled her death had been caused by exposure to the cold. But after Ms. Aquash’s family demanded a second autopsy, she was found to have been shot behind the left ear. It was not until 28 years later, in 2004, that the first of two men was convicted in her death.
For years, rumors have swirled that Ms. Aquash’s killers had been federal agents. But in 2004, evidence showed the men had been American Indian Movement members who believed she was an F.B.I. informant.