New Inquiry of Deaths on Reservation in the 1970s
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS / THE NEW YORK TIMES / June 20, 2012
The United States attorney for South Dakota said Tuesday that prosecutors would re-examine 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 Oglala Sioux tribe has for years sought a Justice Department review of the deaths. In May, tribal leaders sent a letter to Brendan Johnson, the United States attorney for South Dakota, asking that he direct the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reopen investigations into 28 deaths — many of which the original investigators had determined were caused by accidents or suicides.
On Tuesday, Mr. Johnson said that a team of three assistant United States attorneys, including Mr. Johnson’s top deputy, would review a total of 50 Pine Ridge-related deaths that had occurred during the past 40 years. Once the panel writes a report for each case, Mr. Johnson said, he will decide whether there are enough unanswered questions to ask the F.B.I. or another investigative agency to assist.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that they had already begun assembling case files, death certificates and other documents, and that they planned to meet with family members as the work continued.
“If we get the information, the evidence we need to get a prosecution, I don’t care how old the cases are,” Mr. Johnson said. “I don’t think it is going to be a short process. With this many cases it might take as long as a year, maybe two years, but I want to get this right.”
Many of the dead were associated with the American Indian Movement, or AIM, which was involved in a power struggle with Richard A. Wilson, the tribal president during the 1970s. And much of the violence occurred as a consequence of the conflict between AIM and the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, a paramilitary organization known as GOONs, organized by Mr. Wilson.
The period from 1973 to 1976, known on Pine Ridge as the “reign of terror,” was marked by deadly ambushes at highway checkpoints and gunfights that on occasion lasted for days. Among the casualties during the period were two F.B.I. agents. Leonard Peltier, an AIM member, was convicted of their murders.
The strife also included the 71-day standoff between AIM members and federal troops in 1973 at Wounded Knee, S.D.
Tom Poor Bear, the tribe’s vice president, said Tuesday that in many cases, families of the dead had received only cursory information from federal law enforcement agencies about their relatives.
Among the 50 cases that the United States attorney will re-examine are those of Mr. Poor Bear’s brother and cousin, who were found beaten to death in the border town of Whiteclay, Neb., in 1999. The cases remain unsolved.
“Finally, we can be hopeful that the families, including myself, will find closure,” Mr. Poor Bear said.
Other cases that will be reviewed include the death of Hilda R. Good Buffalo, an AIM supporter who in 1975 was found dead inside her home with a stab wound in her neck.
According to a 2000 F.B.I. report of the case, investigators found evidence that a fire had broken out in Ms. Good Buffalo’s house. Her death, the F.B.I. review said, was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, acute alcoholism and “other factors.” There is no record of an arrest having been made in the case.