Brother of man found dead near Pine Ridge suing Nebraska

Published July 9, 2003

A South Dakota man whose brother’s and cousin’s mutilated bodies were found in a ditch near Pine Ridge in 1999 is demanding Nebraska create a task force to investigate those deaths as well as some 50 other unsolved homicides at the Oglala Lakota reservation.

Thomas R. Poor Bear, in a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Omaha, also wants the state to better regulate liquor sales at the nearby village of Whiteclay, which his lawsuit likened to the infamous 19th century “whisky ranches.”

“Our rights have been ignored for over 500 years,” Poor Bear, 47, said in an interview Tuesday. “The state of Nebraska does not feel the pain of our people when they are murdered.”

The Nebraska attorney general’s office did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

According to the lawsuit, the bodies of Poor Bear’s brother, Wilson Black Elk Jr., and his cousin, Ronald Hard Heart, were found in a roadside ditch between Whiteclay and Pine Ridge on June 8, 1999. The men had been beaten and mutilated. The crime remains unsolved.

About three weeks later, Poor Bear and the American Indian Movement, including leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks, organized a march and prayer ceremony in memory of the murdered men.

The march was disrupted by vandalism and arson when, according to the lawsuit, local and state law enforcement officials failed to protect the marchers from people who had been drinking around Whiteclay.

When marchers tried to hold another prayer service one week later, nine people, including Poor Bear, were arrested on trespassing and other charges, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged the state violated Poor Bear’s First Amendment right to free speech and assembly in its handling of both marches.

“The state of Nebraska cannot violate the rights of people doing peaceful and spiritual demonstrations,” Poor Bear said.

He said his brother’s death was unrelated to liquor sales at Whiteclay. The lawsuit said there had been more than 50 unsolved murders on Pine Ridge since the mid-1970s. Some 15,000 Lakota live on the reservation.

Whiteclay is within walking distance of the reservation. The unincorporated village consists of a convenience store, auto parts store, salvage yard and four liquor stores which, according to the lawsuit, sell millions of cans of beer annually to Lakota people.

According to the lawsuit, the land occupied by the village was the 19th century site of the so-called whisky ranches, which traded with the reservation until the federal government put an end to the practice in the 1880s.

Poor Bear says the land belongs to the Lakota by treaty.

The lawsuit named as defendants State Patrol Superintendent Tom Nesbitt, Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins and members of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

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