Tribe Wants Re-Examination of Reservation Deaths

In this May 21, 2012, photo, Oglala Sioux Vice-President Tom Poor Bear, in sunglasses and black vest, stands with American Indian Movement founder Dennis Banks, front row left, during a protest in Rapid City, SD.

You know the old saying: justice delayed is justice denied.  It’s not a quaintly poetic statement.  For many non-Whites in America, it’s a cold hard truth.  The federal government has spent a great deal of time in recent years prosecuting the murders and suspicious deaths of African-Americans, especially in the South during the civil rights era of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Now, officials with the Oglala Sioux nation are asking the government to do the same with unresolved deaths and disappearances on their reservation, including one that dates back nearly 50 years.

Tribal officials presented the list of names to U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson during a meeting in Rapid City.  The list adds to the 28 deaths on or around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota that Johnson agreed to re-examine nearly a month ago.  Pine Ridge is the poorest of the 3,143 counties in the U.S.

As with the first list – submitted in May – the majority of cases presented Wednesday are from the 1970’s, when the murder rate on the reservation was the worst in the nation, and tensions between the American Indian Movement and federal authorities was high.  But the new list broadens the scope of the requested investigations by several decades by including the 1964 death of Delbert T. Yellow Wolf, the oldest case presented for re-examination so far, and the 2010 death of Samantha One Horn.  One person on the list is missing but has not been declared dead.

Jennifer Baker, an attorney with the Colorado firm of Smith, Shelton Ragona & Salazar, which is working with the tribe, said Sioux leaders expanded the original list after uncovering new information.

Johnson said prosecutions on the Pine Ridge reservation increased last year, and that active cases will continue to take precedent over inactive cases.  Some of the old cases could be reviewed in as little as six to 12 months, he said, while others “could take a long time.”

The original list contained 28 cases that Oglala Sioux officials wanted reopened because they said the FBI didn’t investigate them sufficiently.  Eleven more cases resulted in prosecutions, but the tribe believed those prosecuted “were inadequately charged and/or received insufficient sentences.”

Baker acknowledged further prosecution was unlikely because the American judicial system doesn’t allow for suspects to be tried twice for the same crime.

The FBI typically investigates murders on reservations while the U.S. Attorney prosecutes the cases.

Tom Poor Bear, Oglala Sioux vice president, said the requests for new investigations stem from tribe members’ “lack of trust in the FBI.”

“I would like to see a special team of investigators other than the FBI come down and investigate these deaths,” he told the Associated Press in June.

The original list includes the deaths of Poor Bear’s brother, Wilson Black Elk, and cousin, Ron Hard Heart, whose bodies were found in 1999 on reservation land across the border from Whiteclay, Nebraska.

In 2000 the FBI issued a report detailing their investigations into the deaths of 57 people that occurred during the 1970’s.  The report said the bureau was right in closing the cases, even in situations where no one had been prosecuted for a death deemed unnatural.

I know there’s one unfortunate component to this quandary: many of the deaths and disappearances may have been Indian-on-Indian crimes.  It’s not like White people were sneaking onto the reservation under the cover of darkness and attacking innocent people.  But, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the victims and the assailants, violence is violence, and it must be prosecuted.

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