US Attorney meets with Oglala Sioux about deaths

By Kristi Eaton
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) June 2012

Three attorneys from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota have been assigned to review the case files of nearly 40 deaths dating back to the 1970s on or near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota said.

The announcement by U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson came at a forum with Oglala Sioux tribal leaders at a meeting in Kyle on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Johnson was meeting with the tribal leaders and family members of tribal members who asked that he reopen investigations and prosecutions into the deaths of 39 people.

“You can always put a new set of eyes on it,” Johnson said by phone afterward.

But he also said it will be challenging to find new evidence for cases going back 40 years in some cases. He said he does not want to get anyone’s hopes up that unresolved cases might be solved or prosecuted, but hopes that with more attention focused on the cases, more people may come forward with new evidence or leads. He referred to the case of American Indian Movement activist Annie Mae Aquash as an example. Aquash’s 1975 killing went unsolved for decades until Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud was convicted of first-degree murder in 2004 in federal court. John Graham was convicted in state court for the death in 2010.

The meeting offered a chance for Johnson to meet with family members of those who died, said Jennifer Baker, a Colorado-based attorney working with the Oglala Sioux tribe on the issue of unresolved deaths.

“It was more of a stepping stone ... so (Johnson) can put some faces with names,” she said.

Baker said several family members of the 39 people were in attendance. Other people came forward with additional names of cases that should be reviewed, Baker said.

Oglala Sioux Vice President Tom Poor Bear and council judiciary committee chairman James Toby Big Boy have led the effort to review the cases. The men wrote a letter to Johnson earlier this year asking that the U.S. Attorney reopen the cases. Last month, the two provided a list of 39 cases that they feel have gone unsolved or not sufficiently prosecuted.

While the majority of the cases are from the 1970s – when the murder rate on Pine Ridge was the highest in the nation – there are three cases from the 1990s, including the deaths of Poor Bear’s brother, Wilson Black Elk, and cousin, Ron Hard Heart. Their bodies were found in 1999 on reservation land just across the border from Whiteclay, Neb.

“I really feel that U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson came with a sincere heart and a concern about these uninvestigated deaths,” Poor Bear said, adding that the families simply want closure. “It gave them hope that one day they will find closure.”
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