Brendan Johnson on Bootlegging Indictments and More

A federal grand jury has indicted five individuals for possessing and selling alcohol on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, says the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Dakota, an arm of the Department of Justice. According to U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, the indictments resulted from a cooperative operation targeting bootlegging by his office, the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services.

The indictments were also the product of extra attention his office has paid to individual communities’ concerns, said Johnson, who is also chair of the Justice Department’s Native American Issues Subcommittee: “Through our Community Prosecution Strategy, we work with tribes and listen to them in town-hall-style meetings. On Pine Ridge, we also have a pilot program that makes a federal prosecutor available there three days a week.”

A priority on Pine Ridge—widely reported for years both locally and nationally—has been halting the bootlegging of alcohol onto the reservation, especially from beer stores in the notorious border town, Whiteclay, Nebraska. Johnson acknowledged the importance of problems emanating from Whiteclay but cautioned that at this time his office does not know the source of the alcohol that figured in the five recent indictments. He also noted that the charges are merely accusations and that the individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty. They will be tried in separate trials on May 1, 2012.

Further, according to Johnson, it’s important to realize that most crime, on or off reservations, can be blamed on drugs and alcohol. “This is not a Native problem more than a white problem,” he said. “It’s an addiction problem.”

Johnson went on to talk about his desire to have his office perceived in Indian country as a partner and friend and not just a prosecutor of major crimes. To bring that about, his office has set up programs including the Native American Youth Leadership and Listening Conferences. “We’ve had four so far, with about 100 kids attending each,” he said. “We have a speaker, such as a rapper or poet, talk to them, then we listen to their challenges, including drugs, alcohol, gangs and suicide.”

“The main thing they tell us is that they need opportunities—for athletics, for employment,” Johnson said. “Given what I’ve heard, I’d say I have the greatest hope for these young people.”