Violence on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is far too familiar; grievance for lost loved ones hangs heavy in the air. At times, the commonality of murder and violence has been so exceptional that it cannot be understood by its own people. A perpetual state of mourning consumes much of the population due to the federal government’s neglect of its duties to investigate and prosecute murders on the Reservation, but a dedicated group of Tribal officials is now taking action to restore justice at Pine Ridge.
Fed up with federal apathy, Oglala officials are now demanding that agencies, including the Department of Justice and the FBI, take action. Since the 1970s, and some would even argue the 1950s, homicides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have been largely overlooked by the federal government. The number of murders that have been inadequately investigated and ineffectively prosecuted, if at all, is an outrage.
In the 1970s, violence plagued the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Between March 1, 1973, and March 1, 1976, the murder rate on the Reservation soared to 170 per 100,000; the highest
nationwide. The national average, 9.7 per 100,000, paled in comparison. Survivors of that brutal era refer to it as the “Reign of Terror.” Hundreds of American Indians were assaulted, dozens died, and beatings became commonplace. The constant sound of gunfire ricocheting off the cold, South Dakota hills provided a steady reminder that murder was just outside someone’s door. Murder rates have decreased since those days, but in 2003, it still remained five times the national average.
Much of the violence in the 1970s can be associated with the American Indian Movement’s 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. In February of 1973, the U.S. Department of Justice dispatched approximately 50 armed U.S. Marshals and numerous armed FBI agents to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to stand by in case of a “civil disturbance.” The federal government abandoned its stand-by status almost immediately, and the two parties exchanged fire for nearly the entire 71-day standoff. Tension and animosity peaked after two federal officials and numerous Indians were killed in the aftermath.
The Indian Civil Rights Act severely restricts tribes’ abilities to prosecute and adequately sentence Indians who commit serious crimes in Indian country. Instead, the Major Crimes Act provides the federal government jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute such crimes, including murder. Unfortunately for the Oglalas, the federal government that engaged in a violent standoff against Tribal members and undertook fire on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was the same federal government that had a duty under the Major Crimes Act to investigate and prosecute murders on the Reservation. Not only did the federal government face the possibility of prosecuting its own agents, but it was also charged with prosecuting the murders of Indians by other Indians – the same Indians federal agents had been firing at for 71 days. This situation bred deep mistrust, and - too soon to call it coincidence - the unsolved murder rate on the Reservation skyrocketed.
For decades, AIM members and Pine Ridge residents accused the FBI of covering up or failing to investigate dozens of murders. Finally, in May of 2000, the FBI issued a report titled, “Accounting For Native American Deaths; Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota.” The Report listed 57 names of individuals murdered on or near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the mid-1970s, accompanied by brief summaries of Tribal allegations and FBI findings.
Many appreciated the effort made by the FBI to produce such a report. However, upon careful review, some findings are suspicious if not irrational and many deaths still remain insufficiently investigated and unsolved.
The FBI explained that multiple deaths were accidental, from exposure, or suicide, but without publicly available information, lingering suspicions remain widespread. For example, the Report stated that one individual was “fatally stabbed through the neck and the right side of his face.” The FBI deemed this death a “suicide,” and thus, it did not investigate the matter.
Excluding the poorly rationalized case closures, at least 16 murders on the list can easily be categorized as insufficiently investigated, unprosecuted, and unsolved. In discussing a murder that occurred by use of an axe, the FBI explained, “A suspect was identified but was not prosecuted because of impairment caused by a mental condition.” Similarly, in discussing a hit-and-run murder, the Report concluded, “Although a suspect was developed, there was insufficient evidence to charge that person with the death.” In reference to a death by stab wounds, the Report stated, “Although a suspect was identified, there was insufficient evidence to charge and convict the suspect.” With regard to a murder by hatchet, the FBI explained, “There was insufficient evidence to achieve a conviction.” Explanations offered to “clear up allegations of unresolved murders” continue on in a similar fashion.
To add insult to wanton injury, the federal “justice” system imposed largely menial sentences upon those individuals who were actually prosecuted and convicted for many of these murders. Mere probation or one or two-year terms of imprisonment do not provide justice for the families wrongly deprived of their loved ones through such violence.
In March of 2000, the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) submitted a report entitled “Native Americans in South Dakota: An Erosion of Confidence in the Justice System.” Summarizing the Committee’s concerns, conclusions, and recommendations, the Committee Chairperson wrote: “It is disturbing that many of the problems identified in these research reports persist to this day. Clearly, there is a need to expeditiously implement strategies for corrective action.” To date, no such corrective action has been taken. In 2011, the USCCR received a briefing report entitled “Discrimination Against Native Americans in Border Towns.” No mention was made in this report to the Oglala Sioux Tribe or the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. South Dakota was discussed only briefly by reference to the 2000 Advisory Committee report.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe remains haunted by the excessive number of unsolved murders that occurred during the Reign of Terror – but the failures of the federal justice system did not end with that tragic chapter in Lakota history. Numerous additional murders remain unprosecuted and unsolved by the federal government – murders which occurred after that violent era of the mid-1970s. For example, in 1999, two Lakota men were found brutally murdered near a Reservation road. While the federal government did purport to initiate an investigation, Tribal members insist that its efforts were highly inadequate. The FBI initially identified several suspects. However, more than ten years following the two men’s deaths, the FBI admitted that it never ruled out (or charged) any of those suspects. The reason none were charged: according to the FBI, the murder suspects refused to cooperate. In recent years, these two men and far too many Lakotas have joined the lengthy list of unsolved murders at Pine Ridge.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe remains committed to restoring justice in its community, which has not known peace since a time, not-so-many generations ago, before the foreign U.S. government began interfering with its affairs and sovereign powers. Because federal interference currently prevents the Tribe from achieving this laudable goal through its own accord, the Oglala Lakota are determined to force the federal government to reopen and investigate the many unresolved murders that have occurred on Pine Ridge soil. Each year the Oglalas organize marches to honor their lost loved ones and raise awareness of the insufficiency federal investigations into these murders. Family members remain persistent in their efforts to have murders properly investigated, but the Oglala Sioux Tribe is now taking the matter into its own hands.
To this end, the Tribe’s President and Judiciary Committee recently submitted a letter to South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson. In the letter, Judiciary Committee Chairman James Toby Big Boy and Vice President Tom Poor Bear demanded that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office reopen, (re)investigate, and prosecute these unresolved cases. Tribal officials explained, “[t]ime does not heal all wounds, especially those gone undoctored.... Although many of our people lost their lives years ago, justice must still be served.”
The Oglala Lakota have a right to justice in their lands, and under federal law, only the federal government can ensure such justice. Federal law enforcement agencies must work transparently and cooperatively with the Tribe so that a conclusion to this ugly chapter in history can be reached. Johnson has recently claimed that DOJ is seeking to increase agency transparency, and the Oglalas intend to hold him to it. The Tribal government must be kept abreast of progress, and federal agencies must truly seek justice rather than regurgitating synopses of their prior ambiguous and often questionable findings. Time will tell if the federal government will respond in any meaningful way, or just continue to turn a blind eye to the murders that continue to bleed in this corner of Indian country.
Lisa R. Shellenberger and Jennifer S. Baker are associate attorneys at the law firm of Smith, Shelton, Ragona & Salazar, LLC, located in the Denver area.