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Pine Ridge Reservation Deaths To Be Reinvestigated

Aug 18, 2012
Originally published on August 31, 2012 2:49 pm

In the late 1960s, Native Americans fed up with what they saw as years of mistreatment by the federal government formed an organization known as the American Indian Movement.

Founded in Minnesota, the group followed in the footsteps of the civil rights movement and took up protests across the country. One of those protests took place in 1973, when some AIM members occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Their protest followed the murder of an Oglala Lakota man and the failed impeachment of a tribal president that AIM members accused of corruption. The protests escalated into a violent standoff with federal authorities.

The 71-day siege was only the beginning of turmoil on Pine Ridge. Local residents, such as AIM member Milo Yellowhair, say the violence continued for years.

"There had been a tremendous amount of carnage on the reservation [and] it was almost a daily occurrence, when people were disappearing or died or were found dead," Yellowhair says. "We always called it a 'reign of terror.' "

Federal Authority Distrusted

Yellowhair says the violence in the 1970s left behind a festering wound. Many on the Pine Ridge reservation think FBI officials backed the tribal police in carrying out assaults and murders against AIM supporters.

Today, widespread mistrust of the federal government continues, so much so that the Oglala Sioux Tribal Government recently asked U.S Attorney Brendan Johnson to look at 45 deaths that tribal officials believe have not seen justice. The cases include two unsolved execution-style murders in 1998. Johnson says he agreed to re-examine all 45 cases in question.

"Recognizing that it's very unusual for a U.S. attorney to go back and to agree to look at historic cases," Johnson says, "it's nonetheless important because it's part of the journey that we're on to continue to build trust in these communities."

Johnson says FBI officials also are dedicated to keeping Indian country safe and that he doesn't wish to tarnish the agency's reputation or current work with this new investigation. FBI officials wouldn't comment on tape, but say they're cooperating fully with the review and deny any involvement in crimes on Pine Ridge.

Skepticism On Both Sides

John Trimback is the son of a former Pine Ridge FBI agent and co-wrote the book American Indian Mafia. He says allegations against the FBI of wrongdoing on Pine Ridge are false and perpetrated by suspicious sources.

"It's from the people who were involved in the rapes and the murders and the assaults on the Pine Ridge reservation during that period," Trimback says. "I'm talking about, in general, the AIM leaders."

For their part, AIM leaders adamantly deny they were involved in crimes on Pine Ridge. AIM members such as 72-year-old Madonna Thunderhawk welcome the U.S attorney's review of these old cases but doubt justice will be served.

"I mean, come on, the U.S. government investigating itself, again. ... I'm skeptical," Thunderhawk says. "I'm glad it's happening [and] I'm going to sit here and watch."

New Generation Carries The Wounds

It's not only older AIM members who are watching.

On a recent day, a drum group on Pine Ridge played at the annual commemoration of a 1975 firefight known as the Incident at Oglala. It left two FBI agents and an AIM member dead. Most of the young men around the large drum are the grandchildren of those who were here in the 1970s. Among them is Robert Watters.

"Now their time is over and now it's our time to be doing these things," Watters says. "It's just history repeating itself; I'm following in my grandma's footsteps, what she taught me all these years growing up."

Johnson, the U.S. attorney, says he has no timeline for the results of the review. It's doubtful, though, that the findings will calm the debate over who is responsible for decades-old actions on Pine Ridge. Still, many on the reservation share in the U.S. attorney's hope that at the very least some sort of closure can be found.

Copyright 2015 South Dakota Public Radio. To see more, visit http://listen.sdpb.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. attorney in South Dakota is reexamining a number of deaths that occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation nearly 40 years ago. The federal government has jurisdiction over major crimes in Indian country and some Oglala Sioux tribal officials allege a cover-up of at least 45 deaths. South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray takes a look at the new investigation and the attempt to heal some old wounds created in a period of unparalleled violence.

CHARLES MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: In the late 1960s, the American Indian Movement was born. It followed in the footsteps of the civil rights movement and took up protests across the country. AIM attracted Native Americans fed up with what they called years of mistreatment by the federal government.

In 1973, some AIM members occupied the town of Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Their protest followed the murder of an Oglala Lakota man and the failed impeachment of a tribal president that AIM members accused of corruption. The protests escalated into a violent standoff.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

RAY: This shootout between federal agents and AIM members was recorded by journalist Kevin McKiernan inside the Wounded Knee occupation. The 71-day siege was only the beginning of the turmoil on Pine Ridge. Local residents, like AIM member Milo Yellowhair, say the violence continued for years.

MILO YELLOWHAIR: There had been a tremendous, tremendous amount of carnage on the reservation. It was almost a daily occurrence when people were disappearing or died or were found dead, you know. And we always called it a reign of terror.

RAY: Yellowhair says the violence in the 1970s left behind a festering wound. Many here on Pine Ridge believe that FBI officials backed the tribal police in carrying out assaults and murders against AIM supporters.

Today, widespread mistrust of the federal government continues. So much so that the Oglala Sioux tribal government asked U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson to look at 45 deaths that tribal officials believe have not seen justice. The cases include two unsolved execution-style murders in 1998. Johnson says he agreed to reexamine all 45 cases in question.

BRENDAN JOHNSON: Recognizing that it's very unusual for a U.S. Attorney to go back and agree to look at historic cases, it's none the less important because it's part of the journey that we're on to continue to build trust in these communities.

RAY: And Johnson says FBI officials are dedicated to keeping Indian Country safe and he doesn't wish to tarnish the agency's reputation or current work. FBI officials say they're cooperating fully with the review but deny any involvement in crimes on Pine Ridge. FBI officials refused to comment on tape for this story.

John Trimbach is the son of a former Pine Ridge FBI agent who co-authored the book "American Indian Mafia." He says allegations of wrongdoing on Pine Ridge against the FBI just aren't true.

JOHN TRIMBACH: It's from the people who were involved in the rapes and the murders and the assaults on the Pine Ridge Reservation during that period. I'm talking about in general the AIM leaders.

RAY: For their part, AIM leaders adamantly deny they were involved in crimes on Pine Ridge. AIM members like 72-year-old Madonna Thunderhawk welcome the U.S. Attorney's review of these old cases, but doubt justice will be served.

MADONNA THUNDERHAWK: I mean, come on. The U.S. government investigating itself - again, you know. So, yeah, I'm skeptical. And I'm glad it's happening, but I'm going to sit here and watch.

RAY: It's not only older AIM members who are watching.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMBEAT)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

RAY: This drum group on Pine Ridge is playing at the annual commemoration of the firefight that occurred in 1975 known as the Incident at Oglala. It left two FBI agents and an AIM member dead. Most of the young men around this large drum are the grandchildren of those who were here in the 1970s. Among them is Robert Watters.

ROBERT WATTERS: Now their time's over, and now it's our time to be doing these things. Just history repeating itself. I'm just following in my grandma's footsteps, what she taught me all these years growing up.

RAY: U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson says he has no timeline for the results of the review. It's doubtful though that the findings will calm the debate over just who is responsible for actions on Pine Ridge. Regardless of fault, many here share in the U.S. Attorney's hope that at the very least some closure can be found.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.