SIOUX FALLS -— The U.S. Attorney's Office in South Dakota will re-examine a list of nearly 40 deaths that Oglala Sioux tribal officials say were insufficiently prosecuted or investigated, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson said Thursday.
Johnson's statements came after Oglala Sioux Vice President Tom Poor Bear and council judiciary committee chairman James Toby Big Boy sent a list of 39 specific deaths on or near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The two men believe the cases should be reopened or reinvestigated. They had earlier sent a letter to Johnson but had not included the list of names.
"We've got the list now. I'm grateful to have the list," Johnson told the AP Thursday. "We'll go through those cases. If there are cases we can prosecute, we certainly will. Even if the case is 30 years old, if we get the information necessary, we will prosecute."
However, Johnson said it would be challenging to gain enough new information to prosecute cases that are several decades old.
In response to a similar tribal request, the FBI issued a report in 2000 detailing its investigations into the deaths of 57 people during a violent period of the 1970s, when the reservation's murder rate was the highest in the nation and tensions peaked between the American Indian Movement and the FBI. AIM activists and their supporters took over the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation for 71 days to protest the treatment of American Indians.
The FBI in its 2000 report determined it was right to close the cases, even when deaths were deemed unnatural and no one was prosecuted.
The report didn't satisfy some tribal members, who believe many of the FBI investigations were inadequate. The newly compiled list includes names and outcomes from the 2000 report that tribal leaders say are questionable.
"When you take a close look at it, some of the conclusions are quite preposterous in my point of view," said Lisa Shellenberger, a Colorado-based attorney working with the Oglala Sioux.
In addition to names from the 1970s, the list includes three names from the 1990s, including 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.
"My 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," Poor Bear told the AP last week.
FBI special agent Greg Boosalis said the agency is still looking into the deaths of Black Elk and Hard Heart. He said he could not comment on an outside agency conducting investigations.
While many of the cases have been closed by the FBI, Boosalis said any new information that comes forward could change that.
"Obviously, if we have new information any of the closed files would be reopened," he said.