Pine Ridge Indian Reservation officials hope to spur investigations into what they say are unsolved murders of 75 Native Americans over 30 years by presenting evidence to the U.S. attorney’s office.

The meeting, which will take place in mid May while U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson is visiting the reservation, follows an exchange of letters between Oglala Sioux Tribe officials and the attorney. The Oglala Sioux Tribe’s vice president and judiciary committee chairman presented a letter to Johnson on March 16 asking that the FBI investigate 75 deaths that have occurred since 1973 on the reservation.

“Time does not heal all wounds, especially those left undoctored,” the letter says. “Although many of our people lost their lives years ago, justice must still be served.”

Many of the deaths referred to in the letter are on a list of deaths allegedly related to divisions between the American Indian Movement and Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONs, primarily in the 1970s. The FBI investigated those deaths in early 2000 and determined many of them were not homicides, according to the FBI.

One person listed in the 2000 report was killed with an ax. According to the report, a suspect was identified but was not prosecuted because of impairment caused by a mental condition. In another instance, a man was fatally stabbed through the neck and right side of the face. The autopsy report showed the death was deemed a suicide, and the FBI did not investigate.

The letter to Johnson also refers to more recent deaths, including several Native Americans found dead along Rapid Creek in the late 1990s, said James “Toby” Big Boy, chairman of the tribe’s judiciary committee.

Oglala Sioux Tribe Vice President Tom Poor Bear said he has been asking the FBI to investigate the cases for several years and finally decided to deliver a letter to Johnson after he got support from Big Boy and knew Johnson to be supportive of the tribe.

“I figured we’d just as well do it now,” he said. “Maybe it was time, after all these years, that the tribe take a position on this issue.”

The FBI did not investigate the cases as thoroughly as they should have, Poor Bear said.

“When they come down to arrest us, they come down in full force. But when one of our people are murdered, they don’t respond as they should,” he said. “If they did thorough investigations then some of these cases would have been solved.”

If evidence is produced that the FBI can use to investigate deaths as homicides it will do so, even if the deaths are decades old, Johnson said Thursday.

“Whenever new information becomes available we can absolutely take a look at that,” he said.

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In his letter responding to Poor Bear and Big Boy, Johnson cited the recent prosecution of John Graham and Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud in the 1975 death of American Indian Movement activist Annie Mae Aquash as a sign that state and federal officials are dedicated to prosecuting cases with enough information -- even decades later.

Aquash's death had gone unsolved until Looking Cloud was convicted of first-degree murder in 2004 in federal court. Graham was convicted in state court in 2010.

Big Boy said he had calls from family members Thursday offering to present photos and other information that could be used as evidence in the cases.

“The time has come to take a positive approach in this and look toward the FBI to meet us halfway,” Big Boy said. “The bottom line is that the Oglala Sioux tribe is determined to seek justice for these families.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Ruth Moon at 394-8415 or ruth.moon@rapidcityjournal.com.

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