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Native Sun News: US Attorney talks unsolved cases at Pine Ridge

The following story was written and reported by David Arredondo, Native Sun News Summer Journalism Intern. All content © Native Sun News.

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson

KYLE, SOUTH DAKOTA –– As part of an ongoing effort to re-examine numerous deaths on and near the Pine Ridge Reservation, most during the 1970s, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson took a trip to the reservation June 13 to meet with tribal leaders and members.

Before Johnson even spoke to the crowd of about 30 in the Little Wound Elementary School auditorium, he took the opportunity to visit with families one-on-one about the unsolved deaths of their relatives and friends. He said people also wanted to speak about other topics such as today’s law enforcement on the reservation and increasing the sovereignty of the tribe.

“As a U.S. attorney, one of the things that I try to do is to spend time on all of the reservations in South Dakota,” said Johnson. “One of the benefits of this, for me, is just being able to continue to develop relationships with people in Pine Ridge and visit with them about what we can do working together.”

During the 1970s, violence overtook the reservation as factions took sides on different issues, which resulted in altercations and the deaths of upwards of 60 people – resulting in Pine Ridge being deemed the murder capital of the U.S. at the time.

Many of the deaths were suspicious and said to be never fully investigated, unresolved or ignored. After years of urging, Johnson and his team are working to help the family members of the slain.

Johnson said that he and assistant U.S. attorneys from his office will put forth an adamant effort to help with the prosecution of cases on Pine Ridge. He added, however, that he doesn’t guarantee that each and every one of the cases would be solved.

Johnson also said that he supports the Violence Against Women Act and allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-Native offenders on tribal lands.

Additionally, he said he would like to see the judicial system and law enforcement strengthened on the sovereign Pine Ridge reservation.

According to the Offices of the United States Attorneys’ website, Johnson “serves as South Dakota’s chief federal law enforcement officer and supervises the prosecution of all federal crimes and the litigation of civil matters in which the United States government has an interest.”

The site also states that, in 2009, Johnson was appointed to his position by President Barack Obama, and then soon chosen by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to chair the Native American Issues Subcommittee, a Department of Justice division that seeks to improve law enforcement in tribal communities around the country.

Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and James “Toby” Big Boy, chairman of the tribe’s Law and Order Committee, were instrumental in bringing Johnson to the reservation to speak with tribal members. The two officials compiled a list of 39 people whose deaths they believe need to be reinvestigated and presented it to Johnson.

Prior to Johnson’s presentation, Poor Bear addressed the attendees, saying “this meeting should have happened decades ago.”

Family members of individuals on the list were encouraged by Johnson to contact his office to notify them with any information and to request more information on the deaths of their loved ones.

(Contact David Arredondo at

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