DoJ to Investigate Reign of Terror at Pine Ridge, SD in the 1970’s

2 photos and 2 portraits of Leonard Peltier
Leonard Peltier (Image: Peta de-Aztlan / Flickr)

According to the NY Times, after years of requests by Lakota leaders, US Attorney Brendan Johnson has announced that his department will review 50 deaths on or near the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s.  Johnson says that he will assign a team of three assistant US attorneys to complete reports on each death, many of which had been determined to be accidental deaths or suicides.  If the panel reports that there are enough unanswered questions, he will recommend that the FBI* or other investigative bodies assist his team.  Johnson says he wants it done right, and it may take some time, but if prosecutions are needed as a result, he doesn’t care how long it takes, or how old the cases are.

His team has already begun to collect documents for their case files, and they intend to speak with family members soon.

“Many of the dead were associated with the American Indian Movement, or AIM, which was involved in a power struggle with Richard A. Wilson, the tribal president during the 1970s. And much of the violence occurred as a consequence of the conflict between AIM and the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, a paramilitary organization known as GOONs, organized by Mr. Wilson.

The period from 1973 to 1976, known on Pine Ridge as the “reign of terror,” was marked by deadly ambushes at highway checkpoints and gunfights that on occasion lasted for days. Among the casualties during the period were two F.B.I. agents. Leonard Peltier, an AIM member, was convicted of their murders.

The strife also included the 71-day standoff between AIM members and federal troops in 1973 at Wounded Knee, S.D.”

From the AIM-related section of a report on COINTELPRO, with contributions from Robert Boyle, Bob Brown, Tom Burghardt, Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Kathleen Cleaver, Bruce Ellison, Cynthia McKinney, Nkechi Taifa, Laura Whitehorn, Nicholas Wilson, and Howard Zinn) in 2001, and presented to the World Conference on Racism in Durban, SA in 2001:

“Despite tens of thousands of pages of documentary evidence, the idea that the Bureau would utilize private right-wing operatives and terrorists is a chilling, alien concept to most Americans. Nevertheless, the FBI has financed, organized, and supplied arms to right-wing groups that carried out fire-bombings, burglaries, and shootings.

This was the case during the FBI’s COINTELPRO in South Dakota in the 1970’s against the Oglala Sioux Nation and the American Indian Movement. Right-wing vigilantes were used to disrupt the American Indian Movement (AIM) and selectively terrorize and murder the Oglala Sioux people, in what could only be described as a counter-insurgency campaign. During the 36 months roughly beginning with the 1973 seige of Wounded Knee and continuing through the first of May 1976, more than sixty AIM members and supporters died violently on or in locations immediately adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation. A minimum of 342 others suffered violent physical assaults. [snip]

“To commemorate the 1890 massacre of Wounded Knee, in which 300 Minnecojou Lakota were slaughtered by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, hundreds of Native Americans from reservations across the West gathered in Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, during the winter of 1972-73.

This situation was already tense due to a series of unsolved murders on the reservation, and a struggle between the administration of the Oglala Sioux tribal president, Dick Wilson, and opposition organizations on the reservation, including AIM. Wilson had been bestowed with a $62,000 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) grant for purposes of establishing a “tribal ranger group” – an entity which designated itself as “Guardians of the Oglala Nation” (GOONs). Wilson’s “goon squads” patrolled the reservation, unleashing a reign of terror against Wilson’s enemies. When victims attempted to seek the protection of the BIA police, they quickly discovered that perhaps a third of its roster – including its head, Delmar Eastman (Crow), and his second-in-command, Duane Brewer (Oglala) – were doubling as GOON leaders or members. For their part, BIA officials – who had set the whole thing up – consistently turned aside requests for assistance from the traditionals as being “purely internal tribal matters,” beyond the scope of BIA authority.

On Feb 28th, 1973, residents of Wounded Knee, South Dakota found the roads to the hamlet blockaded by GOONs, later reinforced by marshals service Special Operations Group (SOG) teams and FBI personnel. By 10 p.m., Minneapolis SAC Joseph Trimbach had flown in to assume personal command of the GOONs and BIA police, while Wayne Colburn, director of the U.S. Marshals Service, had arrived to assume control over his now reinforced SOG unit. Colonel Volney Warner of the 82nd Airborne Division and 6th Army Colonel Jack Potter – operating directly under General Alexander Haig, military liaison in the Nixon White House – had also been dispatched from the Pentagon as “advisors” coordinating a flow of military personnel, weapons and equipment to those besieging Wounded Knee.”

Oglala Tribal VP Tom Poor Bear said of Johnson’s announcement:

“It was a good day for us. It was the first time a US attorney who represents South Dakota ever even responded to us on these cases,” [snip]

“I am glad we have new sets of eyes looking at these cases. We have a lack of trust of the FBI. Back then they were accomplices in these murders. We have people who know firsthand the FBI gave the GOONS guns and bullets so Indians would kill other Indians…”

The report describes many of the techniques used by the FBI and even agents within the KKK to neutralize and destroy black nationalists.  As you may remember, the American Indian Movement terrified them, so the FBI secret programs led terror campaigns and assassinated leaders, either directly or indirectly by sowing seeds of doubt and blame among different members and factions.  It covers a short list of American political prisoners, including Leonard Peltier, who was wrongfully convicted, imo, of the murder of two FBI agents, and has been in prison for over thirty-five years.  No evidence ever linked him to the crime.   More info on COINTELPRO can be found  here and here.

Glen Ford at the Black Agenda Report wants to know “If the Sioux Can Seek Justice, Why Can’t Blacks?” He reminds us that the The FBI’s counter-intelligence program, or COINTELPRO, has not been officially scrutinized since the Church Committee investigations of 1975-76, and asks:

“But who among the Black Misleadership Class is demanding a reopening of COINTELPRO’s reign of terror in Black America? As the Jericho Movement has stated, “dozens of women and men are still incarcerated upwards of 40 years as a direct result of this heinous program.” Scores of Panthers were murdered directly by police, like Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton; or in disputes instigated by the FBI, like the Los Angeles shootings of Bunchy Carter and John Huggins by the “US Organization.” The Party itself ultimately fell victim to internal discord – a methodical COINTELPRO campaign of destabilization that produced an unknown number casualties. The Church Committee told the world that COINTELPRO was real, not a figment of paranoid radical imaginations – but there has been no serious effort to exhume the full body of the program’s crimes, much less prosecute the guilty, or free the framed, or compensate the victims, or rewrite the lies of national history” Read more here.

Many of the killings during the Reign of Terror are tragic, but two that won’t be investigated are John Trudell’s family (they were burned to death in Nevada, very possibly as a result of his AIM activism).  The other is Anna Mae Aquash, who was another casualty of the movement; other AIM members were convicted of her murder, but trial testimony and affidavits seem confused at best, perjury at worst.  Suspicions are that her killing may be a result of whisper campaigns by FBI agents.  In any event, Larry Long wrote and recorded this song for her; it was part of an album to raise money for the Leonard Peltier Defense fund.

Embedding has unfortunately been disabled, but this link will take you to the song.

*The irony of the Fibbies being involved in ‘investigating’  crimes they were likely involved in is a bit rich.

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