In the late 1960s, Native Americans fed up with what they called years of mistreatment by the federal government formed an organization known as the American Indian Movement, or AIM.
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 town Wounded Knee, S.D., 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.
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.
"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.'"
Yellowhair says the violence in the 1970s left behind a festering wound. Many on the Pine Ridge Reservation 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 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, 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.
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 for this story.
John Trimback 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.
"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, "and 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 like 72-year-old Madonna Thunderhawk welcome the U.S Attorney's review of these old cases, but doubts 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."
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 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 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."
U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson says he has no timeline for the results of the review. It's doubtful thought that the findings will calm the debate over just who is responsible for actions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Regardless of fault, many here share in the U.S. attorney's hope that at the very least some sort of closure can be found.
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