Harvest of Death©
by Jon Lurie
It was just another late-September high school football game in Rapid City. The Pine Ridge Thorpes had traveled over a hundred miles from their reservation to take on St. Thomas More Academy. The stadium in which they played was nestled against the looming Black Hills, the sacred land of the Lakota, of whom the Pine Ridge people are one of seven tribes. Both the proximity of the hills and the challenge of playing a city team gave the game a special meaning for the Thorpes. Some of the players were unusually nervous before the game, so it was understandable when one of the Thorpes jumped off-sides and tackled the enemy quarterback. Some of the fans were upset with the play and began to boo.
When the local quarterback didn't immediately get to his feet, the anger of many of the white spectators flashed and the content of their shouts became increasingly racial. As the quarterback was tended by team trainers the stadium reverberated with the crowd's rabid chanting of, "SAV-A-GES, SAV-A-GES!" Fearing for their lives, Pine Ridge players, coaches, cheerleaders, and fans retreated to the locker room. They were loaded onto buses under heavy security and whisked from the city. The only event of the evening that surprised the Pine Ridgers was that their team was awarded a victory rather than a forfeit.
"The officials cheat us out of every game our teams play against white teams," said Pine Ridge radio personality Earlene Rooks, who does a weekly show on reservation station KILI. "It's sad, but our teams are never allowed to make it out of the district." Last winter there was outrage on Pine Ridge when Jess Heart, perhaps the best high school basketball player in South Dakota, was ejected from a playoff game after being called for four fouls in the opening minutes of a contest against Custer High. Rooks said the flight of the Pine Ridge football team from St. Thomas More's stadium barely merits notice. "That was a normal game in Rapid City." There is so much anti-Indian racism in South Dakota, Rooks said, that this type of incident quickly fades into the backdrop.
Also barely meriting notice - at least by Rapid City officials - are the dead bodies turning up in Rapid Creek. In the past 17 months eight bodies, six of them Lakota, have been pulled from the shallow stream that runs through the heart of South Dakota's second largest city. The deaths have inspired fear in Rapid City's sizable Native community, whose members are overwhelmingly convinced they are the result of murder. Rapid City Police have sealed reports pertaining to the creek deaths, and say they are satisfied, for the time being, to label these deaths non-homicides. Captain Tieszen of the Rapid City Police insists law enforcement officials are doing all they can. "We are investigating and haven't determined the causes. There is no credible evidence of homicide. The obvious connection that the cases have to each other is that they were found in Rapid Creek in Rapid City, South Dakota, in the same ballpark of time. They had no signs of trauma that might have caused their deaths. All but one were highly intoxicated. In many of these cases we have very little to go on. Some of the bodies were found quite some time after their deaths. There was no crime scene, per se, since most of the bodies drifted downstream from where they died."
On average there are one or two bodies found in the creek each year, Tieszen said. Keith Janis, a local Native activist and American Indian Movement member, said the Lakota people have no trust in police and are conducting an investigation of their own. "We've found things police don't know about. Many of us feel the police are playing a role. The police say they're baffled. That's how it is with law enforcement in South Dakota. Their solution is to let us solve our own problems, and that's what we're going to do," he said.
In response to what they say is a lack of police protection for Indian people, Janis and about a dozen others formed Citizens Action Patrol, a group that monitors the creek nearly twenty-four hours a day. They say the patrol is a matter a "national security."
"The police are trying to say these victims drowned, but they were all found the same way - head and shoulders in the water and in such close proximity - their theory just doesn't add up," said Janis. "The family of one of the victims, Timothy Bull Bear, said he was found naked with rope burns around his neck and cigarette burns all over his body. The police said he was found highly intoxicated. But everybody knew he wasn't a drinker. He was a singer at sundances. He had just come from a sundance when they found him dead in the creek." "There are a million rumors in this town and I think I've heard every one of them," said Tieszen. "The first night out on patrol we found one man in the bushes by the tracks," said Janis. "It was snowing, his clothes were wet, and he was freezing. He was so used to seeing Indian men abused along the creek that he thought we were going to attack him. "We brought him to our base, gave him coffee and dry clothes, then one of our people took him home for safety.
"A lot of people are telling us they've been brutalized by police on bicycles and by skinheads," said Frank Killsright, a member of the patrol. Killsright said he has been committed to public safety along Rapid Creek since his brother, Timothy Red Wolf, 50, disappeared three years ago. The last place he was seen was Rapid Creek. "I'm assuming he was a victim. Soon after Tim was killed the rest of these death began occurring," he said. Killsright said he knows of 16 deaths that have occurred along Rapid Creek since 1984, and he believes racist skinheads are to blame. He formed this theory after he and two friends were confronted last year on a railroad bridge that crosses the creek. "There were six skinheads. I had two other guys with me. We defended ourselves but there wasn't much we could do. One of our guys was thrown off the bridge and had his arm broken. The fight lasted five minutes. My glasses were broken and I got a fat lip, then they ran."
Killsright said he reported the incident to police but they never responded. "The police are denying white supremacist groups exist here. This town has been a magnet for white supremacists since Custer first came looking for gold," Killsright said. Rapid City Creek has always been Indian Country. Before the invasion of European settlers in the late 1800s, the area was used as a seasonal camp by the Lakota. The area remained a Lakota housing area until, on June 9, 1922, homes along the creek were flooded beyond repair and the Indians were forced to move to higher ground. In the late-fifties the area became a refugee camp. Tent shelters provided housing for Indians displaced by floods caused by the newly dammed Missouri River. "It's about the only place in Rapid City where our people feel at home," says Janis. "I think who ever is doing the killing is upset to be here - on Indian land - and see Indians, on our land, enjoying themselves by the creek. They don't like being reminded that this is our land." Janis and Killsright complain that police have been condescending and evasive. "They've made their stand and we don't expect them to change their position."
The police have provided the Community Action Patrol with two cell phones. They each dial only one number: 911. "These cell phones are useless. What makes them think I have trust built up to the point that I can expect they'll respond?" wonders Janis. According to American Indian Movement sources there have been 120 unsolved murders of Indian people in South Dakota - 68 on the Pine Ridge Reservation alone - going back to 1970. While such figures inspire a nearly unanimous distrust of the justice system by members of the Lakota Nation, recent events around the state have made matters even worse. On June 26, 1999, over one thousand men, women, and children marched on the Pine Ridge Reservation to demand justice for the area's two most recent murder victims. Wilson Black Elk, jr., 40, and Ronald Hard Heart, 39, were found dead June 8 in a culvert 1Omega miles south of Pine Ridge Village near the Nebraska border.
Wally Black Elk
While police and autopsy reports have been sealed family members have been allowed to see them. "Much of what is in the autopsy reports is confidential, but I will say who ever murdered them had a lot of hate," says Pine Ridge AIM member Tom Poor Bear, a brother of one of the victims. "They were chopped-up pretty bad with an ax or hatchet. Wally was a very spiritual person. He read the bible a lot. He was just starting to get into traditional ways, the sundance and the sweatlodge. He touched the lives of many kids. Ron worked hard, and was really humble, really quiet. Ron would walk away from a fight. He didn't believe in violence but was killed violently." Poor Bear and his brother Webster established Camp Justice, a protest encampment, at the site where the bodies were found. They have vowed to stay at the site until the killers of Black Elk and Hard Heart are brought to justice.
Ron Hard Heart
Poor Bear and Camp Justice supporters say the FBI and local law enforcement agents appear to be involved in a cover-up. Very little information has been release on the investigation and, they say, there seems to be little effort going into finding the killers. But FBI Special Agent Mark Vukolich, who is working on the case out of Rapid City, said the FBI is doing everything it can to find the killers. "We've offered a reward of $20,000 for information leading to a conviction. We're following every possible lead. I can't say when we'll have a suspect in custody, but we're real hopeful it will be soon," Vukolich said.
It's almost certain that Black Elk and Hard Heart were killed off-reservation and dumped where they were found. Witnesses say there was almost no blood at the scene. Sheridan County law enforcement officials are viewed by many Camp Justice supporters as prime suspects. In the past three years two Lakota prisoners have died in the county jail, one hung by his own belt. The Sheriff called it suicide. "Everyone knows when you're arrested they take everything, especially your belt," said Webster Poor Bear. "The other prisoner was said to have died falling down the stairs. But other inmates saw deputies beat him prior to him being found dead." The Sheridan County Sheriff's office has repeatedly denied wrongdoing in the cases.
"We can be radical. We can get violent. But no one here thinks that way. We don't want revenge, just justice," said Poor Bear. Another recent murder took place in Mobridge, a town of four thousand that sits across a dramatic two-mile-wide stretch of Missouri River from the Standing Rock Reservation. Four white teens were charged in the death of Robert "Boo" Many Horses, a 22 year old Lakota man who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. Many Horses was found June 30, face down in an alley garbage can outside a Mobridge trailer home.
Layne Gisi, 19, of Mobridge, was accused of putting Many Horses in the trash can. He was charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter, aggravated assault, and abuse or neglect of a disabled adult. Many Horses suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Ryan Goehring, 16, Joy Lynn Hahne, 18, and Jody Larson, 19, were charged with being an accessory to a crime and not reporting it.
The four picked up Many Horses at 3:00 a.m. as he walked along a Mobridge street. Lila Martel, Many Horses' foster-mother, said the teens often used Boo to buy them alcohol. Gisi told investigators they drove to the country where they drank and listened to music until about 4:30 a.m. Gisi shared a bottle of whiskey with Many Horses until he passed-out. Gisi said he tried to revive Many Horses with three or four slaps to the face then, in an attempt to wake him, threw him in a ditch. The four then put Many Horses in the car and returned to Mobridge where Gisi stuffed him head-first into the garbage can. They claim to have placed him there as a joke. An autopsy determined Many Horses died of alcohol poisoning. His blood-alcohol content was 0.446, more than four times the legal limit to drive in South Dakota. But on September 31, Magistrate Tony Portra dropped all charges against the four. Native activists say they are outrage at what they say appears to be collusion between the defense and prosecution. Porta told reporters he hoped the American Indian Community would not view the decision as "white justice, but justice^One can only hope that other people, especially young persons, will learn from this incident and be more aware of the ramifications of their actions," Porta said.
Boo Many Horses Gathering
"To call the state prosecutors in this case inept is putting it nicely. When an Indian dies they don't go the whole nine yards. If they did someone would be in jail right now instead of walking free," said Faith Taken Alive of the Justice For Boo Committee.
Taken Alive, who lives in McLaughlin on the Standing Rock Reservation where Many Horses was a tribal member, said the only thing this case has taught young white people is that they can get away with murder, and the only thing it has taught young Indians is to be afraid. "I have children and grandchildren. Can I send them to get groceries in Mobridge and expect them to come home alive?"
The Justice for Boo Committee formed in 1995 as Justice for Candice (Rough Surface), another area victim of racist violence. Rough Surface was an 18 year old Lakota girl who disappeared without trace from the Standing Rock Reservation in 1980. Her remains were discovered fifteen years later in the Cheyenne River. Shortly thereafter arrests were made when a woman came forward and told police her estranged husband and his friend were the killers. The two white men, James Stroh and Nick Scherr, were convicted but given what many in the Native community saw as light sentences. Scherr, the trigger man, was given thirty years but could be freed as early as 2010. Stroh, the accomplice, could be released in 2003. Taken Alive and her committee don't believe Walworth County State's Attorney Dan Todd pursued the charges against the teens with enough vigor. Their appeals for an investigation of the county's justice system have produced another disappointment. David Heller, senior supervisor for the FBI in South Dakota, said the FBI has agreed to come in to look at the possibility of filing civil rights charges against the teens, but they will not investigate Dan Todd or the Mobridge Police Department.
"If the FBI is going to reopen that case I just hope they investigate and prosecute with as much zeal as if a white person had been killed," said Taken Alive. "Hopefully the world will see South Dakota for what it really is - the shrine of hypocrisy." On Octoober 14, 1999, over one hundred people, including 40 Native American youths, gathered outside the Roberts County Courthouse to protest yet another. Inside the courthouse the confessed killer of Justine Red Day was being tried not for the death, but for driving under the influence of alcohol. Red Day, a 21 year old Dakota, was walking along a highway in Roberts County South Dakota near the Sisseton Reservation in Northeast South Dakota. He was struck by white motorist Mark Appel, then 17. According to Shirley Duggan of the Dakota Justice Coalition, Appel was unsure of what he had hit so he backed up to check it out. Appel again ran over Red Day, crushing his ribs. With help from his five passengers, Appel put Red Day in the back of his pickup. They drove the still living victim for what may have been several hours before delivering him to the Sisseton Public Health Hospital, where he died. Appel was sentenced to thirty days in jail and a $330 fine. "$330! That's all an Indian life is worth in South Dakota?"
Duggan said there's a racist conspiracy operating in the Roberts County legal system. "We have different sentencing guideline for Indians and non-Indians." Last summer a Dakota woman named Melanie Seaboy collided with a white motorist in an intersection while he was on his way to work. Instead of being charged with DUI, as was Appel, a non-Indian, she was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. "I'm afraid of this racist town," said Duggan. "This is Mississippi Burning all over again."
The state of insecurity that currently exists in South Dakota has been exacerbated by Governor Bill Janklow, a self-proclaimed Indian fighter in the tradition of Custer. In the early 1970s, when he was attorney general, Janklow began making inflammatory remarks that sparked racial tension between Indians and non-Indians. "The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to AIM leaders' heads and pull the trigger," he said in 1974.
"I think the atmosphere of hate might fade in South Dakota if they got rid of Janklow," Dennis Banks, National Field Director for AIM, once said. But getting rid of the four term governor has not been easy. His anti-Indian positions have made him extremely popular with many of the state's white voters. Janklow's recent actions have reinforced his Indian-fighter image. He co-authored the Mitigation Act, a law that will transfer 97,000 acres of prime Lakota treaty land along the Missouri River to the state within two years. Denying the existence of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, Janklow pushed a suit to the U.S. Supreme Court. A ruling was made earlier this year immediately stripping the Yanktons of most of their reservation. In October, he discounted the findings of a government sponsered study that found abuses occurring in the state's juvinile boot camp program. In response, Janklow said he continues to support the program, questioned the study's validity, and vowed to seek an increase in funding for juvinile boot camps - a majority of inmates in which are Native American.
Janklow has been silent on the recent spate of Indian deaths. Last month he used the authority of his position instead to threaten to call a special session of the legislator so that a girl's basketball team could go to an out-of-state tournament. Webster Poor Bear calls Governor Janklow an ordinary American. "From the president all the way down the common laborer," he said, "once you scratch the surface, they all feel the same way about [Native Americans]. Even the intellectuals think we're beneath them." Poor Bear is a former U.S. Army infantryman who returned home from Viet Nam in 1973 to join his people at Wounded Knee, where he fought against the United States. He said he believes the effort to stopping racial hatred and violence in South Dakota must begin in the schools. "For Indians to get equal footing when it comes to things like murder investigations we have to restructure education. It is taught in this country that Indians are less than human.
The way American children are taught in school is one of the most sophisticated genocidal practices. In middle school they talk about the Cherokee and how they wanted to be civilized. They mention only in passing the Cherokee were the only people in history ever to develop an alphabet and learn it in just five years. In our high school history books Indians are savages portrayed as a people paramount to the cave man. In schools we become lesser than the other peoples of this country. So when an American kid graduates, that diploma comes with a lot baggage. That baggage is called racism. The baggage the Indian kid gets with his diploma is an inferiority complex." Poor Bear has seen too much suffering to believe that change in South Dakota is going to happen overnight. At Rapid Creek the Citizens Action Patrol continues its all-night vigil, nervously praying the waters will cease to run red.
Jon Lurie is an independent journalist. He currently lives with his family in Alaska. Lurie is an associate of the Lakota Student Alliance. Harvest of Death was written in 2000. A follow up series was written by the Lakota Journal in 2004.
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