By Alan Hafer with Sandy Sauser
Johnson Books (2015)
Review by Patrick Lee
The murders of Ron Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk in 1999 inspired Alan Hafer to write a historical account of those murders and countless more crimes that have occurred on the Pine Ridge reservation. These include historical and current accounts of the Lakota people who are the descendants of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. The 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement (AIM) raises additional matters of criminal investigation, jurisdiction, court testimony, and related issues.
Descendants of Wounded Knee continue to suffer the effects of forced assimilation and colonization, including the introduction of drugs and alcohol into Lakota society. Hafer covers the historical accounts of Chief Crow Dog’s trial after the killing of Chief Spotted Tail of the Brule, or Sicangu band of the Lakota Nation. Government agents convinced of the emerging need for federal criminal jurisdiction despite the fact that the Sicangu Lakota tribal council handled the case peacefully, utilizing the traditional laws and customs of the Lakota band. Hafer explains the aftermath of Crow Dog’s appeal, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s decision that the United States did not have the necessary jurisdiction to prosecute an Indian who committed a crime against another tribal member and who had been punished in accordance with the laws and customs of the band. The agents in charge of the government offices then persuaded Congress to enact the Major Crimes Act of 1885, which extended federal law over crimes committed by Indians on the reservation. The agents at the time insisted that Crow Dog should have received the death penalty instead of being required to make peaceful restitution with the consent of Spotted Tail’s relatives. The peacemaking actions of the parties reunited the band in the interest of tribal unity, which enabled the Lakota to exist harmoniously for thousands of years. These cultural attributes of the Lakota were lost on the colonizers who falsely claimed that there would be a blood bath if Crow Dog were allowed to live after the killing of Spotted Tail.
Hafer goes on to explain the distinction in the cases that were handled in federal or state court after the 1973 AIM occupation of Wounded Knee. The body of Anna Mae Aquash was found in the badlands north of Wounded Knee. After an extensive investigation, it was discovered that John Boy Graham, a Canadian Indian, and Arlo Looking Cloud, an American Indian, were both involved in the murder of Anna Mae Aquash, who was also a First Nations tribal member. Hafer explains how the prosecution unfolded with great accuracy. Because of his Canadian citizenship, John Boy Graham was prosecuted in a South Dakota state court. On the other hand, Arlo Looking Cloud, being a member of a federally recognized tribe, was prosecuted in federal court under the Major Crimes Act. They are both serving life sentences—Graham in a South Dakota state prison, and Looking Cloud in a federal prison.
Most people on the Pine Ridge reservation have heard of the murders of the FBI agents at the Jumping Bull residence near Oglala, South Dakota, the death of Anna Mae Aquash, Ron Hard Heart, and Wilson Black Elk. But Hafer researched many other cases as well. Some are shuttled around via the “moccasin telegraph,” or rumor, but Hafer’s explanations will be very revealing to most readers. Hafer’s collection of cases, the initial reaction, and the final outcomes directly from the FBI files, are very revealing and informative.
There are occasional statements that are contradicted by other revelations, which are more credible. For instance the initial report regarding Albert Coomes suggested that he ran Edith Eagle Hawk off the road, killing them both. The facts are that Coomes was on his way to Rapid City when his car gave out at the Scenic Bar. He borrowed a car from Hallie Merrill, the owner of the bar, and continued on his journey to Rapid City. Meanwhile, Eagle Hawk’s car was sitting on the road with no lights, since it too had given out. Coomes was unable to see the parked car and rammed the vehicle with the one he was driving. Both drivers were killed, including other occupants in Eagle Hawk’s vehicle. The version given by Bud Merrill is most accurate. Mark Clifford was not a passenger in the Coomes vehicle, and if he was he would not have been in any condition to run from the wrecked vehicle, which Coomes was driving. But there are different versions of this story and many others, and Hafer’s research clarifies many of them.
Hafer’s book provides a vast array of information on the Pine Ridge reservation, including on tribal politics, the tribal economy and poverty, and the challenges that tribal police face in keeping peace on the reservation due to a lack of personnel and resources. Overall, Hafer’s book gives a great revelation of historic and contemporary issues on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Patrick Lee, J.D. (Oglala Lakota), is a faculty member at Oglala Lakota College and author of Tribal Laws, Treaties, and Government: A Lakota Perspective.