Poor Bear Sues Nebraska Officials for Civil Rights Violations
by Leta Rector
Lakota Journal Managing Editor
OMAHA NE -- Oglala Sioux tribal member Thomas Poor Bear filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Omaha last week against five Nebraska state officials for violation of his civil rights in a 1999 march he organized to protest the lack of investigation into the murders of his brother and cousin.
The complain also requests that a task force be created to investigate the slayings, and that the Whiteclay area be incorporated into the Pine Ridge Reservation.
"Law enforcement agencies are keeping a lot of this in their closet," Poor Bear told Lakota Journal of his disillusionment with the legal process. "I feel the law enforcement may be involved in this."
Poor Bear's brother, Wilson Black Elk, Jr. and Ronald Hard Heart, his cousin, were found murdered on June 8, 1999. A few weeks later, Poor Bear and members of the American Indian Movement organized a march (which became an annual memorial) on Whiteclay, Nebraska, where the bodies were found. Poor Bear was arrested and convicted of "Failure to Comply with a Lawful Order." He and eight others with charge with failure to comply as well as with "Trespassing" and "Obstruction of Justice," of which the latter counts were dismissed.
"The only thing I'm guilty of is trying to seek justice for who murdered my brother and my cousin," said Poor Bear. "My freedom of speech, my freedom of religion and right to assemble were violated."
Poor Bear's attorney Bruce Mason of Omaha is seeking damages suffered when Poor Bear was deprived of his Constitutional rights. "He has the right to free exercise of his Lakota religion under the first, ninth and 14th amendment," he said, "and the right to travel freely between the reservation and Whiteclay."
Mason named Tom Nesbitt, Terry E. Robbins, Robert Logsdon, Richard Coyne and Rhonda Flower as defendants. Nesbitt is superintendent of the Nebraska state patrol; Robbins, sheriff of Sheridan County, Nebraska; Logsdon is chairman of the Nebraska Liquor commission of which Coyne and Flower are members.
In its 18th factual allegation, the complaint asks that the Whiteclay Extension be redistricted to be included in the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation pursuant to the 1890 proclamation made by President Benjamin Harrison. The proclamation reserves the Extension into Nebraska so "long as it may be needed for the use and protection of Indians." The proclamation also acknowledges the consent by the Lakota under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who attended the June 7, 2003 march on Whiteclay as a speaker, stated that he has sympathy for the families of the slain men. He refrained from expressing an opinion on the viability of Poor Bear's suit, only saying that a lawsuit is "an extremely unique way to precipitate change in this case."
"This is a civil rights case, I mean, that's what it's all about," said Poor Bear's attorney, Mason, who has been trying civil rights lawsuits for over 30 years.
Mason sees a clear parallel between the state of affairs of Indians and that of the African-Americans in the Southern United States in the days prior to civil rights changes. Speaking of the suit he filed for Poor Bear, he said, "I tied it into the claim that they have failed to protect Tom and his family and extended family from a pervasive atmosphere of violence. This is a pattern very much that existed in the South when the law enforcement would fail to protect freedmen from the Ku Klux Klan."
Mason said that the lack of investigation paves a dangerous way for violent acts. "That atmosphere creates a potential for violence that results in people, and usually Lakota, being killed, and law enforcement does not investigate those the same way and therefore they're denying them equal protection under the law under the 14th amendment," Mason told Lakota Journal.
Nebraska has refused responsibility for an investigation since the bodies Black Elk Jr., and Hard Heart were found on the Pine Ridge Reservation side of the border. Poor Bear maintains that the bodies were dragged there after the men were slain in Nebraska. He also attests that contrary to reports, his relatives did not die from being beaten. "I wanted to include why Nebraska law enforcement has never been involved in Wally and Ron since we know they were murdered in Sheridan County," said Poor Bear. "We have proof of taht. The way they were murdered -- which I can't disclose at this time because of the investigation -- they were not beaten to death and the way their bodies were laying, they were moved there."
Poor Bear points out an instance that he believes is a discrepancy between investigating murders of white people and of Indian people. "I know a couple of years ago there was a bank in Norfolk, Nebraska. Four people were killed in that bank robbery. The state of Nebraska went into special legislative session and in that session they agreed the would use all resources of law enforcement and they would apprehend all people involved in the slayings," Poor Bear said.
"I feel for the families of those victims," he said, "but it seems like Nebraska doesn't feel the pain of families of victims in Omaha, Lincoln, Scotts Bluff, Whiteclay. Why don't they have a special session for my people they are found murdered in their towns and cities? That's what sparked off this lawsuit.
We feel they should be held responsible in the murders of Wally and Ron and other Lakota people."
Poor Bear doesn't feel the FBI has done its part in attempting to apprehend the killers. "Six months later they sent agents to Camp Justice to go over it--six months later," he reiterated. "We're trying to apply pressure on John Ashcroft," said Poor Bear.
Poor Bear said that when nine marchers were arrested in 1999, two did not show up for court, one pled no contest and paid the fine and six of them coud not find any lawyers that would represent them. They were offered a deal that the charges on the other five would be dropped if one person would agree to be tried. "I decided to go on trial myself since I was responsible for organizing the marches and went on trial and I was convicted of the charge which I did not appeal at which time I decided to file this lawsuit for violation of my rights."
Poor Bear said, "We had every right to walk down that highway."
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