Holly Wilson had just gone to get soda for dinner with her nine grandchildren last May when a barrage of bullets was fired at her home on the largest Indian reservation in South Dakota, part of the Midwestern United States.
Her 6-year-old grandson, Logan Warrior Goings, jumped from the family’s love seat and rushed across the room to his grandfather — and was shot in the head. It took at least 15 minutes for a tribal law enforcement officer to arrive. But by then the drive-by shootings had disappeared, and Logan, a “kind and gentle” boy who loved his Xbox and his Siamese cat Simon, was dead.
“He was the sweetest boy,” said Wilson, 62. “He was a great help to Grandma. He was my best partner.”
Months later, a father and son living near Wilson on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux tribe, were shot and killed by an intruder and their bodies were not found for six days, she said. Recently, Wilson’s eldest son was held at gunpoint in his home.
These types of crimes have become increasingly common in the 14,000 square kilometer (5,400 sq mi) reserve. Just 33 officers and eight criminal investigators are responsible for more than 100,000 emergency calls each year across the reservation, which is about the size of the state of Connecticut, tribal officials said.
Officers and investigators are federally funded — but the tribe says the police presence simply isn’t enough.
The tribe sued the Bureau of Indian Affairs and some senior officials in July, arguing that the US is not meeting its treaty obligations or its custodial responsibility by failing to provide adequate law enforcement to address a “public safety crisis” on the reservation.
The federal government countered in court documents that the tribe could not prove the agreements compel the U.S. to provide the tribe with “desired levels of law enforcement personnel or funding.” After two days of court proceedings this week, the judge said he would take the case into consideration.
“We need change. Everyone is tired of the same old story. Everything is talked, talked, talked about every year, and our people have suffered for decades,” Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman Frank Star Comes Out told The Associated Press. “We believe now is the time to take that stance.”
The federal government has a fiduciary duty to Native nations and has made promises to tribes under the treaties, which should be read liberally and in favor of Native American tribes, explained Robert Miller, a law professor at Arizona State University and an enrolled citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
“If federal law enforcement is very weak, which it is on most reservations, it’s not doing its duty as a guardian, as a guardian of Indian peoples,” he said.
Indigenous peoples have increasingly advocated for treaty rights, including hunting, fishing and education, in the courtroom, with some success. In 2020, the US Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the McGirt case, ruling that much of eastern Oklahoma, promised in treaties to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, would remain a reservation.
In court documents in the case, the Oglala Sioux tribe points to treaties such as the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which says that if someone commits a crime against Native Americans, the U.S. “will take immediate action to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States, and also compensate the injured person for the loss suffered”.
Star Comes Out said it hopes the Oglala Sioux’s lawsuit, filed just days after the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana filed a similar one, will help serve as an example to other tribes in the Great Plains and beyond facing similar situations.
The South Dakota reservation, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) southeast of Rapid City, is located between the Nebraska border and the Bakken oil fields.
The location made it suitable for both human and drug trafficking, explained Patricia Marks, a lawyer for the tribe, while the lack of police means it is known as a “lawless area.”
“We’ve had a radical increase in guns, gun violence,” she said. “We had a radical increase in hard narcotics. It’s heroin. It’s fentanyl. It’s meth. These are life-threatening things.”
Between January and June 2022, tribal police received 285 missing person reports, 308 gun-related calls and 49 rape reports, Oglala Sioux officials said. There are typically only five tribal officers on each shift, and response times to gun-related calls can be anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, Marks said.
In 2020, Oglala Sioux Tribe police reported 155 more violent crimes than in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Criminal jurisdiction in “Indian country” is complicated and depends on whether the suspect, the victim, or both are Native Americans, and where the crime occurred.
The federal government, tribes and counties have tried to strengthen public safety on the reservations — where, in some locations, Native women are killed at a rate more than 10 times the national average — with approaches that include interoperability agreements, expanding sentencing powers to tribes and programs that allowed tribal prosecutors to try cases in federal court.
For example, the landmark Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 expanded the powers of tribal courts to impose sentences under certain conditions.
The Justice Department has also worked to increase funding to tribes to fight crime, including last year when officials announced more than $246 million in grants to Native communities to improve public safety and help victims of crime.
But the tribe said none of this was enough.
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has jurisdiction over a series of major crimes. But the closest office is in Rapid City, so agents can take more than two hours to get there, Marks explained.
“For all practical purposes, tribal police are the first responders regardless of the type of crime,” she said. “They are the ones who have to go out there and answer the call.”
The tribe would need more than 140 more police officers on the reservation to fight rampant crime, according to court documents.
JoAnn Sierra, 79, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, said two of her sons and two grandsons were killed on or near the reservation. The most recent case involved her grandson, Justin Little Hawk, 40, who was ambushed in November 2020 by a man he did not recognize while driving Sierra’s two teenage grandchildren, she said.
The man got into the back seat of Sierra’s car and shot Little Hawk after the other grandchildren ran out. He died shortly before Christmas, and the person responsible was never convicted, Sierra said.
“I just feel like I’m lost… Why does this have to happen here?” Sierra asked. “Why didn’t I move?”
Since the death of Logan, who was given the Lakota name Petá Zi Hoksila, meaning Yellow Fire Boy, Wilson has plastered the reservation with signs such as “Justice for Logan” and “Who Killed Grandma’s Baby?” hoping to draw attention to his death.
She said that after Logan was shot, she waited months to hear from the FBI, and when she tried to talk to tribal police, they were limited in what they could say because of jurisdictional issues.
Wilson said she believes if there had been more law enforcement that had responded quickly, her grandson’s case could have been solved.
“It’s sad that as a tribe we had to take those measures to get the help that should have been there,” she said through tears. “It should have been there according to the contracts. And yet we all had to live like this. Lose people. Losing loved ones.”