Law | National

Native Sun News: Former US Attorney reflects on Indian cases

The following story was written and reported by Ernestine Chasing Hawk, Native Sun News Staff. All content © Native Sun News.

As U.S. Attorney, Brendon Johnson met with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in 2013. Photo from The Sicanga Eyapaha / Facebook

Johnson resigns as U.S. Attorney
Plans to continue fight for Native American rights
By Ernestine Chasing Hawk
Native Sun News Staff

RAPID CITY –– Many Native Americans felt secure when five years ago, it was announced that the son of one of Indian Countries closest allies was appointed to the post of U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota.

Brendan Johnson, son of retired Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), was nominated by President Barack Obama, and was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the 40th U.S. Attorney for S.D. in October of 2009.

Johnson resigned his post this month, but Natives can rest assured, Johnson plans to continue the fine fight for Native American rights.

Johnson, along with his colleague North Dakota's U.S. attorney, Tim Purdon, left the U.S. Attorney’s office to join Robins Kaplan Law firm. Both men chaired the Native American Issues Subcommittee at the Department of Justice throughout the Obama Administration.

At Robins Kaplan in Sioux Falls, Johnson said he looks forward to taking on environmental disputes and equal rights issues between Native Americans and the State of South Dakota and big corporations.

“We will be available to represent tribes, stand up for tribes, be their voice and hopefully equal the playing field,” Johnson said. “We want to be there on behalf of tribes or Native American individuals to make sure that they have the strongest legal team they can have, standing shoulder to shoulder next to them.”

During Johnson’s tenure as U.S. Attorney, South Dakota’s Indian tribes were justly served as he leaves behind a legacy of triumphant legal battles.

The very first Native issue Johnson tackled as U.S. Attorney involved the Yankton Sioux’s dispute with the State and Charles Mix County who were seeking to disestablish their reservation.

“Litigation had gone on for close to 20 years and I am really proud that we were successful in that lawsuit. And we were able to prevent the Yankton Sioux Reservation from being disestablished. So that is something that has been important to me,” Johnson said.

As U.S. Attorney he also helped file a brief in the OST v Van Hunnik case, being heard in the Federal Courthouse in Rapid City, on behalf of the Oglala and Rosebud Sioux Tribes and all Indian parents in Pennington County against the Department of Social Services, Judge Jeff Davis and the States Attorney Mark Vargo.

The class action lawsuit, which involves the first 48 hours after an Indian child is taken from his or her family, alleges the State of South Dakota regularly violates the Constitutional Rights of Indian parents and provision 1922 of the Indian Child Welfare Act during the show cause hearing.

A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs is expected before the end of the month.

“I am also proud of the work that we have done on behalf of Native American Voting Rights issues in South Dakota and making sure that Native Americans have the same access to the ballot, the same right to vote as every American,” Johnson said.

Johnson was motivated into making public safety in tribal communities a top priority when a Native man once told him, “As a Native American, I sometimes feel we get a second class form of public safety in our communities, we don’t matter as much as everyone else.”

Also during his tenure with the Department of Justice, a substantial amount of resources were spent in partnerships with tribes because he believes the answers for the future of public safety for tribal communities exists within tribes themselves.

“Not from the federal government, not from the state government, but from the outstanding people who live in our tribal communities,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, tribes can do the best job with public safety. We are at a time period right now when the federal government should be working closely with tribes strengthening their public safety systems.”

He would like to see the role the federal government plays in public safety shift more toward tribes, “So that they can implement some of their traditional cultural ideas … like healing circles. In the federal government, we don’t do as good of a job when it comes to making peace when there’s been a crime.”

As he leaves his post, Johnson would like to see the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act, tribal courts have more of a separation of power so that they aren’t controlled by local politics and tribal courts have more sovereignty.

Serving as U.S. Attorney was not always an easy job for him though, because he saw firsthand some of offenses committed against the youngest members of tribal communities.

“The most difficult part of my job was meeting with Native American children who had been the victims of crime and that does take an emotional toll,” Johnson said.

But at the end of the day Johnson said, “I did the best job that I could and I am proud of the relationships that we’ve built and proud of the justice that we provided.”

“My heart is grateful to all the relatives that I have in Indian Country, the friendships that we’ve developed over the last five and half years. I want people to know that I am looking forward to continuing to be there and fight for the issues that we all care about, equality, environmental justice and I am looking forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with tribes for many years to come,” he concluded.

(Ernestine Chasing Hawk can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

Join the Conversation