Home | Politics | Leonard Peltier and this Great, Funny Nation: A Personal Essay

Leonard Peltier and this Great, Funny Nation: A Personal Essay


America's most important Prisoner of War still has an impact after nearly 35 years

(this article is extended from commentary published in The Philadelphia Inquirer)



Last summer, on the same day the White House announced plans for a beer summit on racial profiling with a Harvard professor and a Cambridge cop, parole proceedings for Leonard Peltier began. It was July 28 and the dog days of 2009 were just setting in for all of us. Peltier, an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist who has been in prison for 33 years, was found guilty in 1977 of executing two FBI agents during a shootout at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota near the town of Oglala.


Those of us old enough to have followed the militant days of AIM waited hopefully for the parole commission to determine whether Mr. Peltier had finally paid his dues to society. His case is marred by allegations of witness coercion, judicial fiat, FBI incompetence, and an anti-Indian vigilante mentality that was sweeping the western states at that time. At 65, he has spent more than half his life in jail.


The Jumping Bull Shootout

Leonard Peltier represents one of America's most complex and controversial face offs between the law-and-order perspective and minority community rights. The day of the shootout, June 26, 1975, was the culmination of a three-year struggle by the traditionalist faction on the reservation against the so-called progressive faction that had political power. There was a mini-war going on. The progressives were using vigilante enforcers called GOONs (Guardians Of the Oglala Nation) to terrorize the traditionalists. AIM, a nationally recognized Indian's rights group that used civil disobedience – and weapons – had been called in to protect the interests of the traditionalists.


The details of that day are twisted now in myth, legend, and distortion  -- on both sides. We know that two young FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, followed a truck in separate cars onto the Jumping Bull compound and that the truck's occupants eventually got out and opened fire on the agents. Both agents were wounded in this first volley. The truck occupants were joined by a number of AIM members staying in tents on the compound. All were armed, many with high-powered rifles.


Some time after wounding the agents, Peltier and at least two other AIM members – Rob Robideau and Dino Butler – went down to the cars. This is where the story gets twisted up. The government prosecuted Peltier using circumstantial evidence to prove he executed the agents at point blank range. Peltier and others who were there that day say the agents had already been shot. An AIM member was also killed in the ensuing shootout with the FBI and other law enforcement officials. His death was never investigated. In the end, three young men were dead. There is no question that this was a senseless, destructive scene arising out of a time of great frustration and fear.



So it was that I got into a FaceBook comments skirmish with my friends Tim and Susie in early August, while we waited for a decision on Leonard Peltier's parole. I innocently commented that the use of violence seemed a mistake by AIM, and that Leonard, regardless of his guilt, was paying the price. The three of us went back and forth all day. The mindset of AIM members in the mid-1970s was essentially a siege mentality. They were hunkered down at Pine Ridge faced off against the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police, the FBI, and the vigilante GOONs. Violence was all around. This era is known as the “Reign of Terror” at Pine Ridge. The murder rate for the reservation was one of the highest in the nation - for any municipality or county.


To be honest, while I was once concerned with whether justice was served in Leonard Peltier's case back in the 1970s and then again in the early 1990s, I hadn't thought much about this chapter of American history in years. It wasn't that I didn't care, but in the ‘90s and most of the naughts I was busy raising children, being a good husband, and trying to figure out how I fit into this land of plenty.


I was in college when the manhunt for Peltier was underway. Many of us in school identified strongly with AIM. Traditional American Indian culture is the source from which much of counter-culture grew - concern for a connection between nature and people; the Shamanistic experience; herbal healing; tribalism; natural spiritualism; long hair, moccasins, and leather leggings - you name it, Indians were idolized and romanticized by many of us back then who fancied ourselves rebels and environmentalists.


AIM took this one step further with their militancy. My buddies and I felt an affinity for any group with the will to stand up to the status quo. One of AIM’s symbols was Crazy Horse, the great Sioux warrior who fought to rally his people against forced migration to reservations and assimilation into European culture. We revered Crazy Horse as we did AIM. But we debated the question of armed militancy endlessly. To this day I don't know what the right answer was. Yes, in hindsight, especially after something like 9/11, we can all say that peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience are the preferred methods of standing up to the power structure in this country, but the truth is that back there in the early 1970s, those in power were often perceived as devious, cunning, self-serving, and dangerous.


In the Spirit of Crazy Horse

I did what I could to follow Leonard Peltier's case over the years. When Peter Mattthiessen's definitive best-seller In the Spirit of Crazy Horse came out, I read the 600+ tome and thought it the most amazing amalgamation of facts, history and Indian minutiae I'd ever encountered. The book is not just a detailed account of what happened on Pine Ridge that day and the ensuing trials, it is also a powerful, moving and damning attack on what status quo America has done to traditional Indians everywhere. Crazy Horse's famous words echo on nearly every page of Matthiessen’s work: “We did not ask you white men to come here. The Great Spirit gave us this country as a home." This statement is at once revolutionary and moral. It may be the most direct and moral statement in this country’s history.


Just after reading "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," the television news show 60 Minutes ran a segment in which it was claimed the true executioner at Pine Ridge had recorded an exclusive interview. A so-called Mr. X admitted to killing the two FBI agents. Mr. X was wrapped in bandages, wearing sunglasses. It was an odd scene, and even that much more convincing once Robert Redford's documentary Incident at Oglala came out.


Taken as a whole, Matthiessen's book, the 60 Minutes interview, and the documentary seemed to fully indict a corrupt and vindictive law enforcement system in the western lands of this great nation. The object, it seemed, was the elimination of opposition to exploitation of Indian lands for energy and mineral mining.


Peltier became almost as famous a political prisoner as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to those of us who believe in justice and human rights. He is without a doubt the single most important symbol of how power groups in this country have treated traditional Indians ever since the New World was invaded. To someone like me, a mongrel mix of African, Indian, Irish, and German DNA, Peltier's situation was palpable - those of us so different that mainstream America ignores us can't help but feel desperation in calling attention to our cause. Choosing violence was a fatal mistake, but the desperation of those days doesn't come through to us here in the 21st century anymore.



The day after my online face off with Tim and Susie, I began what became a month of obsessive research into Leonard Peltier, AIM, and the judicial process surrounding so many Indian cases. What I learned fed my obsession. There are websites and online essays and articles galore on these topics that weren't around back in the early and mid-1990s.


And yet, we don't see anything substantive in mainstream media. It is almost as if the only news about Indian Country worthy of printing has to do with the reservation casino melodrama now spread out across this funny but still great nation.


Here are some of the highlights of my obsessive research:


Missed Review

For starters, I have learned that Matthiessen's book was actually somewhat controversial when it originally came out in 1983. I missed this. In the New York Times Book Review, Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard professor and world famous defense attorney, praised the author for his historical analysis of Indian issues in America, both moral and political. However, he also took Matthiessen to task for taking “at face value nearly every conspiratorial claim of the movement, no matter how unfounded or preposterous."


Dershowitz also wrote:


“Mr. Matthiessen is at his worst when he becomes a polemicist for his journalistic clients. He is utterly unconvincing - indeed embarrassingly sophomoric – when he pleads the legal innocence of individual Indian criminals. And let there be no mistake: The American Indian Movement - like every militant fringe group - contains its share of violent criminals who seek to glorify their predatory acts under the flag of the movement. A history of discrimination may explain and, in extreme cases, perhaps even excuse criminality. But it can rarely justify it, especially against innocent victims.”


When Dershowitz's review came out in 1983, I was in the throes of writing a master's thesis on waste wood power plants for Maine paper companies. I missed the first unveiling of "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" and Dershowitz's critique of it. Eight years later, after lawsuits were filed to suppress the book's publication, no such review could be found. I wish this were not the case. I spent the next 15 years or so believing that "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" was the definitive journalistic history of what happened at Pine Ridge. I thought I knew the answer. Peter Matthiessen is one of the greatest non-fiction writers practicing the craft in America today.


Euro-American Style

Also, in an extended feature called “The Martyrdom of Leonard Peltier” for Outside magazine, Scott Anderson, an investigative journalist, wrote about an interview he did with Leondard Peltier in 1995 and then went on to evaluate the meaning of Peltier's incarceration with respect to the Indian movement in the aftermath of his arrest. Anderson wrote tellingly of Peltier's case, but described the irony that “all the most visible and tireless proponents of the ongoing Peltier crusade - Matthiessen, Ellison [Peltier's attorney], the filmmakers, the earnest young people in Lawrence, Kansas - are not Indians, but whites."


I found this article way up here in 2009 as I waited for Leonard Peltier's parole decision to come down. Again, I felt rather foolish for not having stayed abreast of the issues surrounding AIM and Peltier as the years went by. Anderson's article sparked a debate in Outside's pages over the next few issues as the late William Kunstler and Peter Matthiessen faced off against Anderson in letters to the editor.


Rob and Dino

Another thing I discovered online was that Peltier's co-defendents - Rob Robideau and Dino Butler - granted extensive interviews where each separately stated that the so-called Mr. X was a hoax, while still emphatically defending Peltier. Robideau, who died in February, spoke just before his death about, among other things, the FBI's support of the GOONs and Bill Clinton's decision not to pardon Peltier at the end of his second term. He also talked to the interviewer about how mainstream media provides “official propaganda to assist in the process of theft and genocide” of the Indian people.


Near the end of his interview, Robideau said, “Little or nothing is taught about the concerted effort to make us vanish and why. Euro-Americans created special schools of indoctrination with the objective of stripping our children and future generations of their culture and heritage through a long process of brainwashing techniques." This is not just speculation. Many AIM members came out of these Indian boarding schools. Understanding this issue can take us a long way towards understanding the extreme anger and militancy of AIM in those days.


Similarly, Dino Butler, in a 1997 interview with E.K. Caldwell for News from Indian Country, spoke eloquently of lessons he had learned since the June 1975 fire fight. He said that during the early days of AIM “a lot of brothers and sisters came together and we formed a solid bond. We learned how to pick up the pipe and we learned how to pray again and dance together and sing together.” But Butler also said that something went wrong. “We came to a point where I feel like we began to not learn any more. Because we do carry hate and refuse to let it go, then it still controls us and determines our actions.”


This long, multi-faceted interview is one of the most important documents to come out in the aftermath of Leonard Peltier's incarceration. Butler pointed out, insightfully, that Peltier is a prisoner of war. And he discussed at length the nature of this war between American Indian culture and the dominant Euro-based culture. But he also clearly invoked a deep spiritual awakening about the nature of that war. The enemy was not the FBI agents on the reservation that day. They too were part of what Butler called a “corrupt value system that gave both sides the energy to fight with such deadly force.”


To Butler “there are those of us who feel compassion for those men who were killed at Oglala and for their families." Reading his words, one is struck by Dino Butler's sadness and wisdom. One is struck as well by the deep awareness he has of the need to focus on the truth in the ongoing struggle American Indians still have with autonomy and protection of ancient tradition. “All life is the same life that Grandfather/Grandmother has created. It all comes from Him, from Her, and we are an extension of it. If we choose to separate ourselves from that into hate, we’re letting ourselves represent something other than what is truth.”


The War Continues

Retired FBI agent, Ed Woods, has set up a web site called the No Parole Peltier Association (NPPA). This is the most comprehensive resource focused on keeping Leonard Peltier in prison. For those who believe there is a need to understand other sides to the Peltier question than just those who support him, Woods' site is a treasure trove of information. And in all fairness to Woods, he does post numerous letters sent to him opposing or debating his point of view. Whether you agree or disagree with the message of Woods' site, it is important to at least pay attention to his presentation of information on Coler and Williams. They were indeed young men doing their jobs, and they ran into a hornets’ nest of anger and confusion.


Another thing I learned in August is that the federal government still won't release thousands of pages of key Department of Justice documents on the so-called ResMurs. Although some documents have been released, the government argues that protecting documents is in the interest of national security and protecting informants. Nearly 35 years after the shoot-out, it is hard to understand this reasoning. Yet, even if a case can be made here, given the fact that we know the FBI was running counter-intelligence operations designed to make AIM members paranoid and confused, withholding any information in Peltier's case leaves the government open to accusations of conspiracy and cover-up.


I also found online a 1992 letter written by senior circuit judge Gerald Heaney, who was one of three judges that heard a 1991 appeal. In his letter - written to then-Senator Daniel Inouye, which you can find here - Heaney made it clear that the court denied an important appeal based on technical requirements of the Bagley test “requiring that we can be convinced, from a review of the entire record, that had the data and records withheld been made available, the jury probably would have reached a different result.” However, Heaney then went on to make clear that in his view the entire situation called for serious consideration of leniency for Peltier. He included concerns that


"…the United States government over-reacted at Wounded Knee... must share the responsibility with the Native Americans for the June 26 firefight...the record persuades me that more than one person was involved in the shooting of the FBI agents... the FBI used improper tactics in securing Peltier's extradition from Canada and in otherwise investigating and trying the Peltier case...At some point a healing process must begin. We as a nation must treat Native Americans fairly."


Who Murdered Anna Mae?

Another controversy connected to Leonard Peltier has cropped up over the past few years. The execution of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash six months after the Pine Ridge shootout remains a conundrum for both AIM and the FBI. Aquash had been high up in the AIM command in the mid-1970s. While the FBI claims to have pieced the case together, and eventually indicted three people - Arlo Looking Cloud, John Graham, and Richard Marshall - for the execution, as with Peltier's case, many questions surround Anna Mae's death. In 2004, Arlo Looking Cloud was found guilty after a five-day trial. Graham was extradited in 2006 as one of the original indictees, and in 2008, Marshall was indicted for “aiding and abetting" the crime by providing the weapon used to shoot Anna Mae through the center of her forehead. Graham’s and Marshall’s trial was to have commenced in early October but has been postponed.


During the 2004 trial of Arlo Looking Cloud, Darlene Kamook Nichols, another key AIM figure, testified at length that she witnessed Leonard Peltier expressing concern about Anna Mae Aquash being an FBI informant. She also indicated in testimony that Peltier bragged to her and Anna Mae about murdering the FBI agents, telling the court, “He said the motherfucker was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.”


Nichols' testimony has been disputed. In addition, many people who have followed the Aquash murder trial question why Kamook would even be asked to explain what she knew of Peltier's connections to Anna Mae since that testimony had little relevance to the trial at hand. Presumably, the Justice Department was looking to link AIM members to the murder in a bid to establish a motive for Anna Mae's murder.


Kamook, an accomplished actress these days, would go on to marry Robert Ecoffey, the lead investigating U.S. Marshall in the Aquash murder and the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Marshall. On the stand, Kamook admitted to receiving $42,000 from the FBI to cover expenses incurred as a witness in the case.


Sun Dance Prison Writings

Finally, while obsessing over all the pieces of information I could track down online, I discovered that Leonard Peltier had authored a book in the late 1990s called Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance. The main argument against allowing Peltier to leave prison on parole (lifetime parole) is that he does not show remorse for the deaths of agents Coler and Williams. In his pre-hearing statement to the parole board, Thomas J. Harrington, executive assistant director to the FBI, wrote, among other things: “To this day, Mr. Peltier refuses to recognize his role in the murders of Special Agents Coler and Williams. He has shown no remorse in the more than three decades he has been imprisoned."


This argument is reiterated by Ed Woods at his NPPA site: “Peltier's own statements ... portray his self-centeredness and inability to face the realities of his crimes without even a hint of remorse or sincerity..."


The issue of remorse is key in parole hearings. Yet, while the law and order set seems to have decided he is unapologetic for his actions at Pine Ridge in 1975, Peltier states in Prison Writings:


"I can't apologize for what I haven't done. But I can grieve, and I do. Every day, every hour, I grieve for those who died at the Oglala firefight in 1975 and for their families - for the families of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams..." Later in the same chapter, he writes: “To the still-grieving Coler and Williams families I send my prayers if you will have them. I hope you will. They are the prayers of an entire people, not just my own. We have many dead of our own to pray for, and we join our sorrow to yours. Let our common grief be our bond."


And So It Goes

So I spent my time during the first two-thirds of August discovering the nature of this continuing story. Many of us figured that if the Gates-Crowley issue could push so many hot buttons, then the possibility that Peltier would be released from prison was sure to stoke the media as well. Eric Seitz, Peltier's attorney, said that at the hearing Peltier spoke for more than an hour with “great eloquence...we thought it went very well." Federal parole eligibility for life sentence offenders convicted prior to 1987 begins after 10 years. Parole does not mean freedom or exoneration, it means serving the remainder of a life sentence under supervision of one's community.


The news dribbled in during the afternoon of Friday, August 21 that Leonard Peltier had been denied parole. The Associated Press offered a brief synopsis of the decision, but few mainstream publications printed this. The New York Times ran a 3-4 line blurb buried in their Sunday A section. Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, even Professor Gates' own The Root carried virtually nothing. Most national broadcast outlets posted the AP story at their websites, but offered no TV or radio coverage. Major papers everywhere were for the most part silent.


How could Peltier's parole hearing not stir the national media into at least a small frenzy? Forget which side is right. The outcome of that parole hearing was real news. Traditionalist American Indians have been muzzled and marginalized in American Society since the Pequot Wars in the 1630s. We all know this, and we know why. Peltier's case is the most poignant and powerful reminder of what this society has done to Indian tribes for nearly half a millenium. And, yes, Peltier's case is also about what Indians have done to themselves. Yet we choose, sadly, to ignore all of this.


To grant Peltier parole was an opportunity, albeit very small, for the United States of America to begin to turn the page on its history with Native America - to show mercy and compassion in a concrete way. Why was this opportunity not news?


To deny Peltier parole was also, it would seem, newsworthy: law and order trumps human rights; justice is about punishment, not rehabilitation; the FBI's dark record of the past needs to be forgotten; one man's political prisoner is another man's thug?


But to virtually ignore this case and this man? What does that say about the media? What does that say about us as a nation? Do we just not care? Is all that Indian stuff now just water under the bridge? Is it proof that we want to at least pretend we've cleaned the frontier up after all?


What I learned most while waiting for the decision on Leonard’s parole, I think, is that this is a very odd and twisted country with a long way to go in its understanding of the Indian people. So many people want to take sides as to his guilt or not. Worse, once they take sides they become irrational, almost rabid, about their position. From a distance, not knowing Peltier and his co-conspirators, not knowing anyone in AIM or the FBI, it is all too clear that the tenor of the times at Pine Ridge was insane – on all sides.


I don’t want to appear flippant or to dishonor Leonard Peltier and AIM and the FBI, but I can’t help feeling that the combination of media indifference with the astoundingly committed points of view for those who have taken the time to learn about this case is one of the oddest jokes this country has played on itself in some time. Once confronted with the conundrums of this case, Americans of all stripes show that they care about the issues attached to Leonard Peltier and AIM.


With a few choice interviews on prime time and a good nine-part Ken Burns-like documentary on PBS (maybe Dino Butler on “Dancing with the Stars,” Peter Matthiessen named Secretary of the Interior, and retired agent Ed Woods on the talk radio circuit with a book and a swift boat movie), the whole country could take part in a national discourse on Leonard Peltier and the meaning of gagging American Indian culture.


I’d like to laugh. We’re a funny people. We know how despicable it is that this land was taken from Indians, but we aren’t about to do anything to truly acknowledge that. To give Leonard Peltier the last decade or two of his life outside of prison, on parole in his home community, would require that this nation acknowledge a sickness that is its original sin. Leonard Peltier is up for parole again in 15 years. Maybe by then, 2025, when he’s 80 years old and ready to die, we will understand the notion of true compassion. Until then, as with Leonard Peltier, at least some of us should try to remain in the spirit of Crazy Horse.


David Biddle lives and writes in Philadelphia, PA and keeps the blogs “The Formality of Occurrence” and “Blue Olives”.



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