On a sultry morning in June 1975 two FBI agents assigned to the Pine Ridge Reservation near Rapid City, South Dakota, followed a station wagon onto Indian land somewhere between the little towns of Oglala and Pine Ridge, two traditional Lakota Sioux communities thought to be harboring American Indian Movement (AIM) agitators and generally hostile to outside law enforcement agencies. Why the agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, were following the station wagon is not shown in the transcripts of their brief radio transmissions that morning, nor do they give any detail concerning the events that befell them when they suddenly found themselves parked in a woodlined field and fired upon from a nearby hill by an unspecified number of angry Indians. The only detail that mattered to Coler and Williams was how quickly backup forces of FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs police could reach them.
It did not matter for long. Within minutes Agent Coler had his arm nearly blown away by a bullet splaying through the open trunk of his car and collapsed from loss of blood and shock. Agent Williams was hit in the foot, and again through the arm and side, and was down beside his partner trying weakly to tie a tourniquet on the shattered arm when someone approached from the woods, thrust the muzzle of a high powered rifle in his pale, desperate face, and pulled the trigger. Coler was shot twice in the head where he lay unconscious on the ground.
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse revolves around this bloody episode, the ensuing manhunt, the trials of the three men eventually charged with the crimes, and the highly suspect conviction of one, AIM member Leonard Peltier, now serving two consecutive life terms for murder. Through meticulous examination of the evidence presented in court, extensive interviews with the accused, law enforcement agencies, defense lawyers, prosecuting attorneys, prison inmates, traditional Indian leaders, AIM organizers, and in profiles of everybody from the judges who presided over the trials to the witnesses who testified at them (or refused to testify), Peter Matthiessen tells a story that slowly clarifies what probably happened on that hot June morning some fifty miles southeast of Custer’s last stand. If anyone beside the actual killer (or killers) can tell the literal truth about the final moments of Coler and Williams, he (or she) has not yet done so.
For the larger issues raised by the book, however, the literal truth hardly matters. The detective story makes absorbing reading, as good as any investigative reporting ever gets, but it is there primarily as a thread on which to hang an inquiry that goes far beyond the murder of two unfortunate men who, through ignorance or arrogance, bad judgment or professional zeal, put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The questions that concern Matthiessen are what created the climate in the first place in which such brutal violence could occur, and why was the federal government so “enthusiastic …