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Reds

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” in its investigation of the “ResMurs” (Reservation Murders)—an investigation which Arthur Flemming, chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission, was moved to call in a letter of protest to the US attorney general “an over-reaction which takes on aspects of a vendetta.” And why, in light of subsequent disclosures of FBI tactics that one appeals court judge called a “clear abuse of the investigative process,” and in light of “eyewitness” testimony against Peltier by an alcoholic incompetent who was later shown to be fifty miles from the scene of the crimes, and in light of courtroom proceedings in which critical information was withheld from the jury during their deliberations, was Leonard Peltier extradicted from Canada, tried, found guilty, imprisoned, and denied (as yet) retrial?

The American Indians have always been the most exploited, most brutalized, least educated, least employed, least respected ethnic minority in the United States, and the long record of broken promises, violated treaties, deceptions, and lies has been documented in a number of widely read books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Custer Died for Your Sins, Black Elk Speaks, Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, and in a number of films like Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Tell Them Willy Boy Is Here.

The chronicle of our nation’s sorry relationship with the Indian is important background for Matthiessen’s book, but perhaps because it is not exactly news he devotes only a short section to historical recapitulation, focusing his attention instead on a period of activism that begins with a “Declaration of Indian Purpose” at a conference of sixty-seven tribes in Chicago in June 1961 and ends with the death of the FBI agents at Pine Ridge in June 1975. During this period a number of confrontations took place that exacerbated the suspicion and distrust with which Indians regard whites. These came at a time of reemerging ethnic pride among young red men and women who had begun remythologizing ancestral leaders like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, and who had begun to take a few of their cues from militant blacks and Chicanos. Suspicion and distrust coupled with anger and pride—a volatile combination.

The conference “Declaration” at Chicago was, among other things, a demand for tribal participation in all matters relating to Indian life. It was a rejection of the paternalism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a warning to nonparticipants that the federal government was once again trying to steal land from the first Americans. Indians owned half of the uranium in the United States, much of the coal available for strip mining, and a lot of oil, oil shale, and gas. Their “trustee,” the BIA, had been entering into leasing arrangements without Indian participation or understanding, giving away mineral rights for a pittance and without escalation clauses to protect against the increasing value of energy resources, leasing grazing rights to white cattle growers for a fraction of the going rate. Indian activists wanted this practice stopped. As AIM leader Barrie Caldwell once said, “if I owed the white man something, he would come and take it back. The Indian is tired of being ripped off and he wants his land back.”

More militant attempts to gain sovereignty over tribal lands and insist on rights to “self-determination” began to break out in various parts of the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was occupied by a group called “Indians of All Tribes” and this encouraged a series of protest occupations of federal land—Fort Lawton in the Seattle area, BIA offices in Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, a Coast Guard station in Wisconsin, Ellis Island in New York harbor. AIM chapters began to spring up around the country. At a demonstration in Michigan a Chippewa protest leader warned, “If the government doesn’t start living up to its obligations, armed resistance and occupation will have to become a regular thing.” As Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., observed in his excellent study of the political and social relations between Indians and whites Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,* “revolt was in the air, and a national Indian movement…seemed to be taking form.”

If militant rhetoric did not inspire confidence in a number of traditional Indian leaders, it certainly did not amuse the Department of Justice and the FBI. And when, in October 1972, hundreds of Indians who had marched to Washington to demonstrate for a new national Indian policy took over the BIA building, wrecking it when threatened with forcible eviction, law enforcement officials knew they had more than fiery language and an eruption of sit-ins on their hands. The heart of their problem (as they perceived it) was that most aggressive of Pan-Indian organizations, AIM, led by such increasingly notorious revolutionaries as Dennis Banks and Russell Means. The “director of security” at the Washington, DC, demonstration was Leonard Peltier.

As Matthiessen’s book makes clear, Indian militancy was continuously provoked by more violent acts than land grabs and treaty violations. In September 1972 Richard Oakes, the Mohawk leader of the Alcatraz occupation was murdered by a white man in Santa Clara, California. A year earlier Hank Adams, head of the Survival of American Indians Association and leader of the fight over fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest, had been shot in the stomach in Tacoma, and no investigation was ever made. Police claimed he shot himself. Police also claimed “excusable homicide” when they beat and then shot to death Leroy Shenandoah in Philadelphia. An ex-Green Beret, Shenandoah had been a member of the honor guard at President Kennedy’s funeral. Four attempts on Russell Means’s life were made over a period of several years, and AIM leaders everywhere were constantly being hassled by police.

And then in February 1972 Raymond Yellow Thunder, a fifty-one-year-old Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation, was beaten up by two whites, stripped of his pants, and paraded before a mixed crowd of guffawing American Legionnaires in Gordon, Nebraska, before being stuffed in the trunk of a car, where he died. The men who did this were charged with second degree manslaughter and released without bail pending trial. A year later another Pine Ridge Sioux, Wesley Bad Heart Bull, was stabbed to death in a bar by a white businessman who was subsequently charged with involuntary manslaughter and released. “In just three years on Pine Ridge Reservation,” Matthiessen tells us, “there had been sixty-three well-documented violent deaths; many more than that, for one reason or another, were never reported. In the view of the International Indian Treaty Council (which reflects the view of AIM), the true number may be closer to three hundred.”

A lot of these deaths, according to Matthiessen (and Josephy confirms his conclusions), are attributable to the policies and practices of Richard “Dick” Wilson, president of the tribal council of the Oglala Sioux and minion of the white power brokers he tried to emulate. Elected in 1972 after a dubious campaign (he was charged with buying votes), Wilson immediately fired previous job holders, replaced them with relatives and cronies, and threatened anyone who opposed him. “When charges of embezzlement, graft, and nepotism were leveled at him,” Josephy writes, “he instituted a reign of terror, beating up his opponents and threatening harm to their wives and children. Cars were forced into accidents on the roads, people were shot at in the dark, and homes were mysteriously burned.”

For obvious reasons Wilson was a bitter enemy of AIM, whose members fought for Indian civil rights no matter who violated them. And for equally obvious reasons the BIA, terrified at the prospect of AIM organizing a popular revolt against its attempts to give away huge chunks of the Black Hills to mining and nuclear power interests, supported Wilson to the hilt. In so doing they brought down precisely that which they hoped to avoid. The people rebelled, and invited AIM to the Pine Ridge Reservation to help them with their struggle.

The final result was the occupation of Wounded Knee, February through May, 1973—the largest armed confrontation of Indians and whites since the 1890 massacre on the same spot. As usual the Indians were somewhat outgunned. In addition to regular BIA police, and an auxiliary force known as Wilson’s “good squad,” the Justice Department sent in 105 US marshals with automatic weapons and two-way radios. Shortly thereafter antisniper teams, SWAT teams, and FBI agents were added. This little army was supplied with search-lights, tracer bullets, flares, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, 133,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition—all of it to subdue a small force of Indians armed with rifles and shotguns. Some people felt it resembled a full-scale military invasion.

The occupiers held Wounded Knee for three months while negotiations with the Justice and Interior departments went on—then, having won a number of promises and feeling that they had at least captured the nation’s attention, a settlement was made. But if the Indians could be considered to have won any sort of victory, it was short-lived. The government began to violate its agreements almost before the last “hostile” was removed from town. Richard Wilson managed to get himself reelected as president of the tribal council and, according to Matthiessen and Josephy, reinstituted his reign of terror. The Justice Department became even more relentless in its program to crush “revolutionary” organizations like AIM and hound its leaders into prison. Nothing had changed but the level of anger, frustration, and fear that would soon manifest itself in a furious burst of gunfire from the Pine Ridge hillside on a sweltering morning in June.

The psychological climate in which the FBI agents were killed is clearly not the result of simple Indian paranoia. They had good reason to be frightened of armed lawmen. But Matthiessen makes no attempt to excuse murder on the grounds that it was provoked. Coler and Williams, he acknowledges, were not just killed in a fire fight; they were coldly executed, and he makes no case for mitigating responsibility for that act. Nor did any of the men indicted for the killings deny that they, along with more than a dozen other Indians, took part in a shoot-out with the FBI agents. They claimed they acted in self-defense. One of the Indians was killed.

At the same time Matthiessen cannot ignore a disturbing question: why did the death of two white men inspire “the biggest manhunt in FBI history” while “sixty-three well-documented violent deaths” of Indians went largely ignored? Why, for example, did the authorities dismiss the deaths of Rose Weasel Bear’s brother and nephew as “accidental” (one had been hanged and the other chopped up with an ax), and then launch what the US Civil Rights Commission protested was a “full-scale military-type invasion” in order to hunt down a handful of renegade Indians?

The double standard goes much further than that. Take a single instance. Eight months after the Pine Ridge shoot-out a Micmac Indian and AIM activist, Anna Mae Aquash, was found dead in a remote corner of the reservation ten miles from the nearest settlement. Although bodies are not a rarity on the reservation, a large number of BIA police and four FBI agents showed up to view the corpse, none of whom seemed to recognize her even though she was a well-known “agitator,” a wanted fugitive, and acquainted with at least one of the officers said to be present. The body was turned over to a hospital in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where a physician under contract to the BIA performed an autopsy. He concluded that her death was caused by exposure, and dismissed her as a routine case. He did, however, cut off the hands of this routine case and turn them over to the FBI, explaining later that the advanced state of decomposition prevented him from taking fingerprints. Several days later she was buried.

Anna Mae’s family did not believe for a minute that she had died of exposure. At their insistence an exhumation order was obtained by their attorney, and a second autopsy performed, this time by a pathologist unconnected with any government agency. To the considerable chagrin of the FBI agents present it was discovered that Anna Mae had been shot in the back of the head with a .38 handgun from point-blank range. Hard to explain how this detail was overlooked during the first autopsy. Equally hard to explain how nobody noticed it when the body was found and presumably inspected by BIA police and FBI agents. Hard to explain why the hands were removed since the doctor performing the second post-mortem said the condition of the corpse “wasn’t bad, even after burial and exhumation”—a finding that encouraged some people to speculate that the hands had been cut off to prevent identification. This, in turn, invites speculation that whoever didn’t want Anna Mae’s body identified may have had something to do with her death. But FBI director Clarence Kelley could find no evidence of his agency’s involvement. And nobody ever found out who killed Anna Mae Aquash.

In truth, nobody knows who killed Agents Coler and Williams either, though that did not prevent Leonard Peltier from going to prison for their murder. Maybe Peltier did pull the trigger. Or maybe he was railroaded by a Justice Department so eager to revenge two of their own that they wanted to hang any Pine Ridge Indian they could get their hands on. By Matthiessen’s account, there is good reason to think so.

Take, again, a single instance. The only difference between Peltier and the two others indicted for the killings, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, was that Robideau and Butler were tried first and acquitted. The case against all three was essentially the same, except that Peltier represented the last chance for a conviction, and Peltier was in Canada. To ensure his return to the US new information was unveiled at his extradition hearings; two affidavits obtained by FBI agents from a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear who claimed, among other things, that she had been present on the day of the murders, that she had seen Peltier shoot Coler and Williams, that she had, in fact, been forced to watch their execution by another woman who she said “grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head around in time to see the agent’s body jump as it was hit by Peltier’s bullets.”

Peltier might have been returned for trial without Poor Bear’s affidavits. The issue is not so much the damage her testimony may have caused as it is the subsequent revelation that she had made it all up—or rather (if she is to be believed on this score) that the two FBI agents who interrogated her for several weeks made it up for her. Myrtle Poor Bear, as the agents who took her testimony well knew, was a mental incompetent and an alcoholic. She had been hospitalized eleven times in thirteen years “claiming two rapes, three falls from horses, nervous disorders due to a husband who wished to take her child away, and many other calamities. In addition, she had made well over a hundred outpatient visits to various clinics in the region.” But Myrtle’s sister says that she never had a husband, never was raped or thrown from a horse, and her father says, “Since she was a little girl, Myrtle lived in her own fantasy world. She always made up stories. She is a good girl…but ever since her fever, the one that almost killed her, her mind is like that.”

Myrtle herself later admitted under oath that she had never seen Leonard Peltier in her life and had been at home in Allen on the day of the shooting, sixty miles from Pine Ridge. Under the circumstances, Matthiessen argues, it seems reasonable to assume that her pliant imagination had undergone some “coaching” while her depositions were taken, and that her coaches were likely the people who felt they needed eyewitness testimony for a conviction. Unfortunately it was a story so demonstrably untrue that the prosecution never called her during Peltier’s trial, and because she was not called all information regarding the dubious circumstances of the extradition proceedings and the FBI’s tactics in bringing their man to justice was denied the jury by order of the court.

The Myrtle Poor Bear incident is but a small part of the case Matthiessen makes in his argument that Peltier should at least be retried. It is but one incident in Matthiessen’s far broader argument that our entire national Indian policy should be retried (and not, it should be said, by a return to 1950s proposals for “termination” of all relations with the Indians favored by James Watt and Ronald Reagan). “Whatever the nature and degree of his participation at Oglala,” Matthiessen writes, “the ruthless persecution of Leonard Peltier had less to do with his own actions than with underlying issues of history, racism, and economics, in particular Indian sovereignty claims and growing opposition to massive energy development on treaty lands and the dwindling reservations.”

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is one of the most dramatic demonstrations of endemic American racism that has yet been written—a powerful, unsettling book that will force even the most ethno-pious reader to inspect the limits of his understanding. Nearly a century ago the Oglala Dakota chief, Red Cloud, said, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, and they never kept but one: they promised to take our land, and they took it.” More recently, Leslie Marmon Silko, the Laguna Pueblo writer, commenting on the romantic sentimentality most whites harbor for “the Indian” (the one who isn’t armed, drunk, or holding up progress) wrote, “The American public has difficulty believing…[that] injustice continues to be inflicted upon Indian people because Americans assume that the sympathy or tolerance they feel toward Indians is somehow ‘felt’ or transferred to the government policy that deals with Indians. This is not the case.” Along with its many other accomplishments, Peter Matthiessen’s superb new work should put an end to that assumption.

Letters

The Pine Ridge Murders September 29, 1983

As the Crow Flies June 30, 1983

  1. *

    Knopf, 1982.

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