Leonard Peltier and The New Indian War
The Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge reservation commonly refer to the three years following the 1973 armed standoff at the village of Wounded Knee as the “Reign of Terror.”
By some estimates, about 60 supporters of the American Indian Movement insurrection were murdered or disappeared during that period, most of them at the hands of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) tribal police and a private security force organized by tribal President Dick Wilson.
Wilson was a prototypical colonial dictator who despised traditional Lakota culture and renounced century-old claims to tribal land and sovereignty reserved under unfulfilled treaties with the United States government. His enforcers proudly accepted the derogatory label of goons, adopting the term as an abbreviation for Guardians of the Oglala Nation.
The blustering Wilson answered to no one but the U.S. government, which, according to former FBI regional director Joseph Trimbach, felt compelled on occasion to restrain its client from acting out his bloody fantasy of crushing all resistance to his regime. The FBI was anything but a neutral party.
One of the victims of Wilson’s security apparatus was 15-year-old Sandra Wounded Foot, whose body was found in the summer of 1976, naked and bound to a barbed wire fence with two gunshot wounds to her head. Before she was killed, she was raped and apparently tortured.
Her assailant was Paul Duane Herman, a Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officer. Herman was charged with manslaughter and served less than four years of a 10-year federal sentence.
But most of the deaths of AIM activists and supporters were never fully investigated by the FBI and remain unsolved to this day.
Pedro Bissonnette was among the most prominent victims. Bissonnette was a leader of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, which had invited AIM to the reservation to defend the Oglala from the abuses and treachery of the Wilson regime.
There is no mystery about the cause of Bissonette’s 1973 death; he was killed by a shotgun blast to the chest fired by a BIA officer who stopped him on a fugitive warrant for his role in the Wounded Knee occupation.
While there is considerable reason to doubt that Bissonette was armed, as claimed by the BIA, a grand jury declined to indict officer Joe Clifford on civil rights charges.
Even more disturbing is the case of Jancita Eagle Deer and her aunt Delphine Crow Dog, also the sister of a leading Oglala spiritual leader of AIM, Leonard Crow Dog.
As a 15-year-old student at an Indian boarding school on the Rosebud reservation, Eagle Deer had reported that she was raped by then-tribal attorney William Janklow. Although a BIA investigator had recommended Janklow’s prosecution, the FBI failed to act on the charge.
Seven years later, in September of 1974, when Janklow was serving as an assistant attorney general for South Dakota, AIM activist Dennis Banks and his assistant Douglass Durham, who turned out to be an FBI informant, tracked down Eagle Deer to testify against Janklow in Rosebud tribal court.
Although the tribal court lacked criminal jurisdiction over Janklow as a non-Indian under the racist dictates of federal Indian law, the court upheld the validity of the charges by disbarring Janklow from the reservation court.
On Nov. 16, 1974, Eagle Deer’s aunt was beaten unconscious by BIA police and left to die in a field.
Less than six months later, Eagle Deer herself, last seen by AIM members in the company of Durham as he fled from the emerging revelation that he was an FBI informant, was killed by a car she had apparently tried to flag down. Eagle Deer was reportedly in a semiconscious state, possibly from a severe beating. Neither Eagle Deer’s death, nor that of Crow Dog, was investigated by the FBI.
Janklow, who went on to be elected attorney general and then governor of South Dakota as an inveterate Indian fighter, sued noted author Peter Matthiessen for airing the allegations against him in what remains the definitive account of the period in his book, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.”
While Janklow failed to win a single judgment in his favor in state or federal court, his lawsuit, along with a separate suit by FBI agent David Price, blocked publication of the book for nine years and cost the publisher more than $2 million in legal fees.
Toward the end of President Clinton’s second term, the FBI sought to clear its name of inaction on the 64 suspicious Pine Ridge deaths claimed by AIM supporters.
The agency produced a report on the deaths that, if anything, accentuates the need for a comprehensive, independent investigation of the cases and of the role of the FBI and BIA in the reservation violence.
By the FBI’s own accounting, at least 17 of the deaths remain unsolved or uninvestigated.
There were five murder convictions, 13 manslaughter convictions, three acquittals, and 15 cases in which there was (allegedly) insufficient evidence of foul play or of the suspects’ culpability. In a number of the latter cases, in particular, the findings raise questions on their face.
For instance, 81-year-old Hilda Good Buffalo was found dead in her home from carbon monoxide poisoning from a fire, with a stab wound to her neck. A federal grand jury found the crime “nonfelonious,” returning no indictment.
Several of the deaths were attributed to exposure, although some of the subjects were reportedly beaten, a finding which may be technically accurate but far from satisfactory.
The FBI’s report on the Pine Ridge murders of the 1970s was part of an ultimately successful campaign by past and present FBI agents to prevent Clinton from issuing a pardon of Leonard Peltier.
Peltier was an AIM activist from the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota convicted of first-degree murder for the death of two FBI agents after a shootout with AIM members on Pine Ridge in 1975.
AIM member Joe Stuntz was also killed in the June 26, 1975 gunfight.
Peltier, one of four Natives charged in the case, escaped to Canada on the basis of what proved to be a well-founded suspicion that he would not receive a fair trial.
After two of his codefendants, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, were acquitted in 1976 on grounds of self-defense, the government dropped charges against the fourth defendant, Eagle, “so that the full prosecutive weight of the Federal Government could be directed against Leonard Peltier,” according to an FBI memo of Aug. 9, 1976.
Peltier was extradited from Canada based on testimony, subsequently retracted, by an allegedly mentally unstable woman, Myrtle Poor Bear. Poor Bear initially claimed not to have been present during the shootout, but she subsequently claimed to have been Peltier’s girlfriend and to have witnessed him shoot the agents at close range.
Like several other actual and potential witnesses, Poor Bear later asserted that she had been threatened by FBI investigators. At the last minute, Poor Bear was withdrawn as a government witness in the Robideau-Butler trial, lending credence to claims that the government knew her testimony was false from the start.
For unexplained reasons, federal judge Alfred Nichol, who had dismissed charges against AIM leaders in the 1974 Wounded Knee trial, withdrew from the Peltier case and it was reassigned to Judge Paul Benson.
Benson, a former attorney general of North Dakota, transferred the case from Sioux Falls to Fargo. Defense attorneys in the case have asserted that the government had maneuvered to find a more sympathetic judge and that the Fargo venue was selected due to its reputation for anti-Indian prejudice.
Benson quickly showed his partiality by forbidding any discussion of the false evidence used to secure Peltier’s extradition, of the acquittal of Peltier’s codefendants, of FBI efforts to neutralize AIM through harassment and intimidation, or of the rampant violence on Pine Ridge that would have at least provided a context for the 1975 shootout.
Unlike his codefendants, Peltier would not be allowed to present an argument based on self-defense.
In a climate of fear and intimidation, the all-white jury convicted Peltier, and Benson sentenced him to two consecutive life terms in prison.
I contacted two jurors from the Peltier trial, but neither would discuss the case. One said she had never talked about the trial with anyone for the last 31 years, admitting that she was afraid to do so.
Another juror refused rather brusquely to discuss the case, which she viewed as “water under the bridge.” The latter hung up on me when I asked if she ever had any doubts about the verdict.
Peltier’s conviction was controversial from the start, attracting support for his defense effort from individuals and groups around the world.
But his defense effort gained real momentum after his Freedom of Information request revealed in 1981 that the government had suppressed an Oct. 2, 1975 teletype stating in part that Peltier’s rifle “contains different firing pin than that in rifle used at resmurs (reservation murders) scene.”
Religious leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Desmond Tutu, Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Dalai Lama, and 8 Episcopal Bishops (including the bishops of North and South Dakota) joined 55 members of Congress, 26 members of the Canadian parliament, Amnesty International and many others in calling for a new trial for Leonard Peltier.
By 1985 federal prosecutor Lynn Crooks was conceding that the government did not know who fired the close-range shots that claimed the lives of agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams.
But there was to be no new trial.
While finding evidence of misconduct on the part of the government, the appeals court said it was insufficient to overturn Judge Benson’s ruling sustaining the guilty verdict.
“We recognize that there is evidence in this record of improper conduct on the part of some FBI agents, but we are reluctant to impute even further improprieties to them,” the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote.
The judge who wrote the opinion, Gerald Heaney, later expressed regret for a decision he said was required by Supreme Court precedent.
In calling for Peltier’s release as a gesture of reconciliation with Native peoples, Heaney admitted the “possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistences casting strong doubts upon the government’s case.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has nevertheless refused to hear the case.
Today, Leonard Peltier is a 64-year-old great-grandfather who has spent more than half his life in a federal cell.
He probably could have been paroled long ago if he had confessed to the crime, a gesture that would not only exonerate the government but also be perceived as the psychological conquest of a man who is a hero in the Native community, a symbol of Native resistance and American oppression.
As Peltier wrote recently to his attorney, “A full admission of guilt would not only discredit me, but the whole Native American struggle across this continent would be compromised in a sense, because we are of the same race and share the same struggles in our quest for true sovereignty and freedom. This is simply not acceptable to me or my associates.”