Don't free Leonard Peltier
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© Jack Cashill
The media have been quick to report the motive behind Hollywood mogul David Geffen’s dissing of Hillary Clinton, namely his pique at President Clinton’s failure to pardon jailed Indian activist Leonard Peltier.
What they have not reported—ever--is why liberal icon Peltier remains in jail. Indeed, Clinton’s failure to pardon Peltier stands as one of the more honorable moments in his dubious career. A little background is in order.
“There is nothing in this message that can make you happy,” so wrote Paul DeMain, editor of News From Indian Country (NFIC) to his faithful readers in February 2002.
He was preparing them for his and his staff’s final conclusions about the case of Peltier, still in prison after twenty-five long years.
DeMain expressed his regrets to a handful of people by name. One was Peter Matthiessen. A prolific author and winner of the National Book Award, Matthiessen had everything the literary establishment could offer including a home on Long island, lots of frequent flyer miles, and a contempt for the culture that spawned him.
In 1983, that contempt took the shape of a book called InThe Spirit of Crazy Horse, which details the arrest and conviction of Peltier for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents.
“To a remarkable degree,” attests Scott Anderson in a breakthrough 1994 article in the influential Outside magazine, “Matthiessen’s version has been widely accepted as the definitive account, as well as the starting point for most of those who have turned their attention to the Peltier story.”
With the exception of its climax, there is little dispute as to the nature of that story. In 1975 and in the years preceding it, the Pine Ridge Reservation in the southwestern part of South Dakota witnessed a good deal of unusual mayhem. Taking their cultural cues from the black nationalists then in vogue, activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM) had turned militant and were testing that newly found militancy in Pine Ridge.
The dispute attracted Leonard Peltier. Born in 1944 on a Chippewa Sioux reservation, Peltier had bounced around the “red ghettos” of the northwest in a variety of odd jobs before his path detoured to Milwaukee in 1972. There he got into an altercation with two policemen and was credibly accused of attempted murder. Peltier jumped bail in April 1973 and headed for Pine Ridge.
When Peltier arrived, AIM was locked in a veritable civil war with the reservation’s leadership. AIM forces had seized the iconic village of Wounded Knee and were demanding the ouster of Pine Ridge tribal president Dick Wilson. The siege of Wounded Knee by federal and state authorities lasted seventy-one days, and Peltier left shortly after its inconclusive ending.
Although the siege was over, the guerilla warfare between the two Indian factions went on and on. Peltier returned in 1975 when AIM leaders put out a call for “warriors” allegedly to defend their people against the rival Indian faction and the FBI. Accompanying Peltier were his ex-con cousin Bob Robideau and Robideau’s friend, Dino Butler. The three set up camp in an enclave they called “ Tent City.” It did not take long for trouble to find them.
On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents in separate cars, Jack Coler and Ron Williams, were investigating a pair of politically motivated crimes on the reservation, one a murder. They were following at a distance a vehicle they thought was owned by a suspect named Jimmy Eagle, when it pulled off a lonely country road and stopped.
“They're getting out of the vehicle,” FBI agent Williams cautioned over the radio. A moment later, Williams's voice became urgent: “It looks like these guys are going to shoot at us!” And they did just that. The two FBI cars took some 125 hits from high-powered rifles at a distance of roughly 250 yards. The agents, armed only with service revolvers, fired five futile shots in return. Both were quickly hit and wounded.
As they lay helpless behind their cars, one or more of the gunmen approached. In a vain attempt to forestall the inevitable, agent Williams raised his hand to the barrel of an AR-15 now less than two feet from his face.
Indifferent to his plea, the gunman let it rip. The shot blew off Williams’s fingers before lodging in his face, killing him instantly. The gunman then put the semiconscious Coler out of his misery with shots to the head and throat and fled the scene. Nearly two years later, in March 1977, Peltier was convicted of the double homicide in a federal court in Fargo, North Dakota. At the time, almost no one noticed.
It was not until 1979, in a California sweat lodge ceremony, that the culturally adrift Matthiesen first heard the radical take on the Leonard Peltier case.
“At first I resisted the police-state implications in this idea,” claims Matthiessen, but his identity issues seem to have overwhelmed his good judgment.
At the time, Matthiessen was not at all comfortable in his own skin, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse shows it. In the words of one sympathetic critic, the book reflects a new “multicultural spiritual sensibility.”
The zero-sum nature of this sensibility is best expressed by Peltier’s accomplice, Dino Butler: “You Christians,” says Butler, “you are a lost people with no identity to this land, the only God you have is your technology which will destroy you because of the greed it demands.”
Matthiessen uses Butler to voice his own elegy on a doomed culture. He marries the multicultural narrative to that of radical naturalism and identifies the white American as the villain in both.
Those white Americans included the North Dakota jurors. Matthiessen crudely stereotypes them as “very conservative rural jurors—mostly Lutherans of Scandinavian ancestry, with long faces and a long ruminative memory of nineteenth-century massacres in Minnesota.” The Sioux uprising in a neighboring state 115 years earlier had apparently scarred the jurors and left them “ignorant about Indians, or prejudiced, or both.”
That Butler and Robideau, Peltier’s accomplices, had been acquitted by an all white jury in a separate trial some months earlier in Iowa, which also borders Minnesota, bought no grace for Matthiessen’s benighted white man.
In the book’s six hundred pages, Matthiessen adds little that the jury might not have known. In the realm of evidence, said Scott Anderson in his Outside piece, Matthiessen showed “a casualness toward documentation that bordered on the cavalier.”
The result is a TODDI (the other dude did it) defense that makes Mumia Abu Jamal’s look substantial. Yes, Matthiessen admits, Peltier did fire at the agents from a distance, and yes, he and his accomplices did take the dead men’s guns after the massacre. But in the brief moments in between, an unknown “red pickup truck” pulled up to where the agents lay and administered the fatal coup de grace. The identity of the killers scarcely mattered in any case.
“All the Indians who were there that day were warriors,” Matthiessen writes, “and the nameless figures in the pickup truck were no more guilty than [Peltier] and Dino and Leonard, because no Indian that day was guilty.” This was the Indian perspective on that fateful day and “increasingly” his own.
Viking released Matthiessen’s book to great, provocative fanfare in March 1983. The press release said it all: “This chilling, controversial book makes clear that Leonard Peltier is only one of the victims in the ruthless quest for land, minerals, and money that the government and industry have pursued at the expense of the Indians for the last 150 years.”
Although Viking had to soon pull the book for several years because of some well deserved libel suits, the genie was out of the bottle. The cultural establishment could not resist a cause so perfectly progressive in so many ways, no matter how dubious the evidence for Peltier’s innocence.
Cries for Peltier’s release came from all over the world, not just from the usual suspects like the French Comité de Solidarité avec les Indiens des Amériques, but from a former archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
Hollywoood, of course, was not far behind. In 1991, Robert Redford and Michael Apted produced a sympathetic documentary, Incident at Oglala, and Apted followed up a year later with a fictionalized feature film, Thunderheart.
To round out the multimedia agitprop, rocker and Sopranos co-star Steven Van Zandt contributed the inevitable pop anthem, Leonard Peltier: “And what would you do?/
As you stare into the face of/The genocide of your people/
Put yourself in the place of/Leonard Peltier/ Where is the justice for Leonard Peltier?”
In prison, Peltier wrote his obligatory memoirs, which were published in 1999 by St. Martin’s Press as Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance. The book quickly found its way into the multicultural curricula on campuses across America.
The newly talented Peltier took up painting as well, his canvasses selling for as much as five thousand dollars apiece to Hollywood worthies like Peter Coyote, Jane Fonda, Val Kilmer, and Oliver Stone. Stone, not surprisingly, had optioned film rights to the Matthiessen book.
Stone, in fact, would play an important walk-on role as the case morphed from tragedy to burlesque with the emergence of a certain “Mr. X” As Matthiessen tells it, he was meeting in February 1990 with Peltier’s cousin Bob Robideau when the hooded and “faceless” Mr. X slipped quietly into the room. Disturbed by Peltier’s thirteen needless years in prison, Mr. X had volunteered to tell his story.
According to Mr. X, he and a nameless partner were delivering a red pickup truck full of dynamite to Peltier on that fateful June day in 1975 when they came across the two FBI agents. The agents allegedly fired at them, and Mr. X fired a shot over their heads to warn them off, but they persisted.
When the other Indians from Peltier’s tent city weighed in with covering fire, Mr. X drove his pickup behind the camp to unload the explosives. As the gunfire died down, Mr. X drove back to the seriously wounded agents. In the retelling, both were alert and alive.
One allegedly tried to fire his revolver, and Mr. X blew them both away, shooting literally from the hip. “It was self-defense then,” Matthiessen interjects. “There was no element of anger?” “I'm absolutely sure it was self-defense,” Mr. X replies.
In August of 1990, Matthiessen brought in Stone to shoot a second interview. Matthiesen provided a tape of that interview to Robert Redford for his documentary and to 60 Minutes, which broadcast it in 1991.
“The death of those agents was brought about by their wrongful behavior, not mine,” Mr. X told the twenty-six million people watching the 60 Minutes segment. “I did not choose to take their lives. I only chose to save my own.”
60 Minutes reporter Steve Kroft all but vouched for the man’s authenticity. “The man behind the mask seems intimate with every detail of the shoot-out,” he told his viewers. What he did not tell them is that he could have gotten those details reading the Matthiessen book. Nor did he tell them that 60 Minutes had not shot the videotape they had just seen.
The 60 Minutes segment likely represented the high water mark of the “Free Peltier” campaign. It energized a wide segment of the public, but it also introduced new facts that were capable of being disputed. Scott Anderson, for one, pointed out the “patent absurdity” of the story.
Mr. X’s shoot-from-the-hip scenario failed to account for the severed fingers of agent Williams. Nor did the authorities find any of the boxes of dynamite that Mr. X allegedly unloaded. Nor did any of the three accused ever mention a red pickup at any of their trials.
By 1995, one of the three, Dino Butler, had grown so weary of the lethal internecine warfare among AIM members that he came forward with the truth. “Well, there is no Mr. X,” he admitted to a reporter from NFIC. “Those are all lies.” He traced the origin of the Mr. X story to an AIM meeting that he had attended in California, where the idea was floated and rejected.
Somehow, he claimed, the Mr. X scenario made its way to Stone and Matthiessen. “I lost a lot of respect for Peter Matthiessen as a writer and as a person I could trust,” he admitted, “because he didn't verify this, and it put me and my family in jeopardy. He never made any effort to contact me and ask if this was true.”
Scott Anderson had also begun to question Matthiessen’s judgment and integrity. In a January 1992 Esquire article, Matthiessen made a number of seeming revisions to the story. Most glaringly, he transposed the site of the killings from a humble ranch in Oglala to the historically symbolic Wounded Knee twenty miles away. Anderson was stupified.
“The Peltier story,” he concludes, “has so entered the realm of myth that apparently its architects no longer feel the need to adhere to the most rudimentary of facts.”
Although he had refused Anderson’s request for an interview, Matthiessen inferred that Anderson had called him a “liar” and fired back with a scathing rebuttal. The fury and detail of it chastise any reader who might have doubted Matthiessen. Yet even the rebuttal is suspect. The following example speaks to its disingenuousness. Writes Matthiessen:
“ Anderson begins with Peltier's ‘attempted murder’ of a Milwaukee police officer, a trumped-up charge on which Peltier was speedily acquitted when the cop’s own girlfriend testified that the whole episode had been a setup.”
Matthiessen’s rebuttal, however, is fully at odds with the account in his own book. In the book, the woman is a “former girlfriend,” a different breed altogether from “girlfriend.” And there is no trial or acquittal because Peltier, “seeing no reason to expect justice,” jumps bail, goes underground, and heads “west to the Dakotas.”
This is a critical distinction. The prosecution would argue that Peltier’s fear of arrest on the fugitive charge made him uniquely dangerous that day in Oglala. As to the Esquire “botch,” this Matthiessen writes off to a copyeditor’s misreading of his own “scribbled editing.”
The denial should have come to an end with Paul DeMain’s brave editorial in a February 2002 edition of News From Indian Country. DeMain was right. His news was not going to make anyone “happy.”
“After many years of supporting and advocating clemency for Leonard Peltier,” he writes, “the News From Indian Country editorial staff no longer believes Leonard Peltier is innocent of shooting the agents at close range as he has so often proclaimed.”
DeMain had invested twenty-seven years in the case. He had read every document there was to read and interviewed every witness there was to interview. He acknowledged that he and his colleagues would have come to this damning conclusion sooner were it not for the “lies, deceptions, smoke and mirrors. Part of a charade.”
That charade had begun with the nearly uncritical media acceptance of the American Indian Movement and continued with the celebrated martyrdom of Peltier. Tim Giago, an Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge and the publisher of Indian Country Today, blames the “eastern liberal press” for ginning up the AIM mania.
Although Giago is not at all off target, the press was just part of the problem. So was Matthiessen. To this day, in spite of the evidence, no major media outlet has dared to expose the Peltier hysteria. The charade continues.
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