On a muggy June morning in 1975, two FBI agents drove onto a stretch of Indian land in South Dakota, apparently in search of a young man who had stolen a pair of cowboy boots from a drinking buddy. By the end of the day, the two agents and one Indian had been shot dead. In the aftermath, the slayings had devastating consequences on the reservation, including several mysterious deaths. Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who has consistently maintained his innocence, was convicted of murdering both agents and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. In his startling book, Peter Matthiessen unravels the apparently senseless chain of events and places the episode in the broader context of the poisoned relationship between Indians and the U.S. government.
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse painstakingly dissects the events of that hot June day and its bitter consequences. Matthiessen openly believes that Peltier is innocent. But he insists that the more important issue “not only to Peltier but to all Indians (and all Americans) is that this man receive a fair trial in the U.S. courts.” Because the case against Peltier was largely circumstantial, Matthiessen suggests that the FBI put together a mammoth case against him by twisting some evidence, suppressing other facts, and threatening and bribing witnesses. The argument is bolstered by some of the bureau’s own documents, recently released under Freedom of Information legislation, including one FBI memo in which agents write about their attempt to “lock” Peltier into the evidence. The FBI’s work on the case, argues Matthiessen, is “a monument to bureaucratic zeal, but does not show that ‘Peltier shot the agents’; what it shows is how much effort was devoted to constructing a case in support of a preconceived idea of one man’s guilt.” That preconceived idea, Matthiessen contends, may well have sprung from the FBI’s desire to pin the blame on virtually any susceptible Indian activist.
Matthiessen clearly has a deep respect for Indian culture, with its prideful past and love of the land. He traces the history of the brave Lakota warriors who, under the leadership of Crazy Horse, inflicted a stunning defeat on the U.S. army in 1876. But the writer says that in the past century the U.S. government, through a series of actions in contravention of treaties, has reduced the once-proud natives to a state of impoverished dependence.
In the interest of shaking Indians out of that pathetic state, the activists formed the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the mid-1960s. But Matthiessen suggests that the resurgence of “the spirit of Crazy Horse” among Indians alarmed the U.S. government, which had traditionally encouraged Indians to be passive. Matthiessen captures well the sharp distinction between the “good,” docile Indian favored by the government and the fierce descendants of Crazy Horse who wanted their land returned. Even the huge payments in land settlements made in the 1960s to Indian tribes were anathema to these proud people who wanted land, not money. The chief beneficiaries of the costly lawsuits were often Washington law firms, not the Indians.
AIM had the effect of reviving the Crazy Horse spirit, just at a time when government and business were becoming increasingly aware that the vast stretches of land which the Indians wanted back were sitting on huge energy resources. Much of the government’s hostility toward AIM, Matthiessen writes, may have been because AIM had “placed itself directly in the path of the huge energy consortiums that were already moving quietly into the [Black] Hills.”
Matthiessen avoids drawing any firm conclusion that there was a conspiracy to frame Peltier because of his AIM activities. But he speculates that it may well be the case. Why else, he asks, did the FBI clearly ignore or play down other, much stronger, evidence against several more likely suspects? In laying out the details of what the FBI did and did not do, he has created a surprisingly gripping murder mystery. More important, if his suspicions are accurate, the account is a stinging indictment of U.S. authorities, not only for trying to frame a suspect but for attempting to stifle the spirit of Crazy Horse.
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