On a blistering June morning in 1975, during a daylong battle between native Indians and law enforcement officials on the Pine Ridge reserve near Wounded Knee in South Dakota, an assailant stumbled upon two stranded agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and shot each of them in the head. The officers died instantly, but their violent demise set into motion a complex series of events that continues to raise questions about the plight of the American Indian, bias within the U.S. judicial system and the role played by Canadian authorities in the imprisonment of a man who is believed by many prominent individuals and human-rights organizations to be innocent.
Now, after winning two libel suits that cost his publisher more than $2 million—the defence was one of the longest and most expensive in publishing history—American author Peter Matthiessen has re-released his controversial 1983 book about the event, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (Viking, 645 pages, $35).
Fuelled by an open rage at
what he describes as “400
years of betrayals and excuses” by North American courts and politicians in their treatment of Indians, Matthiessen’s hard-hitting and unabashedly one-sided tale appears in bookstores one year after the standoff began between police and Mohawk Warriors at Oka, Que. And Matthiessen’s courtroom victories may represent the beginning of a reversal of the fortunes of American Indian leader Leonard Peltier, the dogged hero of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. In 1977, a North Dakota court sentenced Peltier, now 46, to two consecutive life terms for the shooting deaths of FBI special agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams on that summer day 16 years ago. Since the verdict, Peltier has unsuccessfully appealed his case twice in U.S. courts. And in 1989, he even took his case to the Supreme Court of Canada, where Toronto lawyers Clayton Ruby, Frank Addario and Dianne Martin argued that, after Peltier’s capture in western Alberta in 1976, the FBI had falsified evidence in its successful efforts to extradite him. The high court ac-
knowledged the truth of that allegation—but declined to grant the request for an appeal of Peltier’s extradition. But now, in addition to Matthiessen’s legal victory and the publication of his book, Peltier’s supporters have other reasons to hope that the imprisoned activist’s controversial case will
receive renewed attention. Director Oliver Stone is in the early stages of producing a feature-length film about the case. And Robert Redford has set a release date of early next year for his production company’s just-completed documentary, directed by Michael Apt-
ed (Coal Miner’s Daughter) and tentatively called Peltier. That film will include appearances by several of the activist’s most vocal supporters, including Canadian Liberal MP Warren Allmand, who in May introduced his fifth private member’s bill into Parliament seeking to annul the extradition proceedings and return Peltier to Canada. Meanwhile, a North Dakota court is scheduled to convene on July 29 for an evidentiary hearing at which Peltier’s U.S. lawyers will
call on witnesses to introduce new evidence of wrongdoing in the government’s handling of the Pine Ridge investigation and Peltier’s 1977 trial in Fargo, N.D. Among those expected to testify is Judge Paul Benson, who presided over the earlier trial. Said Frank Dreaver, cofounder of the Leonard Peltier Defence Committee (Canada), a lobby group based in Scarborough, Ont., and one of several such committees in North America and Europe: “Finally, we are seeing signs of hope.” The history of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse rivals that of the story it tells. In 1983, Viking stopped the presses after former South Dakota governor William Janklow and FBI special agent David Price launched their lawsuits. By then, about 30,000 first-edition copies of the book— which now fetch up to $250 apiece—had made it into circulation. The lawsuits against Matthiessen and Viking sought a total of $55
million in damages for libel. Janklow, who was the attorney general of South Dakota at the time of Peltier’s trial, claimed that the book had portrayed him as “morally decadent.” Price said that it painted him as a “corrupt and vicious” individual. A South Dakota judge dis-
missed Janklow’s suit, calling Matthiessen’s account “fair and balanced.” In the Price case, a Minnesota Federal Court judge conceded that the book was “an entirely one-sided view of people and events.” Still, the judge dismissed the libel case, defending Matthiessen’s right to state his opinion and praising Viking’s determination to undertake the publication of such “difficult but important works.” Matthiessen, whose most recent book, Killing Mr. Watson, was a North American best-seller in 1990, is best known for his evocative chronicles of nature and exploration, including The Snow Leopard (1978), an account of a trek that he made through the Himalayas in the mid1970s that won a U.S. National Book Award. The title of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse refers to a 19th-century Indian leader who steadfastly refused to cede Indian territory to white settlers. The book combines a clearly heartfelt lament for a broken people with an exhaustively documented account of a dark chapter in the history of the Pine Ridge Indians. And the new edition includes a bizarre epilogue: Matthiessen describes a meeting in early 1990 with a masked man who claimed to have committed the Pine Ridge murders—but who refuses to come forth publicly with his confession.
In the book’s introduction, Matthiessen writes that he became familiar with the Peltier case in 1979 while interviewing the leader of a band of California Indians about the construction of a fuel terminal on their sacred grounds. Although sympathetic to many native causes, Matthiessen writes that he was initially skeptical about the American Indian Movement, which in 1973 had led a 71-day siege of Wounded Knee in an attempt to publicize Indian land claims. Before his imprisonment, Peltier had been a full-time AIM activist, and several of the group’s members were convinced that he had been unfairly tried.
As Matthiessen began to examine the long history of the government’s treatment of native Americans and the facts of the Peltier case, he says, he became convinced that Peltier had been framed by the FBI and that the activist’s imprisonment could be understood only in the context of “underlying issues of history, racism, and economics” in America. In broad strokes, Matthiessen sets the scene for the Peltier case with an examination of a century of U.S. government dealings with American Indians.
From the notorious 1890 army massacre of 200 Indians at Wounded Knee, part of the merciless drive to settle the West, to the uranium rush of corporate America into the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming in recent years, Matthiessen’s is a provocative, relentlessly cheerless tale. Borrowing from army records, congressional transcripts and the oral and written records of the Indians themselves, he argues that America has rarely swerved from the stated intentions of thenCommissioner of Indian Affairs Francis Walker, who spoke in 1872 of the need to reduce “the wild beasts to the condition of supplicants for charity.”
Especially disturbing is Matthiessen’s examination of the more recent activities of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. With the armed support of the FBI, Matthiessen contends, the BIA bankrolled violently anti-AIM leader Richard Wilson, chief of the Pine Ridge reserve. He points out that at the time of the shootout, Wilson’s administration was receiving $27 million a year in direct government funding, despite the fact that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had declared Wilson’s 1974 election
over AIM activist Russell Means invalid. In 1975, Matthiessen claims, the reserve had the highest crime rate anywhere in the United States, with dozens of AIM activists and their supporters being constantly harassed—and often shot. The situation was, he writes, “a feudal nightmare.”
It was into that tense atmosphere that FBI
agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams drove on June 26, 1975, ostensibly seeking to charge a young Indian man with the theft of a pair of cowboy boots. Somehow—the facts remain unclear even in official BIA and FBI records of the case—shooting erupted. A heavily armed BIA SWAT team was on manoeuvres nearby, and within hours hundreds of officers had surrounded the area. Still, a small group of AIM activists and sympathizers, including Peltier, managed to make their way into the hills. Although his comrades were soon captured, Peltier fled as far as Hinton, Alta., 280 km west of Edmonton, where he was caught by the RCMP the following February.
Although rivetting, Matthiessen’s account of Peltier’s experiences at the hands of the Canadian and U.S. legal systems at times takes on the air of a conspiracy theory. In an angry attack on Peltier’s Canadian captors, the author writes that they shackled the captive’s hands and feet whenever he left his Vancouver cell—treatment that Amnesty International condemned as
“unjustifiable”—and that all observers at his trial were spread-eagled and frisked. The reason, according to Matthiessen: there was an intentionally “lurid atmosphere being whipped up to expedite [Peltier’s] extradition.” Matthiessen attributes that hysteria to a plan by Ottawa to quell other, unrelated native uprisings across Canada—a charge that may well be valid, but that he fails to fully substantiate.
Turning to Peltier’s Fargo trial, Matthiessen draws on several thousand pages of police and court records to paint a devastating allegation of treachery and injustice. Virtually all the evidence that could have supported Peltier’s case was ruled categorically inadmissible by Judge Benson, who made his disgust for Peltier and his supporters clear throughout the trial, the author says. But in his anger at Peltier’s treatment in Fargo, Matthiessen sometimes makes some questionable assessments. Writing of the jury members who found Peltier guilty, Matthiessen describes them as “very conservative, rural jurors—mostly Lutherans of Scandinavian ancestry”—as if judging them by their race is any more acceptable than judging Peltier by his.
Despite those flaws, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is a captivating account of an unusual and disturbing case. “It is,” as Scarborough’s Dreaver describes it, “a piece of a larger, more complex puzzle that has yet to be figured out.” Like the closing arguments of a defence lawyer utterly convinced of his client’s innocence, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is argumentative and brazenly partisan—but it is also thought-provoking, spirited and compelling.
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