Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Leonard Peltier - Innocent?

Over the years of talking to people about almost everything, I have come to note that very often people do not look into their own claims they make. Many times these claims that remain unfounded shape and guide how they think about the world around them. Talking with one such gal has led to many interesting research topics in a very short time. Leonard Peltier came up. Mind you, I am somewhat familiar with this case, but only through popular movies and growing up in the hippie era of the 70’s. At any rate, outside of Jack Cashill’s book, Hoodwinked: How Intellectual hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture. In fact, the entire portion from his book can be found in an article entitled, “Don’t Free Leonard Peltier,” of which I will quote a portion from later.

I was told he is completely innocent by this person… is this true though? The evidence says no. Let us start this good time with some Wikipedia:

Wikipedia – News from Indian Country

More recently, News From Indian Country has broken stories related to the investigation of murders during the 1970s at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, including those of American Indian Movement activist Anna Mae Aquash, whose maiden and legal name at the time of her death was Annie Mae Pictou, FBI Special Agents Ronald A. Williams and Jack Coler, and Black civil rights worker Perry Ray Robinson. In 2002, The Native American Journalists Association Board of Directors recognized DeMain for reporting on imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier and the murder of Pictou-Aquash. DeMain was awarded the Wassaja Award, which salutes courage shown by journalists covering Indian country.

DeMain was also honored with the Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism by the University of Oregon, for News From Indian Country Editorials indicating a withdraw of his previous support of clemency for Leonard Peltier, soon after a former AIM member, Ka-Mook Nichols admitted to DeMain that she had witnessed Peltier bragging about shooting the FBI agents. DeMain and News From Indian Country were sued by Peltier in an attempt to expose Nichols (Used in 2002 as one of three confidential sources of information to NFIC) prior to her public testimony during the trial of Arlo Looking Cloud in 2004. The lawsuit against News From Indian Country was dropped shortly after Looking Cloud's trial.

… Columnists for NFIC range from Mohawk author Doug George-Kanentiio from Akwesasne, New York to the award winning Canadian writer, Richard Wagamese, Ojibwe now residing in Kamloops, British Columbia.

One major supporter, upon further investigation finally concluded that there was no way someone else shot and killed these two FBI agents other than Peltier and his accomplice. Let’s get a little history on this case. What exactly went down during this killing? (Leonard Peltier to the right)

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.


How could these two cover up the fact that they killed two people, fabricate a story. The only problem was that this fabrication came many years later and it involved a red pickup truck that was never mentioned in any court proceedings prior top this new information. Peltier had an author in his corner Peter Matthiessen who wrote the story about the Peltier case entitled In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Matthiessen has changed directly refuted some of his own arguments in this book in regards to later revelations and positions he has taken, as we will see herein with a 60-Minutes special that was a “Free Peltier” campaign, with no real journalistic inquiry:

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.”


(Matthiessen to the left) As the story of what happened that day got more convoluted and others came forward to testify that these were fabrications, one long time supporter also came out and publicly withdrew his belief that Peltier was innocent:

“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.


Why would someone believe so adamantly that this person is innocent? Two words, Higher-Education. Much like Rigoberta Menchu and other “Liberal Myths,” many young people yearn to have a cause and so they latch onto myths passed around their sub-culture. This “group-think” (for lack of a better concept) rarely gets tested outside the group itself. Until me, that is.