As Barack Obama’s days in the White House mercifully come to a close, the pressure on Obama builds to free Leonard Peltier from prison.
“At 71,” writes The Nation, “the Native American activist who was convicted – many believe wrongly – of the murder of two FBI agents in 1975, has served 41 years in prison.”
Of course, “many believe wrongly.” Almost everyone the left deems an “activist” has been convicted “wrongly.” A quick review of the case, however, will show that the only “wrongly” that transpired that day in 1975 was what Peltier did to the FBI agents.
“The Peltier case, like that of Sacco and Vanzetti, had historic reverberations,” wrote noted author Peter Matthiessen in his seemingly definitive 1983 book, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.”
Out of modesty perhaps, Matthiessen does not mention that it was largely his work that made the case reverberate. By investing his considerable reputation in Peltier, Matthiessen rescued him from obscurity and elevated his plight to the level of international cause célèbre.
With the exception of its climax, there is little dispute as to the nature of Matthiessen’s 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, who had bounced around the “red ghettos” of the northwest before linking up with AIM. In late 1972, his path detoured to Milwaukee. 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 ended after 71 days, but the guerrilla warfare between the two Indian factions went 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, shot them both at point blank range and then 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.
The verdict meant no more to Matthiessen, then struggling with his identity as a privileged white man, than the Sacco and Vanzetti jury’s did to liberals 50 years prior.
After all, these jurors were ordinary white people from North Dakota, as ignorant and as excitable as those in 1921 Massachusetts or, for that matter, those in 2012 in Sanford, Florida.
Matthiessen crudely stereotyped them as “very conservative rural jurors – mostly Lutherans of Scandinavian ancestry, with long faces and a long ruminative memory of 19-century massacres in Minnesota.”
In the book’s 600 pages, Matthiessen added little that the jury might not have known. In the realm of evidence, said Scott Anderson in an influential 1994 article in Outside magazine, Matthiessen showed “a casualness toward documentation that bordered on the cavalier.”
The result was a classic leftist TODDI – the other dude did it – defense. Yes, Matthiessen admitted, 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 wrote, “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.”
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. In 1991, Robert Redford produced a sympathetic documentary. CBS’ “60 Minutes” rushed to Peltier’s defense. To round out the multimedia agitprop, rocker and “Sopranos” co-star Steven Van Zandt contributed the inevitable pop anthem.
Real Native Americans were less enthused than the wannabes in Hollywood. In a February 2002 edition of News From Indian Country, Paul DeMain wrote, “After many years of supporting and advocating clemency for Leonard Peltier, 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 27 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.”
Today we call that charade “fake news.”
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