I learned of this book from one of its primary subjects: Leonard Peltier himself. The full title continues: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s War on the American Indian Movement.
While I’m nearly always sympathetic to Native American causes, I don’t swallow without question every cause put before me. I knew of Peltier, and of the killings on Pine Ridge, but few of the details. I’d generally assumed that justice had not been done, since Native Americans rarely get justice from the US legal system. This is especially so in states where anti-Indian bigotry is the social norm for whites. When the deck begins stacked against a group, I stop offering default faith in those who stack it. The burden of proof and honesty falls upon the stackers, and until they satisfy me, I assume that they will lie and cheat.
In this case, the legal system was the BIA-supported tribal police, the local law in South Dakota and other states, and the FBI. For me, that begins as oh-for-three in terms of fundamental trust.
A few years back, not much later in the year than this, I was sitting in the lobby waiting for an auto services company to put the studs on Deb’s car for the winter. At a nearby table sat a Native American man, older than me, wearing a shirt or jacket advocating freedom for Leonard Peltier. I nodded and complimented the shirt, a standard icebreaker for talking to strangers, and he invited me to sit down. While I do not remember our entire conversation, and definitely could not identify him now, we had a pleasant and informative talk. We talked about the dry sense of gallows humor often seen in Native-specific situations, such as when they seized Alcatraz on the grounds that its complete lack of resources and facilities made it the perfect Indian reservation. We spoke about Leonard, and the man expressed his firm conviction that Leonard Peltier had killed no one.
The killings in question occurred in 1976 on the Pine Ridge reservation, during a series of armed confrontations in which one Native and two FBI agents died. The latter were wounded in an exchange of gunfire, then executed. All police have visceral reactions to deaths of their own, which is understandable enough; the problem here is that there was and is no reliable proof of who killed the agents. Eventually four Native Americans were charged with the murders; three were indicted; two were acquitted. Having fled to Canada and been extradited, Peltier was the last to stand trial. One might reasonably suspect that, this being the last chance to make sure some Indian paid for the agents’ deaths, the government forces were taking no chances with a fair trial. In my opinion, based upon a review of the government witnesses’ credibility and much evidence suppression, no fair trial occurred.
It’s not that this proves Peltier innocent; it’s that it does not, to my satisfaction, prove his guilt. And if he were white, I do not believe he would have been indicted, much less convicted.
Leonard Peltier has been incarcerated ever since. He is 77, in poor health, and there is good reason to believe he is currently being denied medical care.
Until I studied the Rosenberg case some years back, I would have begun with more faith in (or at least, less distrust of) Federal agents’ and courts’ integrity. That case made it abundantly clear to me that when a case touches certain issues–a Red Scare, for example, or a Native American movement painted in public pronouncements with the potential for foreign subversion assistance–the government will cheat. In short, Julius was guilty enough (no real argument there), but Ethel’s indictment was flimsy. Julius had the option to plead out and inform on others to save his wife, whose indictment rested mainly on her brother’s suborned perjury, and the government expected him to accept. He maintained his innocence and refused to help the Federal agents bust others, so the government carried out its threat. The trial proceedings represent a craven failure of justice, with even defense counsel at great pains to distance themselves from any hint of being soft on the Red Menace. They shamed this country and its system of justice.
Based upon my conversation with my tablemate in the waiting lounge, I determined to look into the Peltier case. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m enough of a Kansas boy to have a good sense of bullshit when I smell it. My review satisfied me that Leonard had not received a fair trial, and that the case against him should have been rejected by jury nullification based upon the suppression of evidence and vindictive reactions to the agents’ deaths. I came to believe that this elderly man should have his conviction vacated; at the least, that he should receive executive clemency. I had thought that Il Douche might have pardoned him just to piss off the FBI, which he resented for not doing his bidding, but it did not happen. Biden won’t, unless it’s in the last days of his administration (by which time Leonard might no longer be with us). The Federal government has long memories, extensive files, and unchecked power. For half a century, a virtual secret police chief led the FBI, and the country got used to the idea that the Feds had dirt on everyone. I can see where that might intimidate even a sitting chief executive, though I don’t see where it absolves them.
Not so long ago, I was wondering what I could do that might mean something. Evidently Leonard is kept in solitary confinement, but can receive letters. If I were in solitary, I would want letters, so I wrote to him. My first mailing came back; the prison had rejected it for using an address label on the envelope. I repackaged it, handwrote my return address, and sent it again. (Those fuckers owe me a 55-cent stamp.) I did not expect to hear back, but I did, a handwritten two-page letter from Leonard himself. His writing and outlook were consistent with what I had come to know about him: a man perhaps willing to fight if provoked, otherwise peaceable, but who would never cease to struggle for Native rights. The tribes get bullied any time a corporation learns that it can make money by stealing their resources, or whenever they try to assert treaty rights.
Like Kathryn Janeway, I don’t like bullies. Many of my interactions with our judicial apparatus and its various arms have shown me that bully culture is at the heart of our national character, and that government’s tendency to bully represents the soul of the nation. It’s just what they do; what we do. It disgusts me, and I’ll call it what it is.
Leonard recommended I read this book, and I have. I find it persuasive, honest in its basic bias (I trust that more than I trust anyone calling him or herself objective), and well researched. Matthiessen hit some brick walls, but mostly on the governmental side. I believe that his Native sources were in the main truthful, with the caveat that they wouldn’t tell him anything that might get any of their own in trouble. I respect that. I wouldn’t either. Matthiessen eventually met someone, name not provided nor known to him, who accepted responsibility for the agents’ killings. The account reads credible, and the man was not Leonard Peltier.
The most telling aspect of the episode that led to Leonard’s show trial and railroading, to my mind, is the degree to which the American Indian Movement was portrayed as a domestic terror movement with backing from overseas Commies. If you believed the government, this might be the next Cuban- or Soviet-sponsored insurgency, and we should all be Very Afraid. In 1976, at 13 and very much indoctrinated in the toxic nationalism that has now consumed (and will ultimately ruin) my country, I might have bought that. Now I don’t. All my life, there have been demon words used to whip up hatred and fear against those we are ordered to rejected. I don’t take those orders well; I prefer to decide for myself who deserves those emotions of me. Native Americans insisting upon their rights, and resenting/resisting abrogation and violation of those rights, do not deserve my hostility. This country will never heal until we do them justice. I will not live to see it, but I hope later generations will. Maybe then we will cease to be Bully Nation.
I recommend Matthiessen’s book. I thank Leonard for recommending it to me.