The Martyrdom of Leonard Peltier
He became a rallying cry for centuries of oppression against his people, one of America's most potent political symbols. But now, 20 years after the murder of two FBI agents that put him in prison for life, he's more important as a legend than as a man, and the legend has begun to unravel.
In the shadow of the high western wall of Leavenworth Penitentiary, there is a large field surrounded by a ten-foot-high chain-link fence. Within this enclosure, five bison graze.
At one time this bluff over the Missouri River marked the edge of the western frontier, the beginning of a vast American prairie. Today, the prairie is planted in corn, the five bison are mere curiosities, and the bluff is home to the most famous prison in America.
By odd coincidence, Leavenworth's best-known inmate is also something of a reminder of the old plains, a man whose ancestors were long ago forced off this land. He is a 50-year-old Chippewa Sioux named Leonard Peltier, the most controversial and potent symbol of a violent civil-rights struggle waged in this country more than two decades ago. Serving consecutive life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents in the summer of 1975, Peltier has been behind bars for the past 19 years. If the U.S. Parole Commission has its way, he'll stay there for at least 14 more.
When he is led into the visitor's room in his prison khakis, Peltier hunches forward slightly, his broad shoulders rolling. He is a powerfully built man, and there is something in his loping gait, in the opaque gaze of his dark eyes, that lends him a vaguely predatory air. The impression doesn't last, however. In person, Peltier is genial, given to easy laughter, and the tough-guy aura is muted by the erosions of age: White hair streaks his ponytail and mustache, and a softness has settled about his middle. When he speaks, it is in the delicate, rounded accent of his native North Dakota and barely above a whisper.
“If you have to be in prison, it's really not that bad,” he says of Leavenworth. “I was at Marion [in Illinois] until 1985, and that was hell, a 23-hour lockdown. After Marion, Leavenworth is almost like getting parole.”
Peltier's days follow a drearily predictable course: wake up at 6:30 A.M., breakfast, then off to a 29-cents-an-hour janitorial job in the prison recreation center. After lunch, he spends part of the afternoon in the yard playing handball—”I'm pretty good for an old guy,” he laughs—or in the art room working on his oil paintings, which sell among Hollywood cognoscenti for as much as $5,000 a canvas.
Mean SpiritRead Peter Matthiessen's response to this article, published in Outside's October 1995 issue.
For more than two hours, Peltier patiently answers all the familiar questions about a story he has told countless times before—questions regarding his involvement with the American Indian Movement, the chain of events that led him to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that deadly summer of 1975, the trial that put him away for life, and the futile legal battle that his supporters have waged since. At the heart of this epic is his version of what happened in a now infamous pasture above White Clay Creek on the Jumping Bull property near the village of Oglala. Peltier tells his story in a dispassionate voice; perhaps, having lived with that day for 20 years, he can no longer put much emotion into it.
Toward the end of our conversation, I ask a question that, under the circumstances, borders on the cruel: “How would you spend your first day out?”
Peltier thinks for a moment. “I know it won't be the way I'd like,” he says. “I'll have to talk to my supporters and to the press and all that, but what I'd like is to just walk out, get in a car, and have someone drive me 30 miles out into the country. I'd like to get out and just walk, alone, be alone for a while to let it all sink in. And then, being a man with normal sexual urges…” He laughs. “Well, maybe I'll do that first, then take my walk.”
His smile fades, and he stares out a barred window.
“Then I'd go back to North Dakota. I'd see my family, see my kids. And then I'd eat a pheasant, a wild pheasant. I'd stuff it with wild rice…”
Peltier's face slowly changes, tightens into a pained grimace. It is the sort of pitiful pose that convicts everywhere are adept at striking, but this is different. For the longest time, he is simply oblivious to my presence.
“You have to understand,” he says finally. “I didn't kill those agents. I didn't order anyone to kill those agents. I'm an innocent man.” It's the third time he's said this to me, and each time he has stared directly into my eyes, unblinking, as if hoping through the force of his gaze to reach those who control his fate. Then he says it again: “I'm an innocent man.”
Just off the commercial strip of Iowa Street in Lawrence, Kansas, stands a row of stores largely hidden from view by a Food 4 Less supermarket. Taped to one door is a photocopied picture of Leonard Peltier; SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE INC. is emblazoned in black on the plate-glass window. This tiny two-room office, less than an hour's drive from Leavenworth, is the international headquarters of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.
The operation is run by Lisa Faruolo, a slight, dark-haired 28-year-old from New York. In Defense Committee literature she is also Leonard Peltier's fiancée, but there seems to be some divergence of opinion on that point.
“We'll just wait and see what happens when he gets out,” says Faruolo noncommittally. In 1991, Faruolo and a college friend, Michele Vignola, boarded a bus for the two-day trip to eastern Kansas. Their plan was to meet Peltier and perhaps help out the Defense Committee for a couple of months. They're still here.
“I'm not some silly college girl,” Vignola says, “and I'm not naive. But I know for an absolute fact that Leonard is innocent, that he was framed, and I don't know how I could just pack up and leave here until justice is done.”
To an outsider, it would seem that there is little to sustain these women: Money is always tight, and the legal setbacks come with depressing regularity. But perhaps the hardships are offset by a sense of being part of something larger than oneself, for the Leonard Peltier saga is played out before the world.
On the 20th anniversary of the gunfight that led to his imprisonment, Peltier remains at the center of one of the most enduring controversies in American justice: Did a vengeful Federal Bureau of Investigation, desperate to put someone behind bars for the murder of two of its agents, railroad an innocent man? A great many people think so. Moreover, in locking Peltier away for life, did the government orchestrate yet another miscarriage of justice in its checkered relationship with American Indians? Inevitably those who support Peltier have come to see his case as a litmus test in which one's opinion about Peltier becomes a measure of one's willingness to atone for the sins of the past.
As part of a more general exorcism of that past, many continue to question the alleged inconsistencies in the government's evidence against Peltier. Over the past 20 years, numerous high-profile lawyers have worked on his behalf, and his case has brought appeals from Amnesty International, Desmond Tutu, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, and more than 50 U.S. congressmen and senators. Dubbed “America's political prisoner” by leftist groups around the world, Peltier has been compared to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. He's even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
In turn, journalists continue their pilgrimage to Kansas in a steady stream, and Hollywood has helped make Peltier a household name. Oliver Stone is planning a movie based on him. Robert Redford and Michael Apted have made a sympathetic documentary, Incident at Oglala, and Apted has also directed a feature film, Thunderheart, inspired by his story.
Peltier will probably never win his freedom as long as what happened in that pasture at Jumping Bull remains shrouded in myth.
All of which raises a question: What is it about Peltier that so doggedly haunts our national consciousness and keeps attracting new supporters to his cause?
On one level, it's simple: Many people sincerely believe that Peltier is innocent. On another, he has come to personify one of the great lost causes of the seventies, the dramatic rise and fall of the American Indian Movement, a grassroots organization launched in the late sixties that sparked a resurgence of Indian pride on reservations and in cities throughout America. AIM, in the view of its supporters, carried the promise of a unified Indian nation, until it was brought down by the heavy-handed tactics of federal law enforcement officials, with Peltier a victim of this larger conspiracy. On this expanded stage, he assumes a much grander role: that of martyr in a complex passion play.
It's this image of a deeply wronged Peltier that also first attracted me to his story. But to truly understand what had happened to him, I felt it was necessary to go back, both to the events that led to his imprisonment and to the most famous and influential book about his case, Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. To a remarkable degree, Matthiessen's version has been widely accepted as the definitive account, as well as the starting point for most of those who have turned their attention to the Peltier story.
But as I reexamined that story—visiting Peltier and his supporters, interviewing his law enforcement foes, reviewing thousands of pages of trial transcripts and FBI documents, studying the Matthiessen book and the other works it inspired, and traveling back to the Pine Ridge Reservation—a very different Leonard Peltier began to emerge. Moreover, I discovered that some of the central tenets of the story are now starting to unravel. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the murders, at a time when the Defense Committee is beginning to feel increasingly optimistic about a possible commutation of Peltier's sentence, some of his old colleagues in the American Indian Movement have taken to attacking one another publicly, calling up old ghosts and striking at some of the key points on which the Peltier and AIM legends have been built.
Most damaging of all is the doubt cast on Mr. X, a disguised and unidentified man whom Matthiessen interviewed in 1990 and who claimed that it was he, not Peltier, who killed the FBI agents. When a videotape of that interview aired on 60 Minutes in 1991, it gave new impetus to the free-Peltier movement. But now Dino Butler, an AIM member and one of Peltier's fellow defendants, has leveled a startling charge against the veracity of both Matthiessen and Mr. X while criticizing those who, he feels, have separated Peltier from his Indian supporters.
“Leonard is taking direction from other people now,” Butler recently told Kim Caldwell of News from Indian Country, a national bimonthly newspaper based in Hayward, Wisconsin. “He's a desperate man…. Because he's insecure and isolated, separated from the people, it's easy for him to give in…. He listens to other people. People who are telling lies about him and about what really happened at Oglala.”
At the end of my reexamination of his case, I, too, have come to regard Peltier as something of a victim, if not of shadowy government conspirators, then at least of those who promulgate his martyrdom–and who may be prolonging his imprisonment as a result. One thing is fairly certain: Peltier will probably never win his freedom as long as what happened in that pasture at Jumping Bull remains shrouded in myth. And as long as Leonard Peltier continues to be more important as a symbol than as a man.
Pine Ridge Reservation, a beautiful, desolate parcel of earth nearly the size of Connecticut, is home to about 15,000 Oglala Sioux. It is a land hardened by both climate and history, a place of bitter winters and blanching summers, its most famous landmark a cemetery on a windswept hill where the bodies of 146 of the Sioux slaughtered in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 lie in a mass grave. Today, the chain-link fence encircling this burial pit is festooned with hundreds of funeral ribbons, and Oglala children tend two crude souvenir stands at the foot of the hill.
The small towns that dot this extraordinary land are an odd amalgam of tar-paper shacks alongside tidy subdivisions of federally built homes, of rusting automobile hulks and trash-strewn wasteland next to sleek new high schools, recreation centers, and post offices. While some reservations have prospered in recent years, the brutal realities of poverty remain at Pine Ridge: unemployment estimated at between 45 and 73 percent, endemic alcoholism, and an infant mortality rate that's among the nation's highest.
The dismal scene is especially poignant in light of the Sioux's history. So unyielding were they to white expansion in the West that the federal government finally made peace in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, ceding the western half of South Dakota to the Sioux in perpetuity.
Forever lasted seven years, until gold was discovered in the Black Hills and white prospectors flooded in, thus sparking another war between federal troops and the “hostiles.” Before it was over, General George Custer and his troops would be annihilated at Little Big Horn, Big Foot and his tribe would be massacred at Wounded Knee, and the Sioux Nation would be reduced to a few scattered reservations across the northern prairies. For Sioux warriors, this cruel history would never be forgotten, their humiliation given permanent reminder by the “white faces” carved into Mount Rushmore in the sacred Black Hills.
This lower pasture, where the FBI agents died 20 years ago, feels forgotten, a treeless stretch of meadow grass, the only sounds those of cicadas and the wind.
Given this legacy, it was not surprising that Pine Ridge became the crucible for the “new Indian war” of the seventies. In this struggle, Indian activists under the AIM banner clashed not only with state and federal governments, but with local tribal leaders and reservation bureaucrats, leading to an explosion of violence.
“It did not start out that way,” says Robert Grey Eagle, an Oglala Sioux originally from Pine Ridge. “I believe when AIM first began, everyone on the reservation was for AIM.”
Now general counsel to the Prairie Island Reservation in Minnesota—and still a supporter of AIM's ideals—Grey Eagle remembers the profound impact AIM had on Pine Ridge in the early seventies. “If nothing else, AIM restored a sense of pride and self-esteem to Indians. Here were people, primarily city Indians, who were coming back to the reservation and talking about recovering our heritage, returning to a more traditional way of life. I remember I was 17 when I first met [AIM leaders] Russell Means and Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks and saw how proud they were of being Indians. They were singing Indian songs, wearing traditional dress, trying to speak the Indian language—all things we had been prevented from doing—and I was very attracted to that.”
A more jaundiced view is offered by Tim Giago, another Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge and the publisher of Indian Country Today, the largest-circulation Indian newspaper in the country, based in Rapid City. “Yeah, the AIM city Indians brought a lot to the reservation,” Giago says, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “Like dope, like disrespect for law and order—and a lot of the young guys on Pine Ridge jumped on the bandwagon.”
In Giago's view, AIM's initial success was largely the result of having caught the attention of the “eastern liberal press.”
“They came off as very traditional,” Giago says, “but they knew very little about traditions. I remember that, for a long time there, Russell Means was going around with this beaded headband that he thought was the sign of a Sioux warrior; finally, one of the elders took him aside and told him only women wore headbands like that.”
Beyond such missteps, however, AIM quickly achieved something that had eluded American Indians for nearly a century: a sense of common purpose, of a greater Indian nation. Members of tribes throughout the United States and Canada joined, and many came to the hot zone of Pine Ridge. One of them was Leonard Peltier, a Chippewa Sioux who had been raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.
Peltier's résumé was fairly typical for an AIM member. Born in 1944, he dropped out of school at 14 and escaped the crushing poverty of Turtle Mountain for the brighter prospects of the West Coast. He spent the next decade scraping by in the “red ghettos” of Oakland, Portland, and Seattle, finding occasional work as a construction worker and mechanic before his political awakening in 1970. After participating in several AIM rallies and peaceful “actions” on the West Coast, he came to the attention of Dennis Banks and was taken on as a trusted lieutenant—not as a tactician or an orator, but as muscle.
When AIM organized the “Trail of Broken Treaties” march on Washington in November 1972, Peltier went along as a bodyguard for Bob Free, one of AIM's Northwest leaders, and was assigned to security detail when AIM seized and ransacked the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters. After arranging a deal with the Nixon administration—no prosecutions and safe passage from the capital—most of the AIM protesters set out for a showdown with the tribal authorities at Pine Ridge. Peltier, however, was not among them. Instead, he went to Milwaukee, where he had a confrontation with two off-duty police officers that would irrevocably change his life. The authorities argue that it is the forgotten key to what happened in the Jumping Bull pasture.
The precise details of the encounter at the Texas Restaurant in the early-morning hours of November 22, 1972, remain in dispute. Ron Hlavinka, then a Milwaukee police officer, claims that Peltier pointed a Beretta pistol at his stomach and twice tried to fire. Peltier claims he was set up. Wherever the truth lies, the episode ended with Peltier being arrested on charges of attempted murder.
It would be nearly two years before the Milwaukee police would run a ballistics check on Peltier's Beretta and discover that it had been inoperable, and five more years before Peltier would be acquitted on the attempted murder charge. But that verdict would come too late to help Peltier, for he made a fateful decision in the interim. Released on bail, he quietly slipped out of Milwaukee in the spring of 1973, ultimately becoming a federal fugitive with a felony warrant hanging over his head. It marked the beginning of a two-year odyssey that would eventually lead him to Pine Ridge and to the meadow above White Clay Creek.
From the town of Pine Ridge, Highway 18 turns northwest and follows White Clay Creek for the 15-mile run to the village of Oglala. Three miles before Oglala, a plowed field marks the beginning of the Jumping Bull property.
From the highway, Jumping Bull looks much as it did in 1975. Three small houses are visible a few hundred yards away, on the far side of the plowed field and scrub. Just below these homes is another stretch of level land, a concealed pasture of perhaps ten acres. This lower pasture, where the FBI agents died 20 years ago, feels forgotten, a treeless stretch of meadow grass, the only sounds those of cicadas and the wind.
“I was there that day,” Peltier says. “I've never denied that. But we were attacked, and we had a right to defend ourselves, and so I fired back. And that right there is where my life was ruined.”
After jumping bail in Milwaukee, Peltier returned to Pine Ridge to find a radically changed political landscape. In February 1973, AIM warriors had seized the village of Wounded Knee, setting off a 71-day siege by state and federal authorities. Among its demands during the siege, AIM sought to oust Pine Ridge tribal president Dick Wilson, who, it charged, ruled by corruption and terror. In the aftermath of “Wounded Knee II,” Wilson's armed supporters, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation—a poor choice of names, for the vigilantes were instantly stuck with the acronym GOON—went to battle against the AIM warriors, sparking the Pine Ridge “civil war.” By the time Peltier returned, the sides were locked in a deadly cycle of drive-by shootings and arson attacks.
Complicating the scene was a sudden influx of outsiders, for Wounded Knee II had catapulted AIM into the American consciousness. Pine Ridge was now a national law enforcement priority, the FBI office in nearby Rapid City doubling in size to 12 agents, while Indian militants and white wannabes flocked to South Dakota to take part in the renaissance of Indian activism. These outsiders added to the tensions on a reservation quickly sliding into anarchy.
As for Peltier, it wasn't long before he showed up on law enforcement radar. On October 21, 1973, two BIA policemen at Pine Ridge were monitoring the funeral of Pedro Bissonnette, a local AIM leader who had been shot to death by a BIA police officer, when their patrol car came under sniper fire. Unhurt, the officers got the license number of the car that sped away; it came back as registered to Peltier.
Leaving Pine Ridge shortly after the Bissonnette funeral, Peltier returned in 1975. “The [AIM-allied] tribal elders sent out an appeal for warriors to come to Pine Ridge,” he says, “because the GOONs were just taking over—killing people, terrorizing women and children—and the police and FBI were helping them do it. I went to defend my people.”
He was joined by his cousin, Bob Robideau, 29, recently released from prison on a burglary conviction and wanted in Oregon for a parole violation, and Darrelle “Dino” Butler, 33, a prison friend of Robideau. Peltier, in the meantime, had added to his own problems with the law, having jumped bail on an illegal weapons charge in Washington State. The three arrived just as the civil war on Pine Ridge was reaching its high-water mark. (By the third week of April 1975, Pine Ridge would register six murders and 67 assaults since the beginning of the year, a staggering toll in a population of about 10,000 at that time.) Peltier, Robideau, and Butler set up camp on the property of Ted Lame, an AIM supporter who owned a ranch just off Highway 18 between the towns of Pine Ridge and Oglala—roughly two miles from the Jumping Bull property.
A central tenet in the argument for Peltier's innocence is the claim that the FBI in Pine Ridge was zealously hunting him down in the spring of 1975 as part of the agency's “neutralization” campaign against AIM leaders. How else to explain how the two FBI agents stumbled into Peltier's path on the fateful day of June 26, or why the FBI so quickly fingered him as their killer?
In fact, the final collision may well have been set in motion by two unrelated events: one a case of mistaken identity, the other a murder that remains unsolved to this day. It's a murder the mythologizers don't like to talk about much.
In the early-morning hours of March 26, 1975, Jeannette Bissonnette, sister-in-law of the slain Pedro Bissonnette, was parked in an empty field with a friend when two snipers opened fire on her car. Hit in the back, she bled to death before she reached Pine Ridge Hospital.
Since Bissonnette had been an AIM supporter, many assumed she was murdered by Wilson's GOONs, but a curious discovery led investigators in a different direction. Combing the murder site the next day, FBI agents found both 22-250 and .35 caliber shell casings. In the world of firearms, .35 caliber ammunition is a rarity, and the agents could not remember it ever being used on Pine Ridge before. Checking with sporting-goods stores within a 60-mile radius, they learned that only one person had bought .35 caliber ammunition in recent weeks, someone living on the Ted Lame ranch.
On the afternoon of May 30, two FBI agents drove onto the Lame ranch to question the residents about the Bissonnette murder. There they encountered two Indian men who were strangers to Pine Ridge and who refused to give their names. The agents also noticed that someone had dug a four-foot-deep trench, which to them looked much like a military-style bunker, on a hillside above the ranch.
If the FBI agents found their visit to the Lame ranch alarming, they soon lost the chance to investigate further. Within days, the Peltier group left South Dakota for AIM's annual conference, held that year in Farmington, New Mexico. When they returned to Pine Ridge in mid-June, they settled two miles down the road from the Lame ranch, on the Jumping Bull property. In the tree-shaded gully of White Clay Creek, they set up a new camp that would soon become known as Tent City.
Indian militants and white wannabes flocked to South Dakota to take part in the renaissance of Indian activism. These outsiders added to the tensions on a reservation quickly sliding into anarchy.
As the FBI would claim after the June 26 shoot-out, the two men they had questioned at the Lame ranch were Bob Robideau and Dino Butler. At the same time, they would find a possible clue as to why the group didn't like talking to police. Among the items recovered in Tent City, the FBI says it found several spent .35 caliber casings, fired from the same gun used to kill Jeannette Bissonnette.
Along with investigating the Bissonnette murder, by late June the FBI was also searching for a young Pine Ridge man named Jimmy Eagle, wanted for his role in the recent torture and robbery of two ranch hands. On June 25, having learned that a vehicle fitting the description of Eagle's red-and-white International Scout had been seen near Jumping Bull, FBI Special Agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams cruised Highway 18, where they picked up for questioning three teenage Indians walking along the road. The boys, one of whom was carrying a rifle clip, said they were camping at Jumping Bull with a group of older Indian men, none of whom they would identify. The encounter clearly aroused the agents' curiosity about the goings-on at Jumping Bull.
Coler and Williams would never learn that a vehicle somewhat similar to Jimmy Eagle's had indeed frequented the Jumping Bull property, not a red-and-white International Scout, but a red-and-white Chevrolet van driven by the fugitive out of Milwaukee, Leonard Peltier. It was after this June 25 encounter between the FBI and the Tent City teenagers, the government contends, that Peltier became convinced the authorities were closing in on him for the Milwaukee charge and planned a reception should they return.
The next morning, June 26, Coler and Williams were again patrolling Highway 18 in separate cars. At approximately 11:50 A.M., a number of FBI agents listening to their radios heard Williams say that he and Coler were following a red-and-white vehicle from a distance, that there were several Indian men in the vehicle, and that they appeared to have rifles.
“They're getting out of the vehicle,” Williams then said, according to FBI agent Gary Adams, who was listening in that day. A moment later, Williams's voice became urgent: “It looks like these guys are going to shoot at us!”
Almost instantly came the sound of heavy and sustained gunfire.
Tucked away in FBI and prosecutor files is a series of photographs taken in the Jumping Bull pasture on the evening of June 26, 1975. One shows Coler's bullet-riddled 1972 Chevrolet Biscayne with the two agents' bodies face-down on the ground along the driver's side. Two others are close-ups of the agents' faces when their bodies were turned over. These photographs are ghastly, but from examining them and the small mountain of documents introduced at Peltier's trial—coroner and ballistics reports, as well as FBI field reports—it's possible to piece together a fair approximation of how Coler and Williams died. While Peltier's supporters vehemently disagree with the government's account of who actually carried out the murders, there is general agreement about the basic sequence of events that day.
In their pursuit of the red-and-white vehicle, the FBI agents got no farther than the middle of the pasture. By then, the men they were following had probably exited their vehicle, fanned out along the high ground above the pasture, and begun firing down at them. Trapped in the open, the agents couldn't retreat; scrambling from their cars and evidently using their doors for protection, they began firing back with their service revolvers as Williams radioed for help.
It was not a firefight in the traditional sense. Against long-range rifles, semiautomatics, and an AR-15 assault rifle, the agents had only their service revolvers and a shotgun close at hand—all virtually useless against targets 250 yards away.
Williams was hit first, a bullet passing through his left arm and lodging in his left side. Shortly after, Coler attempted to narrow the firepower gap by going for the .308 rifle in his car trunk. He apparently managed to get off one shot before a bullet, passing through the open trunk lid, nearly severed his right arm. Coler was now not only out of the fight, but bleeding to death.
Despite his wounds, Williams crawled back to his colleague, tore off his own shirt, and applied it to Coler's upper arm as a tourniquet. It appears that the agents now decided any further resistance was futile—between them, they had fired just five shots, while their cars had been struck 125 times, and they probably signaled their surrender to the men on the ridgeline. As they huddled on the driver's side of Coler's car, and even as their would-be rescuers were massing out on Highway 18, the brief battle reached its ugly end. At approximately 12:15 P.M., one or more of the gunmen came down through the pasture. One was armed with an AR-15, the civilian version of the military M-16.
Williams was apparently killed first. In a last gesture—either defiant or pleading—he managed to get his right hand over the mouth of the AR-15 just as it was fired. The bullet took away three of his fingers and entered his face from a distance of less than two feet, killing him instantly. The gunman then turned to the semiconscious Coler, shooting him in the head and throat.
For the lawmen who heard Williams's urgent radio call and rushed to the scene, June 26 was a long and frustrating day. With steady gunfire coming from Jumping Bull, they spent much of the afternoon pinned down on Highway 18, waiting for a flanking party that slowly made its way along White Clay Creek to approach the compound from behind. This party also found itself pinned just below the meadow, its repeated attempts to advance met by steady fire. It would be 2:30 P.M. before a BIA sniper in the flanking group got a bead on one of the shooters, Joe Stuntz Killsright, and dropped him with a single shot between the eyes, and two more hours before the missing FBI agents would be found dead in the pasture. At 6 P.M., the lawmen finally laid down a cloud of tear gas and stormed the Jumping Bull houses, firing through doors and windows as they went. The only Indian who remained was Killsright, clad in Jack Coler's green FBI field jacket.
The others, authorities would soon learn, had begun to slip away from the compound after Killsright's death, eluded the flanking party to cross White Clay Creek, and hid in a culvert beneath a dirt road. With police focused on the storming of Jumping Bull, the fugitives made a break for the southern hills. “We said a quick prayer,” Peltier remembers, “prayed that we might live through this day. Then we started out.”
Though fired on by distant police riflemen, the band escaped. In the coming days, they split into smaller groups and scattered across the country, setting off a nationwide manhunt that would last eight months.
Despite a wide range of potential suspects—authorities estimated that as many as 47 people were at Jumping Bull that day—the manhunt quickly focused on Peltier, Butler, and Robideau. A thumbprint lifted from the rearview mirror of the Chevrolet van matched a print of Peltier's on file in Milwaukee. Among the variety of spent ammunition were .35 caliber casings from the same gun used to kill Jeannette Bissonnette, and the FBI agents who had visited the Lame ranch now recognized Butler and Robideau from mug shots. What's more, police discovered that one Jumping Bull resident, a young mother named Angie Long Visitor, had witnessed at least part of the gun battle. Although Long Visitor didn't know the full names of any of the Tent City occupants, she gave the first names of three men she'd seen shooting at the agents, along with that of the driver of the van, a man she knew only as Leonard.
Even so, there was still a large hole in the FBI's case. If the government had placed Peltier, Robideau, and Butler at Jumping Bull, it still could not link any of them directly to the murders, as the man or men who had walked down the hill and executed the agents. For this, investigators hoped for a little help from the suspects, because someone had made a glaring mistake in the pasture: Missing were the agents' service revolvers and Jack Coler's .308 rifle.
When those weapons eventually did turn up, they became a crucial part of the case against Peltier, Robideau, and Butler. In September 1975, lawmen raided an AIM encampment on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation, where they captured Butler and found Ron Williams's revolver. Soon after, Robideau and several of the younger Tent City inhabitants were captured when their weapons-laden station wagon caught fire on the Kansas Turnpike. Among the charred ruins were the AR-15 murder weapon and Coler's rifle. And when Peltier narrowly escaped capture in mid-November—fleeing into the woods during an exchange of gunfire with an Oregon state trooper who had stopped the RV that he and Dennis Banks were driving—police found Coler's revolver in a paper bag marked by Peltier's thumbprint. Also found were eight guns with erased serial numbers, a collection of hand grenades, and 350 pounds of dynamite.
From that point on, Peltier's luck went from bad to worse. Placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, he escaped to Canada, where he was captured by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in February 1976. Ten months later, having lost his final appeal against extradition, he was returned to the United States in handcuffs.
Back in the visiting room at Leavenworth, Leonard Peltier sighs and gives a quick, rueful smile. “Looking back at it now, that was a huge mistake,” he says, “If I hadn't fought the extradition and just come back, I'd be a free man now.”
He may be right, for in the midst of his protracted extradition battle, the trial of Robideau and Butler was separated from his and transferred to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Led by William Kunstler, the flamboyant civil rights lawyer who had defended the Chicago Seven, the defense team presented a virtual historical primer on the white oppression of American Indians and argued that its clients had only fired in self-defense. The all-white jury acquitted Butler and Robideau.
When Peltier's trial was heard by another all-white jury in Fargo, North Dakota, in March 1977, matters were very different. Before Paul Benson, a strict-constructionist judge who dismissed as immaterial any testimony unrelated to the events of June 26, Peltier faced a far more daunting task than Butler and Robideau.
What's more, there was a greater array of physical evidence placing Peltier at the scene of the killings. The prosecution produced Angie Long Visitor—absent from the Cedar Rapids trial—as well as two of the younger Tent City inhabitants, who testified to having seen Peltier walking toward the wounded agents with the AR-15 just moments before the fatal shots were fired. Also damaging was testimony from the Canadian Mounties who had arrested Peltier in Alberta. During the drive to the Edmonton jail, one of them, Corporal Ralph Charles Tweedy, had asked Peltier the circumstances surrounding the FBI agents' murders. “They were shot,” Tweedy said his prisoner replied, “when they came to a house to serve a warrant on me.”
Peltier's statement was a serious self-inflicted wound. It enabled prosecutors to suggest a strong motive for the killings: that Peltier thought Coler and Williams had come to arrest him on the Milwaukee fugitive warrant. And whether Peltier had personally fired the execution shots or simply abetted the crimes, he would still be guilty of murder. After ten hours of deliberation, the jury found Peltier guilty on two counts of first-degree murder. Sentenced to two consecutive life terms by Judge Benson, he would not be eligible for parole for at least 30 years.
Between the time of the Jumping Bull murders and Peltier's conviction, a great deal had changed in Indian America. The civil war on Pine Ridge had abated after Dick Wilson was replaced by Al Trimble, a more conciliatory tribal chairman. AIM was in eclipse, riven by power feuds, its ranks thinned by purges and arrests. And the national media seemed to be losing interest. Whereas the siege at Wounded Knee and the murder of the FBI agents had been front-page news across the country, few newspapers gave more than passing coverage to Peltier's trial. Peltier, it seemed, was destined to become just another forgotten lifer tucked away in a prison cell.
But his story was about to be discovered by one of America's most acclaimed writers, who would produce what many consider the definitive work on Peltier, one embraced by eager journalists and filmmakers from around the world. What would emerge from this was a reincarnated Leonard Peltier, one of America's greatest living martyrs.
Announcing the March 1983 publication of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Viking Press issued a release that promised readers, “This chilling, controversial book makes clear that Leonard Peltier is only one of the victims in the ruthless quest for land, minerals, and money that the government and industry have pursued at the expense of the Indians for the last 150 years.”
Hype aside, Crazy Horse was a curious book, with a casualness toward documentation that bordered on the cavalier. And while Matthiessen made few claims of objectivity—in the acknowledgments, he thanked Peltier, Robideau, and Peltier's lawyer for having “inspected” the manuscript—there was one detail that was not mentioned in the book. In October 1980, before signing with Viking Press, Matthiessen entered into a financial agreement that gave half of his advance and future royalties to the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee in return for exclusive access to Peltier.
To be sure, a number of troubling details still surrounded the Peltier story. Among the affidavits used to win Peltier's extradition from Canada were those of a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear, who had expanded her firsthand “knowledge” of Peltier's guilt with each telling. Finally deemed “utterly incompetent,” she was dropped from the prosecution witness list.
There was also confusion over precisely what type of vehicle Coler and Williams had followed onto Jumping Bull. Conflicting descriptions by FBI agents who listened to Williams's radio messages raised the possibility that there had been another—perhaps even several—vehicles similar to Peltier's van at Jumping Bull that day. In addition, there were a number of smaller inconsistencies in the government's investigative files—a badly worded ballistics-test telex, slightly contradictory field reports from different FBI agents—that, taken as a whole, could suggest the authorities had gone out of their way to link Peltier to the murders.
Why would the FBI railroad an innocent man? Matthiessen argued that the hunt for the agents' killer was merely secondary to a larger, darker effort to crush AIM and neutralize its leaders. In Crazy Horse, a new Leonard Peltier emerged. No longer one of Dennis Banks's lieutenants, he was cast as a leader in his own right, a man prominent enough to warrant government persecution. Given this new persona and the fact that the government was monitoring a number of AIM leaders, the darker milestones of Peltier's life took on a new shine. The incident at the Texas Restaurant was no longer a random run-in with two off-duty cops, but an orchestrated setup. Peltier's decision to jump bail was not an indication of fear or guilt, but a brave act of political defiance. Similarly, the speed with which investigators linked Peltier to the Jumping Bull murders was a reflection not of the evidence against him, but of the investigators' zeal for railroading him. As for those eyewitnesses who testified against him—Angie Long Visitor, the Tent City teenagers, the Canadian Mounties—they too were woven into a convincing tapestry of governmental connivance and coercion.
AIM quickly achieved something that had eluded American Indians for nearly a century: a sense of common purpose, of a greater Indian nation.
Beyond the particulars of the Peltier case was the larger conspiracy against AIM and its supporters. Of course, the average reader had no way of knowing when truth was stretched to fit theory. For example, Matthiessen wrote that an elderly Pine Ridge resident named James Brings Yellow died as a result of the FBI's practice of “bursting into houses and threatening and scaring people,” yet according to his death certificate, Brings Yellow died from septic shock brought on by an acute infection of the liver and gall bladder. In connection with the 1979 arsonist's attack on the Nevada home of AIM leader John Trudell, in which five of his family members were killed, no reader was likely to argue with Matthiessen's theory that “the atmosphere of anti-AIM violence encouraged by the FBI may well have given courage to the unknown killers.” That is, unless they knew that Nevada fire marshals established that a faulty chimney, not arson, had caused the tragedy.
Even more remarkable was the rehabilitation of AIM. The more unsavory actions linked to the organization were passed over quickly or, in some cases, passed off as government criminality. Matthiessen suggested a government frame-up in the conviction of AIM member Richard Marshall for the “still unexplained” March 1975 murder of Martin Montileaux in the Longhorn Bar in Scenic, South Dakota, pointing out that the case against Marshall was “weak and contradictory.” Unfortunately, Marshall's martyr status suffered a setback in 1984 when he confessed to the murder (an embarrassing development that Matthiessen would address in the 1991 edition of Crazy Horse with a short note and the comment, “I was sorry to hear that the confession had been genuine.”)
And then there was his treatment of the February 1976 execution-style murder of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, an AIM activist who was found on a remote corner of Pine Ridge with a bullet in her head. In Crazy Horse, Matthiessen hinted at the worst possible motives for the FBI's delay in identifying Aquash's body and for an inept first autopsy, and gave great room to AIM members' claims that the FBI had been involved in Aquash's murder. Far less space was devoted to the fact that Aquash had come under suspicion within AIM of being an FBI informant, that she had been “questioned” by a number of AIM members (including Peltier) about these suspicions, and that just before her murder she told a number of people she feared for her life. In the fall of 1994, the Aquash case was reopened in South Dakota, and investigators are now focusing their attention on several of her former AIM colleagues.
Above all, there was Matthiessen's über-conspiracy theory: that Peltier and AIM had to be destroyed in order to open up the uranium beds of western South Dakota for exploitation by energy industrialists, land that would fall under Indian control if AIM were able to reestablish the authority of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The problem with this theory was that no court had ever seriously considered restoring the 1868 treaty and, even if one had, there were hardly any uranium deposits in the area worth extracting.
At least one person warned Matthiessen of the dubiousness of this claim before his book ever came out. After reading a draft of Crazy Horse in April 1982, James Leach, a Rapid City lawyer who had defended a number of AIM members, sent a 22-page letter to Matthiessen listing the factual inaccuracies he had discovered.
“At page 3 of the manuscript,” Leach wrote, “you state that Leonard was pursued so vigorously mainly because of the 'underlying issues of politics, history and economics,' and 'in particular' because of the 'threat to the massive energy development of the Great Plains posed by a treaty signed in 1868…' I've seen this kind of statement many times before, without any evidence to back it up, and therefore I read it skeptically…. I found references at a number of points in the manuscript, but at no point did I find any evidence…. If indeed this were the reason for the persecutions of Leonard Peltier, wouldn't there be some evidence of it?”
Later in his letter, Leach was even more blunt: “Although you haven't asked, I'll give you my views on why Leonard has been so vigorously pursued: because he participated in a shoot-out with FBI agents at the conclusion of which two agents were executed.” Despite Leach's reservations, the land-grab thesis remained, as did the map showing extensive exploitable deposits of coal and uranium, including many in places where the most recent U.S. Geological Survey study, as well as a Department of Energy survey, had not found them.
Taken as a whole, what Matthiessen had constructed was a vast subterranean network of conspirators—not just FBI agents, prosecutors, and judges, but apparently county coroners, stenographers, fire investigators, and Canadian Mounties—all working in concert to destroy an AIM lieutenant because he and his movement dared, in some intangible way, to threaten the interests of white corporate America.
When the book was published, not everyone was persuaded. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz asserted that Matthiessen is “utterly unconvincing—indeed embarrassingly sophomoric—when he pleads the legal innocence of individual Indian criminals…. Matthiessen not only fails to convince, he inadvertently makes a strong case for Mr. Peltier's guilt. Invoking the clichés of the radical left, Mr. Matthiessen takes at face value nearly every conspiratorial claim of the movement, no matter how unfounded or preposterous. Every car crash, every unexplained death, every unrelated arrest fits into the seamless web of deceit he seems to feel woven by the FBI and its cohorts.”
But this was a minority opinion. By and large, the publication of Crazy Horse was met with glowing reviews. “The first solidly documented account of the U.S. government's renewed assault upon American Indians,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote. “Meticulously researched,” the Boston Globe proclaimed, “a courageous document.” The book moved at least one reviewer, Nick Kotz of the Washington Post, to quivering indignation: “By the time I had turned the final page, I felt angry enough…to want to shout from the rooftops, 'Wake up, America, before it's too damned late!'”
Most readers seemed to agree. Even though Crazy Horse disappeared from bookshelves in early 1984, withdrawn under the weight of two separate libel suits (filed by an FBI agent and the former governor of South Dakota), it helped spark the free-Peltier movement, transforming the obscure AIM activist into an international cause célèbre. More important, Matthiessen's book remained the starting point for a worldwide body of journalists and filmmakers who turned their attention to the Peltier-AIM story. And when Crazy Horse was reissued in 1991—the last of the libel suits finally dismissed on the grounds that the First Amendment upheld an author's right “to publish an entirely one-sided view of people and events”—there had been a startling new development in the Peltier saga that seemed to authenticate Matthiessen's claims: the emergence of Mr. X.
The first public glimpse of Mr. X—his face concealed by sunglasses, his head wrapped in olive-colored bandages—came in a 60 Minutes segment on Peltier in 1991, followed by a cameo in the documentary Incident at Oglala. As 60 Minutes reporter Steve Kroft noted, “The man behind the mask seems intimate with every detail of the shoot-out.”
According to Mr. X, it was his red-and-white pickup, not Peltier's red-and-white van, that Coler and Williams followed onto Jumping Bull that day, as he and another AIM member attempted to deliver a load of dynamite to Peltier and Butler. When one of the agents opened fire, Mr. X said, he and his confederate fired back and then hastily drove down to a cabin on the property and began unloading the dynamite, leaving the shoot-out in the hands of Peltier and company, who had scrambled up from Tent City. The fateful moment, according to Mr. X, came when they attempted to flee, returning to the pasture at about 12:15 P.M.
“The death of those agents was brought about by their wrongful behavior, not mine,” said Mr. X in 60 Minutes segment. “I did not choose to take their lives. I only chose to save my own.”
Hopping out of the truck, Mr. X said, he approached the wounded men, hoping to persuade them to surrender, when one of the agents suddenly raised his pistol and fired a shot. “At that point, I did not give him a chance to fire again,” he said. “I fired as soon as I saw him. I immediately and spontaneously fired at the other fellow and hit him also.” The agents now dead, Mr. X got back into the truck and, with his companion, sped away from Jumping Bull, somehow eluding the police who were already gathering on Highway 18.
It was a story that neatly filled the various gaps in the government's account: the different vehicle descriptions reported by the FBI agents listening to their radios as well as the confused report of a red-and-white vehicle attempting to leave the compound at 12:18. But despite his having apparently supplied the missing link, the “proof” of Peltier's innocence, mention of Mr. X causes curious unease among some in the Peltier camp. When I pursued the matter with Bruce Ellison, Peltier's attorney, he was clearly not eager to discuss it. “I don't know what to make of the Mr. X business, really,” Ellison said, “and since Leonard's appeals are pretty much exhausted, it doesn't have much bearing on his case at all—just a whole separate deal.”
Perhaps the unease stems from the patent absurdity of Mr. X's story. For one thing, there is the grisly but telltale evidence of Coler's and Williams's wounds—more specifically, Williams's shorn three fingers, not inflicted by an approaching killer firing randomly, but a contact wound that occurred with Williams's hand on the barrel. Then there is the question of what happened to the dynamite that Mr. X allegedly delivered; it was never found by investigators, and the Peltier party certainly didn't carry it off as it fled.
Against long-range rifles, semiautomatics, and an AR-15 assault rifle, the agents had only their service revolvers and a shotgun close at hand—all virtually useless against targets 250 yards away.
To the question of why he and the others at Jumping Bull that day had never before mentioned the existence of Mr. X, Peltier says, “We all took an oath that we would never betray anyone, so for me—or anyone else—to expose him would have been an act of treason. I wouldn't even ask him to come forward now—and I hope he doesn't come forward—because they still wouldn't let me go, and it would just mean he'd go to prison too.”
But there is one more unsettling detail to the Mr. X story. Neither 60 Minutes nor Robert Redford actually interviewed the mystery gunman; rather, both obtained a tape of an interview conducted by Peter Matthiessen. That interview was arranged by Bob Robideau, Peltier's old codefendant, and was taped by Oliver Stone, who owns the film option to In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. And despite the 60 Minutes reporter's assertion that Mr. X seemed “intimate with every detail of the shoot-out,” it was the same intimacy that anyone could have developed from reading Matthiessen's book.
No matter. Watched by 26 million viewers, the 60 Minutes broadcast further cemented the image of Peltier as a tragic symbol of injustice.
Elsewhere, the mythmaking continued to accelerate—and to be increasingly divorced from reality. In their 1992 documentary Incident at Oglala, Redford and Apted dutifully followed the path laid out by Matthiessen, adding a few cinematic flourishes of their own. These included “reenactments” to show a variety of red vehicles leaving Jumping Bull and the use of a video clip of FBI agents conducting an evidence search in the Jumping Bull pasture—walking virtually shoulder-to-shoulder as they canvassed the area—to illustrate the bureau's zealous military-style manhunt for the killers.
Writing in the January 1992 issue of Esquire, Matthiessen not only glossed over the execution-style nature of the FBI agents' deaths, but moved their bodies from Jumping Bull to Wounded Knee, 20 miles to the east, while merging the events of 1975 with those of 1973. After asserting that the FBI agents had been killed in a shoot-out at Wounded Knee, Matthiessen went on to explain that “American Indian activists had occupied Wounded Knee, demanding, among other things, a federal review of the Treaty of 1868, which guaranteed the return of the Black Hills to the Lakota Sioux. The government's military response resulted in the firefight that left dead men on both sides and put Peltier in jail.” When I contacted Matthiessen to ask him about this and many other matters, he declined to be interviewed, but such a conflated rendering of events suggests a stunning development: In just 20 years, the Peltier story has so entered the realm of myth that apparently its architects no longer feel the need to adhere to the most rudimentary of facts.
On the surface, it might appear that little has changed on Pine Ridge in the past two decades. At Jumping Bull, Angie Long Visitor still lives in a small house on the crest of the bluff, the fallow pasture remains an unruly expanse of meadow grass, and the spot where Joe Stuntz Killsright died is still shaded by a clump of small pines.
But there have been changes. At least in part because of AIM's calls for reform, federal Indian policy has been overhauled, the once vast authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs partially supplanted by the increased clout of local tribal councils. At the same time, curbs on the powers of tribal chairmen will, with any luck, prevent a potentate like Dick Wilson from turning a tribal government into a family business or a tribal police force into a private army. With these changes, the rifts that once divided Pine Ridge have largely healed. Although it is still beset with a host of social ills, former AIM warriors and former GOONs once again live side by side, even work together on the tribal council. A new casino has brightened the economic outlook somewhat, although many remain dubious of the promoters' claims that it will eventually create 400 jobs.
Today, AIM has fractured into two opposing camps, National AIM and the AIM Confederation, which periodically hurl insults and accusations at each other. While some local chapters are still active, the dream of a united national movement seems lost forever, many members falling away in frustration over the incessant feuding and internecine rivalries. The charismatic leaders who once commanded headlines—Dennis Banks, Russell Means, John Trudell—now play a peripheral role.
But if the old battles have quieted on the reservation, they are still being waged in Rapid City, 90 miles to the north. Here, Bruce Ellison, Peltier's attorney, remains in the vanguard of the crusade.
“How can I ever give up?” Ellison asks over breakfast at a downtown hotel. “Once you see all the injustices that the federal government carried out—not just against Leonard, but against AIM, against the Indian people—how can you walk away from that? I will never let this rest until Leonard is out and justice has been done.”
For several minutes, Ellison discusses one of the major planks in the Peltier defense: the varied descriptions that FBI agents gave of the vehicle Coler and Williams were following onto Jumping Bull. When I point out that such confusion seems understandable—after all, Williams's radio messages were not taped, so the agents were working only from memory—he smiles wryly and leans over the table. “But they were taped,” he says. “We've been told there was a tape recording, and that the FBI deliberately suppressed it.”
Ellison won't reveal the source of this explosive new revelation, and the conversation quickly moves on to other aspects of the conspiracy.
Coming away from my meeting with Ellison, I'm struck yet again by a strange irony: All the most visible and tireless proponents of the ongoing Peltier crusade—Matthiessen, Ellison, the filmmakers, the earnest young people in Lawrence, Kansas—are not Indians, but whites. It's an irony that Robert Grey Eagle, the former Pine Ridge AIM member, noticed a long time ago.
“I think from the very beginning, we—both AIM and Indians in general—were hurt by a lot of white outsiders who came in, attached themselves to our cause, and ended up using the Indian movement for their own purposes. Maybe they didn't do it deliberately, but that was the result, and it is still going on. They are not letting these old wounds heal, and I resent that.”
Even worse, says Grey Eagle, is the subliminal message being communicated to American Indians: “I reject this idea that we, as Indians, are helpless victims and that the only heroes our children have to look up to are men in prison. I don't believe that. I find that an extremely condescending message.”
It is a message that has been, and continues to be, rejected by other Indians. On the 20th anniversary of the Jumping Bull murders, the Peltier-AIM myth has suffered two massive blows, administered by none other than Peltier's old codefendants Bob Robideau and Dino Butler.
In the fall of 1994, the long-dormant investigation of Anna Mae Aquash's murder was rekindled when U.S. Marshal Robert Ecoffey, a Pine Ridge native and former BIA policeman, presented new evidence to a South Dakota grand jury. While rumors circulated that a high-ranking former AIM leader was the chief suspect, the first public finger-pointing came at the most unlikely of settings: a poetry reading at Salt of the Earth, a bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on December 3, 1994. As John Trudell, the former AIM national director, read from his new book of poems, Stickman, Bob Robideau suddenly rose from the audience to accuse Trudell of complicity in Aquash's murder.
“What [Trudell] had to say was a bunch of crap,” Robideau later told reporter Mordecai Specktor of News from Indian Country, “and it just made me more angry, so I got up…, condemned him, and said why I condemned him: because I felt he had something to do with the death of Anna Mae Aquash.”
When Trudell made a statement regarding the Aquash matter, he did so on an Internet site known as NativeNet. “I have been given information that a Cointel [FBI counterintelligence] operation is being directed at me–to neutralize me,” Trudell wrote. “I have been waiting for this attack. This appears to be it. Now my life is in jeopardy.”
The sudden tumult around the Aquash case has also brought an about-face from Bruce Ellison, who has long alleged FBI responsibility in the Aquash murder. “I just think it would be nice,” Ellison told a reporter from The Circle, an Indian newspaper published in Minneapolis, “if [Ecoffey] were as concerned about the murders of the men, women, and children killed by the GOON squad as he is about the murder of Anna Mae.”
But the movement is about to be hit by an even more embarrassing charge, this one made by Dino Butler, the last of the Jumping Bull defendants. In the spring of 1995, Butler broke a long silence and agreed to an extensive interview with Kim Caldwell of News from Indian Country; excerpts of the interview are scheduled to run throughout the summer.
While still steadfastly maintaining his and Peltier's innocence, Butler believes Peltier has been led astray by those who have rallied to–and helped shape–his cause. In particular, he singles out Matthiessen. The new edition of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, he says, “talks about that me and Bob Robideau knew about this guy coming to the camp that day and that he was bringing dynamite to us, and that guy now claims that he is Mr. X. Well, there is no Mr. X. Those are all lies.”
Even more stunning, Butler pinpoints the origin of Mr. X to a meeting of Peltier supporters in California that he and several veterans of the Jumping Bull shoot-out attended: “[The idea] was brought up about creating this lie about Mr. X being there and killing those men to raise support for Leonard's liberation, to create this lie to show that someone else pulled the trigger. The final agreement in that meeting was that the Mr. X idea wouldn't be used, because it was a lie.”
Upon returning from a religious ceremony in South Dakota, however, Butler discovered that the Mr. X fable had become reality, that someone who had attended the California meeting had passed the story along to a writer for Oliver Stone, who at that time was working with Matthiessen to bring Crazy Horse to the screen.
For Dino Butler, at least, the whole Mr. X episode has left a bitter taste in his mouth and has led him to reevaluate those who carry the Peltier banner. “I lost a lot of respect for Peter Matthiessen as a writer and as a person I could trust,” he says, “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.”
While it is still too early to tell what effect Butler's statements will have on Peltier's case, they underscore the increasingly bleak outlook for the man now concluding his second decade of imprisonment. They also underscore the final great irony in his bad-luck life: that the story that has brought him worldwide attention may keep him in prison for a long time to come.
Out of interviews with the various FBI agents who have played a role in the Peltier case, a curious dichotomy emerges: indifference toward Leonard Peltier, perhaps even grudging sympathy, but an abiding contempt for the merchants of his myth.
In the view of Coler's and Williams's colleagues, freedom for Peltier means that the propagandists win, that history will judge them and their slain comrades as guilty of all the crimes of which they've been accused.
In just 20 years, the Peltier story has so entered the realm of myth that apparently its architects no longer feel the need to adhere to the most rudimentary of facts.
“It's ludicrous,” says Doug Grell, an FBI special agent stationed in the Rapid City office for the past 19 years. “We framed Leonard Peltier? Well, if the government is trying to frame Leonard Peltier, we got awful lucky, didn't we? We just happened to pick a guy who was there and who admits to shooting at the agents. All they've done is keep the hatred going, throw mud on the reputation of good, honest men, and turn a convicted murderer into some kind of hero.”
“I would like to let Jack and Ron rest in peace,” says Nicholas O'Hara, the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office from 1991 to 1994, during which time he handled the Peltier case. “I would like to move on. But I am kept from doing that by all this material being manufactured by the Peltier supporters that challenges the integrity of our judicial system; this sense that we don't play fair, that we hide evidence, that we pressure or mistreat witnesses is just not true. Leonard Peltier, the good Lord willing, will never see the light of day as a free man.”
So intent is the FBI on preventing such a possibility that, in the summer of 1994, director Louis Freeh took the unusual step of issuing a press release to denounce the commutation campaign, a move that many saw as a warning to a possibly wavering White House. “Leonard Peltier was convicted of a grave crime,” the terse statement began, “and there should be no commutation of his two consecutive terms of life in prison.”
This idea of Peltier being crippled by his supporters finds an echo in the thoughts of Dino Butler. “It's sad what's happening to Leonard today,” he told Kim Caldwell. “I don't doubt that Leonard could be a free man, but it has to start with him. He has to believe in himself first, instead of believing in all these lies and the people who are wanting to bring these lies to him…. Right now I think he's a prisoner…because he's allowed himself to become separated from his spiritual being and has become confused enough to believe the lies. He needs to get back to the truth.”
During our last meeting at Leavenworth, I ask Peltier if he's ever thought of telling the government what it wants to hear. It catches him off guard.
“You mean tell them that I did it?” He becomes thoughtful, his dark eyes scanning the wall. “Sure I've thought about it…I've thought about it a lot. At times, it would seem so easy–you know, 'Yes, I did it, I'm sorry.' If I'd done that—lied like that—I'd have been out a long time ago. But then I remember that I'm doing this for my people, and that keeps me from doing it. I can't do it. What I'm doing is not really for me, but for them.”
It's not altogether clear just who these “people” are, whether they're the residents of Pine Ridge, who seem to have largely forgotten Peltier's cause, or the greater Indian community that has long since turned away from AIM militancy, or that select group of people—mostly white men and women—who have made him their cause.
I start in on my battery of questions, seeking answers to contradictions I've found in his account of what happened at Jumping Bull. Peltier, always polite, patiently goes over the familiar ground one more time. When I ask about the guns he fired that day, he gazes up at the ceiling. “Let's see…I had a .30-30. I switched with Joe [Killsright] later on to a .303. I carried about two, three different weapons that day, somewhere in there being a .306. We had a .250 too…carried a .22 for a while.”
When I ask who used the AR-15, the murder weapon, Peltier doesn't remember. “And what about the .35 caliber?” I ask, alluding to the weapon that had been used to kill Jeannette Bissonnette three months before the agents' deaths. “Who was using that?”
Peltier stares at me for a moment, and in his eyes I can almost see him trying to trace that gun back, not just to Jumping Bull, but further. For the first time, he bristles slightly.
“Look, I don't want to go through all of that again,” he says, “who was where, who fired what gun, but I'll say it again: I didn't kill those agents, and no one I was with killed those agents. But we had the right to fire back at them. We were soldiers fighting a legitimate war, and we had the right to defend ourselves when we were attacked.”
Sitting across from Peltier, it's hard not to feel sympathy for him now, a 50-year-old man with medical problems and graying hair, a father of seven who has already spent 19 years of his life in prison. Even after seeing the death photos of Ron Williams and Jack Coler, even after poring over the thousands of pages of documents and incriminating court testimony, I cannot see Leonard Peltier as anything other than a tragic figure, a victim of the martyrdom that now shackles him.
When our conversation veers back to the ordinary, the brief tension between us passes and Peltier becomes amiable again. He talks about his children, where they're living, what they're doing, how a couple of them are forever dunning him for money. “I try to be stern with them—'No, you've got to learn to be responsible, live within your means'—but I always end up saying, 'OK, but this is the last time.'” He laughs, shakes his head in self-rebuke.
At the moment, he is trying to arrange a transfer to the state prison in North Dakota, a site that will allow his children to visit more often and that, Peltier has been told, has views of the sweeping Dakota prairies. “At least I'll be able to see it,” he says. “Even if I can't be out in it, at least I can see it.”
At the end of our visit, before a guard takes him back to his cell, Peltier walks me to an electronic gate, the first of three I must pass through to reach the outside. I mention the bison that graze in the field beside the prison and ask Peltier if he's seen them. He smiles broadly. “Sure,” he says. “They've been there for years. One of them died last year. The warden had it skinned, and he gave me a piece of it. I have it with me in my cell.”
Scott Anderson's is the author of The Four O'Clock Murders (Dell). He won the 1993 Pope Foundation Award for Investigative Journalism and was a finalist for the 1994 National Magazine Award for reporting.