The film “Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story” is a documentary exhuming the 30-year old case which has serious implications on the democracy of the United States of America, in terms of equal rights amongst races. This essay is written not to criticize the film, but to recount what I have watched, compare it and/or support it with information that I got from some materials from the Web, and to speak out my views regarding this case, not just to exercise my freedom of speech, but to open myself and the readers of this essay to the issue of racial discrimination.
Pine Ridge: The Political Context The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a vast area in South Dakota where, according to the movie, around ten thousand Lakota citizens lived in fear, hopelessness, and despair. Pine Ridge had the highest murder rate per capita in the United States. Former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, in the movie, even claimed that Pine Ridge suffers in this state of hopelessness and despair because of extreme poverty and neglect. The Pine Ridge residents are also under a division between the full-blood and mixed-blood Indians.
Sam Loud Hawk even claimed that if you were half-blood or any mixed-blood, you are the dominant society. The full-bloods have been struggling for power as it seems (to me, as I see the movie) that the dominant mixed-bloods do not represent the Lakota people’s needs. In fact, the full-bloods even believed that mixed-bloods were puppets of the US Government. This was even more emphasized when on spring of 1972; Dick Wilson became president of their tribal council. It was alleged that Wilson used government money for his own benefits.
But what was more depressing was his use of force against the American Indian Movement members when he formed the vigilante group Guardians of the Oglala Nations (GOONs), which the citizens called death squads, allegedly used to intimidate the people in the reservation. On November of 1972, the AIM stood for their rights. They marched to and seized Wounded Knee, the place where a massacre of the American Indians had happened in the late 1800s. The government responded to this uprising with force — BIA Police, FBI, US Marshals. Hundreds of unarmed citizens, mostly women and children were killed in that uprising.
Even in this situation, the AIM tried to rebuild Pine Ridge by enhancing the community, providing food, shelter, water and everything that they deem the Lakotas of Pine Ridge needed. However, the US Marshals and FBI responded with heavy warfare materials and tough security. Trials The first trial took place starting with the US Government finding indictments against the persons of Jimmy Eagle (who was the only person in the original warrant for stealing a pair of cowboy boots), Darelle “Dino” Butler, Bob Robideau, and Leonard Peltier.
The former three were arrested violently, but the FBI could not find Peltier. Peltier at that time, according to LPDC (Leonard Peltier, Activist, paragraph 2) “fled to Canada believing he would not receive fair trial in the US”. Later on, Eagle’s case was dropped (probably after finding insufficient evidence against him), and Peltier was extradited back to South Dakota due to two affidavits that pointed to Peltier as the planner and the gunman of the “murder” of the FBI agents (Linder, Famous Trials: Leonard Peltier Trial, paragraph 17).
Robideau and Butler were acquitted by US District Court Judge Edward McManus of the Cedar Rapids court in Iowa, taking into consideration the political and cultural context of the incident, hence, believing in the argument of the accused which were self- defense, and defense of their women and children. However, in Peltier’s trial, the fate was not much the same. Peltier was tried in Fargo, his hometown, by an “all-white jury of ten women and two men selected to hear the case” (Linder, Famous Trials: Leonard Peltier trial, paragraph 20).
The trial went on from March to April 1977. On April 19, the jury carried a guilty verdict against Peltier. Strong evidences were presented to the court like the AR 15 rifle which only Peltier owns, which Peltier allegedly used as the murder weapon against the 1975 shootout, and which was the rifle which the witnesses allegedly saw in his hands. However, the AR 15 was not available for the pin test because it was heavily damaged from the 1975 shootout.
Proofs that the AR 15’s extractor and the shell casing which was found in Coler’s trunk was a match, the investigating team for this case cannot find any connection between the said rifle and the bullets found in the scene. Bruce Ellison, the defense attorney, claimed that the FBI found the match with the bolt mechanism. Apparently, the only way to find that match is to change the actual bolt mechanism in their set of evidences. The prosecution changed its strategy by saying that there are other AR 15s in the area which caused fatal shots against the agents.
The defense attorney however found the claim suspicious, but the presentation of this claim put Peltier in a worse position. The defense also claimed that the agents were supposed to chase a red pick up that allegedly had Jimmy Eagle, but chased a red and white van which had the four suspects, something which was inconsistent with their arrest warrant, and something which the defense claimed was a strategy to link Peltier easily to the case. However, the prosecution countered by saying that the agents did not focus on the vehicle but on who was in the vehicle. The defense (even Mr.
Peltier himself) found the trial unfair. For one, there was inconsistency by the US Judiciary as the theories and assumptions used in Cedar Rapids was not cited in Fargo. Second, the jury was selected in a day. Third, the members of the jury were all white. Furthermore, there were still evidences disproving the prosecutions arguments, e. g. Peltier did not fire the fatal bullets as the firing pin ballistics cleared his AR 15 rifle from the scene. Another was, the witnesses claimed that they were threatened by the FBI in order to testify, even though none of them actually saw the shooting of the FBI agents.
None of these things were heard by the jury. Clinton Pardon In 2001, the Federal Judge decided to reduce Peltier’s sentence by serving the two life sentences at the same time, not consecutively. This happened after Peltier reached his 25 years in prison. However, Clinton denied his request for pardon and has to wait for 2008 in order to request for another pardon. Opinion From everything that I have watched, and read, I thought that the US gave unfair trial against Peltier as if since the other three were acquitted in Cedar Rapids, Peltier was left to be picked on by the justice system.
I am not saying at this point that the FBI agents deserved to die, only that, in a battle of flying bullets, somebody will really die. For me, there are three sets of victims, Peltier, the FBI agents, and the Pine Ridge residents. Peltier because he was a victim of the unfair trial, the FBI agents, because they had to risk their lives in order for the government to justify its acts against the American Indians, and the Pine Ridge residents for being victims of the ever assailing racial discrimination. The last argument that I had was the real problem.
The court had no care for having members of the jury from side of the Indians, as they selected only white people for the jury. They used mixed-bloods in order to control the Lakota society. All of these showed how severe the racial discrimination still was, at that time, in the US; and this still prevails until now, since Peltier is still in jail. I have two things on my mind to end my case. One, we must now open our minds and become sensitive to culture, after all, diversity in itself is the beauty of a society, being one amidst differences.
Second and last, a tamed animal will not fight back unless provoked, and so how much more are we people? Works Cited Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee. 6 April 2009. Background. 6 May 2009. http://www. whoisleonardpeltier. info/background. htm Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. 11 February 2004. Leonard Peltier, Activist. 6 May 2009. http://www. leonardpeltier. net/theman. htm. Linder, Douglas. 2006. Famous Trials: The Leonard Peltier Trial. 6 May 2009. http://www. law. umkc. edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/peltier/peltieraccount. html.