The Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story is a political documentary which questions the claims of justice and equality in the United States. It is a Civil Rights documentary that recounts one event in the lives of Native Americans. This essay is an expository work and not a critique. The objective here is to present the major elements of the documentary and their ramifications for the doctrine of equal treatment under the law in the United States. With other supporting sources, it is my hope that the readers would become enlightened about the issues of justice as it relates to minority populations.
Pine Ridge: The Political Context The primary events documented in the film occurred at a placed considered the poorest reservation in the nation, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge, with a population of about 15,000 Lakota Indians, is a severely economically depressed area with the highest murder rate in the United States per capita. The high murder rate is the result of intra-tribal rivalries fermented by limited Federal funding. The residents of Pine Ridge had divided themselves into two groups, the full-blood and the mixed blood.
The full-bloods were the genetically pure natives with culturally conservative views. The mixed-bloods were Native Americans with Caucasian heritage who generally preferred a more progressive society. For the most part, the mixed-blood dominated the administration of the reservation. To foster self-help and a sense of pride among themselves, the residents formed the American Indian Movement (AIM). In the spring of 1972, Dick Wilson, a mixed-blood, became president the Tribal Council. The leader of the Tribal Council controlled the major source of livelihood on the reservation, the money from the Federal Government.
Wilson was believed to be a very corrupt leader who used death squads (Guardians of the Oglala Nations or GOONs) to silence his critics. As a result, nearly all of the victims of the high murder rate in Pine Ridge were the full-blood Native Americans. The failure of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of India Affairs (BIA) to investigate the murders coupled with the fact that Wilson was being supported by Federal money gave the impression that the Federal Government was in support of the actions of Wilson and his cohorts.
In this environment of fear and intimidation, many of the residents secured arms for self-defense. To publicize their plight, AIM decided to get confrontational with the Federal Government. The group occupied Wounded Knee in late 1973. AIM got the desired publicity with the unintended consequences of a heavy military response from the Federal Government. After a three-day standoff and two Native American deaths, the crisis was resolved. It, however, reinforced the belief among the Pine Ridge residents that they could not depend on the Federal Government to seek their interests.
As Wilson’s vigilantes pushed their campaign of intimidation and elimination, Pine Ridge residents became more concerned for their lives and afraid of strangers. Wilson’s Goons, in collaboration with the FBI and BIA, attempted to destroy the American Indian Movement. AIM members became very much afraid of strangers and always assumed a defensive posture. It was in this environment that two FBI agents, driving in two unmarked vehicles, made an aggressive pursuit of a vehicle into a heavily armed section of the reservation in 1975. A gun battle ensued in which the agents were killed.
It was not until after their deaths did any of the residents of Pine Ridge know that they were Federal Agents. All the men involved in the shootout fled. Leonard Peltier went to Canada. The Trials The events of that day became the focus of the Michael Apted’s documentary, Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story. The U. S. Government brought indictments against Jimmy Eagle, Dareelle Butler, Bob Robideau, and Leonard Peltier. The case against Eagle was dismissed for lack of evidence. According to the documentary, Peltier fled to Canada fearing that he would not get a fair trial anywhere in the United States.
Peltier fought extradition from Canada. Desiring a speedy trial and perceiving that the extradition proceedings would take considerable time, the U. S. Government prosecuted the other defendants without Peltier. The case was taken to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Government tried to instill a sense of fear in the local population against the Native American population. It did not work. Convinced that the government did not present case void of reasonable doubts, all the defendants were found not guilty on the grounds of self-defense. Peltier was the lone accuser left and the prosecutor wanted to convict him at all cost.
Federal agents had been murdered and someone had to be convicted; and Peltier was the man. If he had not fled to Canada, he would have acquitted along with his colleagues. Now, he must face a separate fate. What followed is a disturbing look into how representatives of the Federal Government can manipulate people and information to convict innocent people. It began with the extradition. The U. S. Government used a perjured document to get Canada to extradite Peltier back to the United States. Myrtle Poor Bear, the Government’s witness in the extradition case, claimed to be Peltier’s girlfriend.
It was a lie. She admitted in the documentary that if she had seen Peltier in court, she would not have been able to identify him. Yet, they Government got her to sign two affidavits attesting to be on the scene when the Federal Agents were murdered and that they were murdered by Peltier. Her affidavit of February 23rd indicated that she was not present when the agents were murdered. Four days later, she signed another affidavit indicating that she was present when the agents were killed and that the perpetrator was Peltier. Fingerprints analyses from the location did not put Poor Bear at the scene.
Why, then, did she lie? Poor Bear was threatened by representatives of the U. S. Government. She was shown the mutilated body of a colleague and told that her fate could be worse. In addition, she was told that she could lose her child to the Government. Fearing that the Government had the power to make good on its threats, she decided to cooperate. The Government Agents then provided her the information she attested to in the affidavits. That representatives of the United States Government would deliberately lie to a foreign government and undermine international treaty is very disturbing.
But that is what happened. With an eyewitness affidavits ((Linder, Famous Trials: Leonard Peltier Trial, paragraph 17) putting Peltier at the scene of the crime and identifying him as the perpetrator, the Canadian Government turned Peltier over to the United States. According to Bob Robideau, one of the defendants in the first trial, the Canadians did not need the affidavits to extradite Peltier. It gave them the excuse because the Canadian Government has its own problems with the local populations of Native Americans.
No wonder they were willing to breach an international treaty based on conflicting evidence. The trial of Leonard Peltier was filled with many inconsistencies in the Government’s case. James Harper, the Government’s prime witnessed who allegedly got a prison confession from Peltier, was a liar. His landlord reported how he had rehearsed his claims of evidence in the Manson case and in Peltier’s case. Secondly, the bullet casings found at the murder scene could not me matched to any one particular weapon.
Thirdly, the Government provided conflicted evidence about the vehicle the dead agents were following. All initial reports indicated that the agents were following a red pick-up truck. This would have been the case because the person they were look for, Jimmy Eagle, was last seeing driving a red pickup. So it made sense that they would chasing after a red pickup truck; however, to implicate Peltier, the prosecutors changed the vehicle in the chase from a red pickup truck to a red and white van because Peltier owned a red and white van.
Three witnesses, who at the trial placed Peltier at the murder scene, later recanted their statements and said that they were coerced (AIM For Freedom For Leonard Peltier). Unlike his colleagues who were tried in Iowa, Peltier was tried in Fargo, South Dakota by a jury that did not represent his peers (Linder, Famous Trials: Leonard Peltier trial, paragraph 20). Peltier was found guilty in spite of the preponderance of very doubtful evidence. Ballistics analyses could not definitely tie Peltier’s gun to the casings found at the murder scene because his gun was damaged in a motor vehicle fire.
The Government Agents were apparently chasing one vehicle: it was both a red pickup truck and a red and white van. Witnesses were coerced. Even a Federal Appeals Court has found this case to be gross travesty of justice. “As late as November 2003, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that ‘…Much of the government’s behavior at the Pine Ridge Reservation and its prosecution of Mr. Peltier is to be condemned. The government withheld evidence. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not disputed’” (AIM For Freedom For Leonard Peltier)
Opinion The credibility of any judicial system rests on the fact that it can be trusted by the people to administer justice impartially. When judicial system can be manipulated, especially by the government, to disregard the principle of innocent until proven guilty, it is not Leonard Peltier alone who is the victim. We are all victims because the judicial system loses its credibility at home and abroad. Since his imprisonment, many world-renowned figures have called for his on the grounds that he is a political prison.
Amnesty International, the 14th Dalai Lama, the Belgium Parliament, the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights, the Italian Parliament, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Italian Parliament, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the European Parliament have all called for his release (See Resolution). The continued imprisonment of Peltier also undermines the United States in it efforts to be a beacon of justice, equality, and fair play. As long as the world continues to see Peltier as a political prisoner, America’s call on other nations, like Cuba and China, to release their political prisoners would ring hollow, if not seen as hypocritical.
Worst of all, if the government can plant evidence, distort evidence, coerced witnesses, and intentionally falsify documents just to get a conviction in one case, what will stop it from doing the same in any other case? On a larger sociological point, the Pine Ridge Indians see the case of Peltier as another reason why they should be skeptical about the government seeking their interests. This is the same reason why African Americans have distrusted the government, especially law enforcement.
If the government wants to be a government for all people, regardless of race, creed or ethnicity, justice must be blind and never, even manipulated by the government. References AIM For Freedom For Peltier, 2009. An Internet publication. Retrieved on 12 May 2009 from http://www. whoisleonardpeltier. info/background. htm Linder, Douglas. 2006. Famous Trials: The Leonard Peltier Trial, 1977. Retrieved on. 12 May 2009 from: http://www. iterasi. net/openviewer. aspx? sqrlitid=eguyvxdeae-dwr5whj8t6g Resolution on the case of Leonard Peltier. European Parliament. 1999-02-11. Retrieved on 12 May 2009 from: http://www. webcitation. org/5LSGc933r.