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Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story

July 7, 2011

Robert Redford’s and Michael Apted’s film Incident at Oglala details the shooting of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and the subsequent trial and eventual conviction of Indian activist Leonard Peltier.  The film itself does not take sides on the issue of Peltier’s guilt; it instead uses recordings of interviews to shape the audience’s view of the event.

In February of 1973, activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM), and Indian rights occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee (within the current borders of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), the site of a massacre of between 150-300 Sioux Indians by the U.S. 7th Cavalry in 1890.  The 1973 occupation was in protest of living conditions on the reservation and the rule of tribal chairman Dick Wilson, whose impeachment trial had recently been closed.  A stand-off resulted between AIM members and police, FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police.  The occupation lasted for 71 days, until both sides agreed to disarm in early May.  The on and off fighting resulted in the death of two AIM members, and a U.S. Marshal was paralyzed.

Following the Wounded Knee Incident, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation went through a very turbulent time (chronically, this is where the film begins).  At the time, there was significant conflict between supporters of AIM, who championed a return to traditional ways, and supporters of Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson, who was happy to work with the BIA.  This conflict led to significant violence, mostly perpetrated by Wilson’s supporters, known as GOONs (Guardians of the Ogala Nation).  GOON squad members repeatedly intimidated and murdered AIM activists and their families.  In 1974, the murder rate on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was 8.4 times higher than that of Detroit, which, at the time, was considered the murder capital of the U.S.  At least fifty opponents of Dick Wilson were murdered, and between 1973 and 1975, there were sixty unsolved murders on the reservation.  The level of violence created an atmosphere of fear among residents and a warzone-like atmosphere, meaning AIM supporters were constantly aware of the threat of attacks.

It was in the environment of terror and violence that the death of the two FBI agents happened.  Two FBI agents in unmarked cars followed a red pick-up truck (though this fact was later disputed by the prosecutors of Leonard Peltier), matching the description of the vehicle driven by Jimmy Eagle, a Native American wanted on petty theft charges, into a small compound.  Not long after the FBI agents entered the compound, shooting started, but it is unclear if it was the FBI agents, the occupants of the pick-up truck, or those at the compound that started the shooting.  Neither the occupants of the pick-up truck or the residents of the area were fully aware of the identity of the FBI agents.  Many of those interviewed in the film say they acted out of self-defense because they assumed the occupants of the unmarked cars were there to kill AIM activists.  Both FBI agents were wounded in the initial shooting, and then they were both executed at close range (an Indian was killed later).

Following the shooting, many of the Indians involved fled.  Two Indians, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, were captured and tried for the murder of the FBI agents, but to the surprise of the prosecutors, they were both acquitted.  Following their acquittal (and Peltier’s capture in Canada), the FBI stepped up his efforts to convict someone of the killings.  Peltier fought extradition to Canada, but a statement by a woman claiming to be Peltier’s girlfriend convinced the Canadian government to extradite him.  The state of the woman’s mental health seemed questionable, and she changed her story many times.  In the film, she appears and says she was intimidated by FBI agents in testifying and says she did not know Peltier at the time.  Peltier tells the same story.  The actual trial was quite one-sided, and Peltier was convicted of both murders and given a sentence of two life terms.

Many pieces of evidence used by the prosecution during the trial were either flimsy or completely false.  A piece of evidence was that a shell casing from the AR-15 supposedly used by Peltier during the shootout was found in the trunk of one of the agents’ cars, and a ballistics expert testified that the bullet came from Peltier’s gun.  There had been several AR-15’s at the scene, but the prosecution did not present any further bullets from the other AR-15’s, and it’s not even clear if Peltier had an AR-15 during the shoot-out.  A few years later, it was revealed that the ballistic expert had performed a further test, and had confirmed that the bullet found in the trunk did not come from the rifle associated with Peltier, but that evidence was withheld from the jury.

Another piece of questionable evidence that led to Peltier’s conviction was the vehicle that the agents followed into the compound.  Over the radio, one of the FBI agents had reported that they were following a ‘red pick-up truck’, the car driven by Jimmy Eagle.  Peltier, at the time of the shooting, drove a vehicle that was a bit of a cross between a van and a sedan.  The prosecutors presented the idea that the FBI agents had been referring to Peltier’s vehicle by the term ‘pick-up truck’, and therefore it had been Peltier’s car they had been following, giving the theory that he executed the agents more credence.  The film shows Peltier’s car, and also shows various individuals involved in the case sharing their views on the vehicle driven into the compound.  It seems that it is incredibly unlikely that the FBI agents mistook Peltier’s red and white van/sedan for a red pick-up truck.

There were not any direct witnesses of the killing of the two agents, but three, young Indians gave testimony placing Peltier at the scene of the crime.  Their statements, however, were somewhat contradictory, and also contradicted statements they had earlier made.  One of them was featured in the film stating that his affidavit in court was a lie and that he was coerced by the FBI into appearing as a witness for the prosecution.

In addition to faulty evidence, the jury was prejudiced by the intense security it received during the trial.  The jury was shuttled between the courthouse and the hotel every day in a school bus with curtains over the windows, and was always escorted by at least three SWAT teams.  Observers of the trial were told to be careful when they left the courtroom, and to always lock their cars.  All of these extra security measures prejudiced the jury against Peltier, because AIM activists, and Native Americans as a whole, were portrayed as dangerous and a real threat to the lives and property of those involved in the trial.

Ultimately, the prosecution did not have any reliable witnesses of the murders, nor did it have any physical evidence that Peltier, versus the many other Indians firing on the police cars, was the one who walked up to the two wounded agents and executed them at close range.  The prosecution also invented the mix-up about the vehicle the agents followed into the compound, leaving no substantial elements of Peltier’s guilt.  Regardless of the facts, Peltier was convicted and given two life terms.  He is still incarcerated and has had numerous appeals turned down.

His imprisonment has attracted significant attention from the international community, and many well-known organizations and individuals have come out in support of his release.  In 2000, Amnesty International issued a statement to the United States Congress declaring Peltier a political prisoner and called for his immediate release.  The Dalai Lama, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Michael Moore, Dustin Hoffman, Helen Mirren, Mikail Gorbachov, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the European Parliament, the Bundestag, the Italian Parliament, the Dutch Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, and many more have all come out in support of Leonard Peltier.    If you’d like to take action, you can visit this website http://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info/index1.htm, which has links to and instructions on how to contact your congressperson. If you’d like more information, you can visit the above website or this one http://www.aimovement.org/peltier/index.html.  You can also watch either Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story or the 1990 documentary The Spirit of Crazy Horse.  Peltier has also written a book entitled Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance.

MPT Intern-Danny Hirschel-Burns

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