A few years ago I picked up a book called In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. I’ve always been drawn to the story and stories of the indigenous American people. One of my favorite books growing up was about a Native American kid who grew up with his grandfather but somehow ended up in a government-run boarding school where he was forcibly “cured” of his traditional ways — only English was allowed; he had to cut his hair short; rituals were punished. He ended up on the rodeo circuit at one point, and things got so bad that he finally went back to try to live on the land, following the lessons he barely remembered being taught by his long-dead grandfather about hunting, praying, cleansing… It was a beautiful story of shame and redemption. I’ve tried to find this book since, and can’t. Someday, I hope.
In the meantime, I devour books that tell about those who lived on this land long before we arrived. Crazy Horse brought that story all the way up to today. It’s one thing to read about the genocide my ancestors carried out against the native people they found to be savages. It’s quite another to read a story that carries it all the way to today. The book tells the story of escalating violence on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970’s, culminating in a shoot-out and the deaths of two FBI agents, and of a single Lakota man who has been imprisoned, quite probably wrongly, for more than 30 years.
Leonard Peltier — Lakota, activist, and member of the American Indian Movement (or AIM) — was involved in the events on Pine Ridge, working to protect the residents against the brutality of the local authorities, self-titled GOONS (Guardians of the Oglala Nation). Those local authorities, by many accounts, were misusing their power and brutalizing their constituents. The FBI got involved. It’s still unclear to me as to why. To protect the constituents? more likely because the activists involved were perceived as insurgents under the FBI’s Cointelpro — counter-intelligence-program — initiative. Some think it’s because of the uranium deposits found under Pine Ridge.
Fomenting chaos can be a great distraction so that leases can be bought up by mining companies without folks noticing.
Whatever the reason for the FBI’s attention, things boiled to a head in the summer of 1975 and, tragically, two FBI agents were shot and killed.
There followed a string of what seems to me shameful actions on the part of the FBI and the courts in the understandable but dangerous zeal to make someone accountable for those deaths. Those actions included questionable decisions from the bench about permissible evidence, and affidavits obtained under duress/threats.
Another activist involved at the time in the events at Pine Ridge, Anna Mae Aquash, is the one who uncovered the story of uranium deposits and land leases being purchased by the mining companies. Anna Mae was murdered shortly after that summer. Like the dozens and dozens of other murders on the reservation, hers remains unsolved. But pictures of her dead body were used by FBI interrogators to threaten one of Peltier’s past girlfriends who then signed the affidavit that was used to extradite him from Canada. That same affidavit directly contradicted witness testimony used to convict Peltier, but the court refused to allow the jury to see it.
Countless doubts have been raised about Peltier’s guilt. Numerous advocates have stood behind him. The evidence used to convict him is riddled with inconsistencies and holes. He has always held to the claim that he did not kill the FBI agents. One possibility for the continued refusal to consider parole or pardon is that Peltier is seen as too dangerous — for his activism and influence among The Nations, not because they think he pulled the trigger — if he were to go free.
Uranium mining continues to decimate the water table (quantity and quality) in that area.
The whole story is told in excrutiating detail by Peter Matthiesen in The Spirit of Crazy Horse (who also wrote the novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord). Above is a readers digest version. Any errors in fact are mine.