By Peter Matthiessen
Copyright © 1991 Akwesasne Notes
In the spring of 1983, two months after the publication of my book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, the publisher, Viking Press, and I--and also some South Dakota booksellers--were sued for libel by former governor William Janklow for $24 million. In January, 1984, the publisher, attorney Bruce Ellison, and I were sued by FBI Special Agent David Price for $25 million, or $49 million in all.
Since Price had assured me in our lengthy interview for the book that he never made a move without the approval of his superiors, and since an FBI agent's salary could never pay for the very expensive attorneys he retained, it was assumed that the FBI itself had sponsored this suit in order to lend some credibility to the suit by Janklow (who was already suing Newsweek on related grounds), and that both suits were intended mainly as chastisement and harassment as well as a means of keeping the book out of circulation.
Eight years of litigation, and 8 court decisions, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, have borne out the original opinion of Viking's attorneys that the book was free of libel. The main victim of these intimidation suits has been Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement leader, and the subject of the book, who was deprived of his main organizing tool in his fight for justice. Peltier is still in prison, convicted of murdering 2 FBI agents in a shootout, near Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1975.
He has yet to be granted a new trial, despite court findings that the government withheld evidence favorable to him that "casts a strong doubt on the government's case". In the past year, my own belief that Peltier is innocent has been strengthened by different evidence altogether.
On February 17, 1990, in a small house in the Pacific Northwest, I was talking with Peltier's cousin Bob Robideau, when he lifted his gaze to acknowledge someone behind me who had quietly entered the room. A small, husky figure passed us without a word, and slipped into a chair against the wall. The man was faceless in a dark blue woolen hood pulled all the way down to the collar of a black windbreaker. Opaque black glasses covered his eyes and black gloves hid his hands; excepting a long strand of raven hair that fell from beneath the hood, the only parts of him that were exposed were his nose and a small line of brown-olive skin bared at the wrist. It was this man who, on June 26, 1975, killed FBI agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
In the summer of 1988, disturbed that Leonard Peltier had already spent 13 years in prison for the agents' killings, with no end in sight, "X" had come to Robideau and offered the latter permission to name him as the killer to the FBI. However, he said, he felt no guilt and did not believe he deserved to go to prison, and if subpoenaed, would deny that he had done it. Robideau might have agreed to this proposal if he'd thought it would truly help Peltier, but he know that Leonard's conviction for "aiding and abetting" would not be overturned even if the authorities could be convinced that another man had pulled the trigger.
I asked Bob how he could be so sure that this man was not lying, and Bob said simply "I saw him do it." Robideau, Peltier, and Darrelle (Dino) Butler had known for 15 years who killed the agents, but because X had been on a mission for the AIM group on that hot June day, and because the FBI agents had provoked the fatal shootout, they agreed with X that no crime had been committed. (Robideau and Butler were acquitted in a separate trial.)
In a deep, whispering voice--the hood looked bulked by something wrapped around his mouth--X told me how Peltier and Butler had requested he bring explosives from Rapid City to their camp for use in making hand grenades and other weapons. ("We had learned at Wounded Knee," he said, referring to the armed standoff between AIM and the government two years earlier, "that explosives keep 'em at a respectful distance.")
On the morning of June 26, with the explosives loaded into a friend's pickup truck, he headed south, then east, across the reservation. As they passed the large water tank at Oglala Housing, they noticed two late-model cars that turned onto the country road and followed them eastward toward the Jumping Bull farm. X said his partner turned off into the westernmost of several long dirt roads onto the property, and as they neared June Little's cabin, they saw the two strange cars turn off and follow them onto the farm--no longer a working farm, but a group of shacks and cabins strung out along a bluff that overlooks a lower pasture and corral and thick woods leading down to White Clay creek.
Seeing the cars, X and his partner waved to June Little and kept going, following a grass track over the bluff and down the hill into the pasture and up[hill again to a Y fork in the farm road. There they stopped, not wishing to lead the unknown cars down to the AIM camp in the river woods or back uphill into the Jumping Bull community off to the east of the Little cabin.
"We were naturally apprehensive because we would have received a 10-year sentence for illegal possession and transport of the explosives--I usually made these deliveries at night-- and we couldn't be certain who those people were." Since Indian autos are rarely new, they already supposed that these were white man, whether lawmen or rancher vigilantes they didn't know. The pursuing cars came down the long and muddy farm road from the highway and paused at the Little cabin, where one driver was seen to speak briefly to June Little, after which, a little faster now, they came lurching down the hill and across the pasture. "We decided to stop and confront the situation; we had to deal with them."
X and the driver got out of the red pickup, holding semi-automatic rifles. "There were AR-15s all over the Rez, after Wounded Knee," he said. "We never raised those guns, I been around enough to know that pointing a gun is considered to be assault, but we wanted them to see weapons, as a warning, because we were on Indian property now, and we weren't going to let them chase us around. Anyway, when they saw those guns, they stopped immediately."
The two cars halted in the middle of the lower pasture, one behind the other, and two white men got out and took weapons from their trunks. "Then one of them raised his weapon to his shoulder, and we jumped behind the truck, and when he fired we responded with a burst over their heads."
I asked X if he was certain the strangers had fired first, since rumor was that the Indians had opened fire with a warning shot. He shook his head. "There was no reason for us to fire first. We had a truck full of explosives. The very last thing we wanted was a firefight." He acknowledged that the white man might have fired toward the pickup and that the shot might have been some sort of signal.
At the racketing of gunfire, armed Indians appeared out of the cabins. "There was others got into it, I don't know who. At first it was just covering fire so people in the cabins could get away, just like Wounded Knee. We could have killed lawmen at Wounded Knee if we had wanted to." While this first exchange was taking place, the men at the AIM camp by the White River were grabbing their guns and running uphill, still some distance away.
With bullets flying, X and his partner jumped into the pickup and drove it up behind the cabins, where they quickly unloaded the boxes of explosives from the bed. By this time, though they didn't know it, the men and young boys from the AIM camp had joined the fight, having taken up positions on the bluff, whereas most of the Indians living in the cabins had fled into the woods and across the fields. X and his partner drove the red pickup back toward June Little's cabin, planning to head on out, but about that time another car came onto the farm from the country road and "we fired a few rounds at its tires to stop it where it was." ("Agent Adams" I said, and X just shrugged.) " We hung around a little while trying to see what we could do to help. It was us those men had followed in here, and we thought we ought to help to get them out. At that point, we looked down at their cars and saw that both of them were out of commission."
By now, both agents had been wounded. Their fire had subsided, as had the Indians, though sporadic shooting was taking place behind the cabins and the lawmen beginning to gather on the country road. X decided that the only hope was to take hostages. "We wanted to stop the shooting quick, trade our way out of there."
Bob Robideau nodded, still mystified as to why the strangers, hopelessly outnumbered, had not retreated or at least sought cover in the nearby woods that descended from the pasture to the river. The only conclusion seemed to be that they were expecting reinforcements, and those reinforcements gathered swiftly. Within 10 minutes, the lonely country road to the north was lined with cars, and soon the farm would be surrounded. "There was a terrific sense of hurry," X said. "The situation had to be resolved quickly."
A few weeks earlier, when we met in Seattle, Bob had wondered why the men in the red pickup came down the hill to take the agents hostage, since he and his partners were doing the same thing. "We had left the woods and were coming up on those cars from behind." The next thing they knew the red pickup was coming down the hill. He saw the man in the passenger seat, and an AR-15 sticking out the window.
Neither X nor his partner recalled seeing the 3 men sneaking across the pasture from the woods; they were concentrated on the two men by the cars. "Both of them looked like they were out of it," X was saying. "I sure didn't expect any resistance." The red pickup drew up almost alongside and X jumped out with his AR-15. "One of them was sitting on the ground, leaning back against the car door with his rifle across his lap. He never moved but he didn't look dead, his eyes were open. The other was kneeling in the pasture grass a few feet away, bent over with both hands between his legs, rocking in pain, like he'd been kicked in the groin. I was about to say Don't move and you won't get hurt something like that, but I never had time, because when he seen me, he made some kind of a grunt, maybe he cussed, and he raised both hands, holding a handgun, and he fired at kind of an angle, down into the ground. Later I wondered if he'd fired prematurely or even by mistake, but there wasn't much time to figure things out, because after he fired, he kept on coming up with that damned gun."
"And he never said anything?"
"If he did, his voice was drowned out by his gun, and anything further was drowned out by mine. I only fired 2 or 3 rounds--him once and the other feller twice."
X said after a pause, "I'm not a person who gets rattled easily, just the opposite in fact." (Here I glanced at Robideau, who told me later "What he said was true. He's not the kind to lose his head. This man was committed to our Indian struggle a long time before this, and he's still committed. He has really sacrificed for his beliefs.") "But I have quick reactions," X was saying, "and I've always been pretty good with a rifle, and I wasn't going to give that guy a second shot. I never even raised my gun, I fired from the hip, because he was only a few feet away, it was point blank range. The other one was armed and might be shooting for all I knew, but I didn't even have time to think: I can't afford to take a chance. I swung around in the same motion, and shot him too."
It was revealed in the trials that the second man, Jack Coler, was already near death from loss of blood, but all X saw was a man sitting up, and the man was armed.
"I didn't shoot those men because I was angry or nervous. I wasn't mad at them. I wasn't! If I'd wanted to kill them, I could have done that easily from a safe distance, without risking danger in any way." X was breathing heavily behind his hood. "I fired because I couldn't afford to wait for a second shot from either one of them. If our positions had been reversed, he would have shot me, I know that much."
"So the other guy's eyes were open?"
"Was he looking at you?"
"But he never made a move of any kind?":
"No." X shifted unhappily. "I thought the first one was incapacitated too, and he'd just shown he had the capacity to kill me. Shooting them was just fear and quick reaction, all in one motion...instantaneous, a split-second response."
"It was self-defense then. There was no element of anger?"
"I'm absolutely sure it was self-defense, though I understand why others might question that. Sure I was apprehensive, partly apprehensive, partly calm, the way you are in combat. But I wasn't angry. We weren't fighting because we hated white people but because we loved our own. It was only later I felt angry. I thought you stupid bastards coming in here where you were warned there would be trouble, then starting a shootout with women and children in those cabins, and then not getting the hell out while you still could--you got yourselves killed, you got Joe Stuntz (an Indian) killed, and you spoiled the lives of so many good people!"
X ran back to the red pickup, where his partner was "freaking." Remembering the man's terror, X shook his head. "The poor guy wasn't one of us, he wasn't a longtime AIM or anything, he was just drawn into helping us by my enthusiasm. And here he was, mixed up with two dead bodies!"
"I stayed there, over by the green cabin till we went down to take hostages," Bob reflected, "I never saw that red pickup at all until it was coming down the hill, while we were sneaking up across the pasture." In Seattle, he'd told me they were blocked by the agents' cars and couldn't see just what was happening. "All we knew was, a few shots were fired, and the red pickup took off back up the hill and went out of there." But now he acknowledged he had recognized X as the man in the passenger seat.
The red pickup went out, past the Little cabin and left the property by the east road, past Jumping Bull Hall. "There were already roadblocks along the paved road," X said, "but they weren't set up right. We were ready to shoot our way out, but nobody tried to stop us, and we went back to Rapid (City). I don't mean it was over for me. It isn't over for me even today. I stayed visible and I stayed active and I tried to avoid seeming paranoid."
"Here you are in a friend's house, with another man who is in sympathy with your predicament, having to hide behind a hood like some kind of a terrorist, how does that make you feel?"
He shifted in his chair, and barely nodded. He said that he had never gone underground, "I am hiding in the light", but one way or another, since those few shattering seconds in that hot noontime 16 years ago, he had been condemned for life to wear a mask.