Peltier, Coler and Williams
John McCain said recently in the context of President Obama not pressing the Iranians enough on the rigged election and the violent crackdown on the protests in Tehran, that “America is the moral leader of the world”. Well, there are many, many examples to refute that piece of propaganda—or is bullshit a better word?
One of them is the case of imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier. From the beginning of this blog two weeks ago, I decided to use it to make non-Indians aware of Indian issues past and present.
Thirty-four years ago today, one day after the 99th anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn and the death of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, FBI Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald Williams were killed at point-blank range on the Jumping Bull Ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Two years before, AIM members Dennis Banks and Russell Means, along with many others, held the U.S. Government at bay in the town of Wounded Knee, made infamous in 1890 for the massacre of innocent Lakota elders, and men, women and children, and recounted in the Dee Brown book, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” and the 2007 HBO original production by the same name, starring Aidan Quinn, Anna Pacquin and Adam Beach, who I had planned to work with when producing the film I mentioned in my very first blog.
Pine Ridge was a war zone during that time thanks to then-Pine Ridge Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson and his Guardians of Oglala Nation, otherwise know as the “goon squad”. On many reservations, the FBI also serve as the police force, although Indian nations in America are supposed to have sovereign status, therefore, being legally entitled to have their own police force like the Navajo and others have. I guess that’s what happens when your reservation is very near to gold and uranium like Pine Ridge is.
This was back in the early 70s when J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was running rampant, in part due to Hoover’s paranoia. Fred Hampton had been assassinated just a few years before. The Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall book, Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, from South End Press is a thorough account of this dark chapter in American law enforcement.
AIM member Leonard Peltier was charged with being one of three AIM members, armed with AR-15 guns that killed the agents. Peltier fled to Canada, was apprehended and extradited back to the U.S. allegedly with fabricated evidence. The other two men charged with the murder, Dino Butler and Bob Robideaux, stood trial and were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. Leonard’s fate would not be the same. For more on Peltier’s case, there is the Robert Redford-produced documentary Incident at Oglala and there is much online. It’s been nearly twenty years since I did anything on Peltier. In fact, my last Sequoyah interview was with Peltier. But I have forgotten much of his case because it happened before I was even aware, whereas the Eddie Hatcher case happened before my eyes.
I had interviewed Peltier several times while producing Sequoyah. The first time I interviewed the legendary civil rights attorney William Kunstler was about Peltier. It was about 6:00 pm on a Tuesday, I trekked down to his office in the basement at 13 Gay Street and sat and waited. He was in court. And there was an elderly Chinese couple also waiting. Kunstler walked in and spoke with the Chinese couple for about twenty minutes and then summoned me. He let his secretary go home and I sat alone with Kunstler in his office, asking him questions about Peltier’s case that he must have answered a million times before without frustration or fatigue. He was a true gentleman.
Before first interviewing Kunstler, there was a Lakota man named Two Elk helping me produce Sequoyah. He had the tape recorder I used and I wanted it back to interview Kunstler. He tried to talk me out of it. I insisted. He brought the recorder back and gave it to me and I never saw or heard from him again. He was afraid of the FBI. Me? I was so naïve back then to any reprisals or surveillance.
I remember once when I wanted to interview Leonard (I realize I’m calling him Leonard now, which is how I used to refer to him) about his artwork. I called the prison official at Leavenworth as you always had to do because prisoners had to call you collect. I had interviewed Leonard a few times before about his case—the political stuff. This was about artwork. Suddenly, the prison official did not want to grant permission. I was perplexed. He thought Leonard would be making money. I assured him that I wasn’t making any money and certainly wasn’t paying Leonard. The official was afraid that because I was publicizing Leonard’s artwork, Leonard would be making money from the sales of his artwork. I told the official I had no control over that. Finally, the official relented and Leonard called. It’s been a long time since I’ve really listened to any of those reports.
Today, while looking up Leonard to prepare for this blog, I saw that he had been moved from Leavenworth to Canaan Federal Penitentiary in Waymart, Pennsylvania where, this January, he was attacked by a gang of youths and beaten severely, put in solitary and his diabetes dietary requirements were not met. It was, to my thinking, obviously a set-up by those who wanted Leonard dead and he was left to die.
Many consider Leonard to be America’s foremost political prisoner in the sense that the conditions under which Leonard was convicted, the allegedly falsified ballistics report that Kunstler referred to and what many believe to be essentially prosecutorial misconduct. Since Butler and Robideaux were found innocent for reasons of self-defense, someone was going to pay for the execution style killings of Coler and Williams, the U.S. Government was determined to make someone pay.
Throughout the years, Leonard has gotten the support of Nelson Mandela, Amnesty International, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Dalai Lama, the European, Belgian and Italian Parliaments, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others.
The FBI hates Leonard, protesting outside the White House in 2000 to protest the possibility that Clinton would pardon him. When Clinton did not, it has been reported that David Geffen withdrew his support for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and turned his support to Barack Obama. Maybe Obama will pardon Leonard at the end of his presidency, whenever that will be.
I do not condone or celebrate the killing of Coler and Williams, which is why I included there names at the top of this piece. The FBI report states that Williams had a bullet wound in his hand as the bullet passed through his hand to his head, obviously held up in terror. Coler, the FBI said, had been incapacitated by bullet wounds and was shot twice in the head, execution style.
A few points: the FBI has obviously been known to lie, Pine Ridge was a war zone and many innocents died. The murder rate at Pine Ridge prior to Coler and Williams’ deaths was the highest per capita in the United States. The FBI was perceived to be on the side of Wilson’s goon squad, which terrorized traditional elders, if memory serves, resulting in many deaths and homicides which were not investigated. That does not mean Coler and Williams deserved to die, especially the way they seem to have. That also does not mean that Peltier did it. The ballistics evidence, I remember Kunstler saying in 1987, had been fabricated.
There are perhaps more questions than will ever be answered. One of those questions is, while Peltier’s supporters and anyone familiar with the case and the times can tell you the names of the two dead FBI agents, can anyone of Peltier’s enemies within law enforcement tell you the names of any of the 50 innocent victims of Dick Wilson’s goons who used intimidation, drive-by shootings and murder? No. It was a war zone. Reportedly, one member of the goon squads, Duane Brewer, stated that the FBI had assisted the goons, even giving them armor-piercing ammunition.
Is this an example of America’s moral example and leadership that McCain and Graham believe we exhibit around the world? Like I said, it’s bullshit, sick-making bullshit.
Regardless, Leonard is up for parole this coming July 27th. I’ll have more information about his case then.