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From worker-brc-news@lists.tao.ca Mon Jan 8 07:19:58 2001
Date: Mon, 8 Jan 2001 00:18:44 -0500
From: Leonard Peltier Defense Committee <lpdc@idir.net>
Reply-To: kevinmck@silcom.com
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Put a Close to This Sad Chapter
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Put a Close to This Sad Chapter

Commentary by Kevin McKiernan <kevinmck@silcom.com>
Los Angeles Times, Sunday 7 January 2001

SANTA BARBARA -- I don't know which American Indian killed FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams in a notorious South Dakota shoot-out 25 years ago. Nor do I know the identity of the federal lawman who shot and killed Joe Stuntz, the American Indian Movement (AIM) member, whose body I photographed afterward. But I was there on June 25, 1975, outside the Jumping Bull ranch on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, when some of the bullets were flying. A stray round hit my pickup, and my memory is still fresh of crouching low behind the truck with my portable tape deck, recording the exchange of gunfire for a National Public Radio broadcast.

The government has never produced an eyewitness in the deaths of the agents, and prosecutors admit they still don't know who actually killed Coler and Williams. But AIM leader Leonard Peltier, one of the estimated two dozen Indians present on the 40-acre reservation that day, has admitted that he participated in the firefight. A U.S. appellate court upheld his murder conviction as an aider and abettor, but the court chastised the FBI for its use of fabricated evidence in securing Peltier's extradition from Canada and for withholding from the jury an exculpatory ballistics test conducted on a rifle attributed to Peltier.

Amnesty International maintains that Peltier, who is 56 and has been in jail for the last 25 years, did not get a fair trial. Now, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, the organization is one of several groups petitioning the president to commute Peltier's sentence.

Two other AIM members were acquitted in the case, on grounds of self-defense, despite testimony that they had fired in the direction of the agents. The jury also heard evidence about COINTELPRO, the FBI's counterinsurgency program used against AIM, and a representative of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission testified to the climate of fear on the reservation before the 1975 shootings. Other testimony challenged FBI assertions of neutrality in the tribal civil war that followed AIM's takeover of the historic reservation village of Wounded Knee two years earlier. Two Indians were shot to death at Wounded Knee; a dozen Indians and two lawmen also received gunshot injuries during the 10-week takeover.

There have long been allegations that the FBI chose sides in the internecine conflict that took place from 1973-75 between AIM-led traditionalists and a vigilante group of mostly mixed bloods who called themselves the GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation). But testimony concerning FBI activities on the reservation before the 1975 killings was excluded by the judge in the case of Peltier, who was tried separately from the other two defendants.

In fact, the climate of fear back then was all too real, and it matched anything I have experienced reporting from war zones like El Salvador and the Middle East. In those days, the reservation seemed like the Wild West, and almost everyone was armed. I once was threatened with guns in my face when I tried to film a GOON squad roadblock; another time I was slammed up against a wall by GOONs, who tended to perceive the entire press corps as AIM sympathizers. The brakes on my car were cut, and, on one occasion, a high-powered rifle blew a hole in an automobile in which I was riding. My experiences pale by comparison to the beatings, fire-bombings and drive-by shootings were common during the period; at least 25 murders of Indians still remain unsolved. Former South Dakota state Sen. James Abourzek said that the near-lawless atmosphere on the reservation approached total anarchy.

District U.S. Judge Fred Nichol, who tried many of the Wounded Knee cases, once told me in a filmed interview that The FBI and the GOON squad worked pretty much together... because they were against AIM. In a 1984 televised interview, which I conducted for PBS's Frontline, a leader of the GOON squad claimed that FBI agents provided his group with intelligence on AIM and, in one instance, armor piercing bullets for use against AIM members who, like the GOONs, were heavily armed at the time.

A few years ago, Gerald W. Heaney, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals that upheld Peltier's conviction, petitioned the White House to commute Peltier's sentence. Heaney stated in a letter that the FBI shared the blame for the two agents and one Indian killed in the South Dakota shoot-out. He said that the government overreacted to the 1973 occupation at Wounded Knee. Instead of carefully considering the legitimate grievances of Native Americans, he said, the response was essentially a military one that culminated in a deadly firefight on June 26, 1975.

Before he leaves office, President Bill Clinton can provide closure to a difficult and divisive period in Indian history. As Heaney wrote in his clemency plea, At some time, the healing process must begin. We as a nation must recognize their unique culture and their great contribution to our nation.