From email@example.com Mon Jan 8 07:19:58 2001
Date: Mon, 8 Jan 2001 00:18:44 -0500
From: Leonard Peltier Defense Committee <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Put a Close to This Sad Chapter
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
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
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
Frontline, a leader of the GOON squad claimed that
FBI agents provided his group with intelligence on AIM and, in one
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.