Native Issues in the Halls of Government


Pine Ridge’s ‘reign of terror’

When my professional journalism career, such as it is, began about 34 years ago, I learned about the case of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement (AIM) activist serving two consecutive life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents in a June 26, 1975, shootout at Oglala, on the Pine Ridge reservation (So. Dakota).

I began corresponding with Peltier, and later conducted prison interviews with him, in the 1980s. Peltier is still in prison, at the federal lock-up in Coleman, Fla. According to Wikipedia, his release date is Oct. 11, 2040, when he will be 96.

In the 1980s, I spent some time at Pine Ridge, and heard stories about the years following the 1973 government siege of Wounded Knee, the tiny hamlet that was liberated by AIM and traditional Oglala Lakotas from the reservation. The period from 1973 to 1976 saw an upsurge of political violence, as the BIA tribal government under Richard "Dickie" Wilson essentially terrorized the AIM faction at Pine Ridge.

Assaults and murders of the tribal government’s political opponents became commonplace, and the U.S. government – which conducted the original massacre at Wounded Knee, in 1890 – sided with Wilson and his goons (who took up the epithet, and called themselves Guardians of the Oglala Nation).

The uninvestigated murders at Pine Ridge continue to trouble the families of the victims. In June, the New York Times reported that Pine Ridge tribal officials called on the U.S. government to reopen dozens of cases that its says the FBI mishandled nearly 40 years ago.

"In many of these cases, the issue is not the lack of evidence and the attendant need for more," the tribe wrote in a letter, on May 23, to Brendan V. Johnson, the United States attorney for South Dakota, according to the Times. "Rather, in many cases the issue is the potential impropriety of those required to investigate and prosecute these deaths."

The newspaper reported that the tribe says it believes that at least 28 deaths required an official re-examination, in part, "to determine whether the cases were closed for legitimate and conclusive reasons, notwithstanding the potential criminal implication of federal agents."

In response to the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s request, Kyle A. Loven, an FBI spokesperson, told the Times:  "If there’s ever any new information on these deaths, the F.B.I. will of course take a look at that information." Otherwise, Loven added, "the F.B.I. does not have any intention of reopening these cases just to reopen them."

The problem, however, is that the FBI was neck-deep in the violence on the reservation, essentially running a counter-insurgency war against AIM – this is the "potential criminal implication of federal agents." While AIM members were prosecuted at every opportunity, acts of GOON violence generally were overlooked by the U.S. authorities.

Kevin McKiernan, a veteran war correspondent, now based in California, was at both Wounded Knee and at the shootout at Oglala. "The Spirit of Crazy Horse," a 1990 PBS Frontline documentary film he co-directed, with Michel Dubois, examines the role of U.S. authorities in fomenting GOON violence at Pine Ridge.

I talked with McKiernan in late June, and we discussed some footage in his film, in which Duane Brewer, a leader of Wilson’s GOON squad, recalls that an FBI agent provided him with intelligence about the location of AIM supporters, and some "armor-piercing .357 magnum ammo… Just give ’em to me. Them are expensive rounds. You don’t get them anymore; they only go to law enforcement people. But we had ’em, we had all that stuff." Brewer told McKiernan that the ammunition was provided by government agents for use in the war against AIM.

The FBI used the years of political conflict on Pine Ridge as an opportunity to create a SWAT team – like the one that the U.S. Marshals Service ran at Wound Knee, according to McKiernan. He mentioned that George O’Clock, who served as the special agent in charge of the Rapid City office of FBI, said that the FBI, from 1973 to 1976, "rotated 2,500 agents through the Pine Ridge Indian reservation and gave them training for their SWAT team."

"It was a civil war that was going on and [the FBI] chose sides," said McKiernan, who now is raising funds for a sequel to "The Spirit of Crazy Horse."

The case of imprisoned AIM activist Leonard Peltier represents the selective "justice" employed during a sordid period of repression in Indian country. We will see what justice the Oglala Sioux tribal authorities can get now.