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Review essay: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.

The story of the publication and disappearance two months later of in the Spirit of Crazyhorse is nearly as bizarre as the arrest and trial of American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier, the subject of the book. Peltier was found guilty of first-degree murder in the June 1975 shooting deaths of two FBI agents at Oglala, on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota and was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. He has served 15 years in federal penitentiaries. Two million dollars in legal costs spent in fighting off multiple libel suits and eight years later, Peter Matthiessen's 600-page case study of a contemporary war against Indians is thankfully available again.

Matthiessen has published six novels, including At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Killing Mr. Watson, and 10 works of nonfiction, including Indian Country and The Snow Leopard, which won the National Book Award. Matthiessen also edited George Catlin's North American Indians. Already recognized as a major national and international literary figure (he was a founder of the Paris Review) when he tackled the Crazyhorse project, the book was expected to become an easy best seller, which could very well produce a public outcry and a new trial for Peltier. Less than a year before the book was published, Peltier's attorneys had filed for a new trial based on fabricated FBI evidence. Later in the year a new trial was denied. The book was extremely timely and would have had an impact. Instead, it hardly hit the bookstores before it was withdrawn and eight years elapsed before it was again available in 1991. A paperback edition is also now available. During that period, publicity about the Peltier case remained limited to the resources of the hard-working Peltier Defense Committee. Although Amnesty International had adopted Peltier as a political prisoner and his name was known worldwide as a heroic figure, there was virtually no mainstream publicity about his case in the United States.

The initial libel suit, for $24 million, was brought in the spring of 1983 against the author, The Viking Press, and several booksellers in South Dakota by that state's former governor, William Janklow. The publisher withdrew the book. In early 1984, FBI Special Agent David Price sued for $25 million. Matthiessen states in the "Epilogue" to the new edition:

Since Price had assured me in our lengthy interview 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 his suit in

order to lend some sort of 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 this book out of circulation (p. 561).

The litigation went through eight court decisions and to the Supreme Court. Finally, the book was found to be free of libel. Presently, Peltier is relying on the possibility of a presidential commutation of sentence, so public knowledge and public pressure are more crucial than ever for justice to be done. The book's availability is again timely, with the heightened interest in Native American issues due to the Columbian Quincentennial.

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is divided into three sections. The first spans the period from early relations between the Sioux and the United States -- 1835 to June 26, 1975, when the Oglala shoot out took place. The second section is a detailed reconstruction of the event itself and continues through to the 1977 conviction of Peltier. The third part covers the tortuous litigation to free Peltier up to the initial publication of the book in 1983. Matthiessen has added to the new edition an epilogue that updates the litigation and traces the lawsuits that suppressed his book. In an "Afterword," Martin Garbus, Matthiessen's attorney who fought the lawsuits, provides a brief account of the litigation.

In a concise introductory chapter, Matthiessen illuminates the historical context (1835-1965) within which the 1975 events at Oglala and the subsequent trial of Peltier took place. Without that historical understanding, the recalcitrant attitude and behavior of the federal authorities remains mysterious, as does the defensive posture of the Lakota. The direct line between the army massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, the uprising at Wounded Knee in 1973, and the FBI assault that led to the death of two agents in 1975 is key to the Peltier case.

The year 1890 marked the bloody ending to 25 years of unrelenting war against the Plains Indians. Undefeated in battle, the Indians were crushed and colonized only when their economic base was destroyed; the army wiped out 90 million buffalo in the space of a few years.

The immediate situation that led to the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre was the federal government's insistence that Ghost Dancing in Sioux country be stopped. The Ghost Dance was a product of a vision by the Paiute messenger, Wowoka, which revealed that if the Indians danced enough, the white men would disappear and the buffalo and the dead warriors would return. Ghost dancing spread across the entire continent west of the Mississippi as the Native peoples were incarcerated in reservations, stripped of dignity and self-reliance.

By mid-November 1890, the dancing had overshadowed all other activities in Sioux country. Schools were empty and no farm work took place. Government agents expressed panic that the Sioux were planning another uprising, even though it was obvious that they had no physical means to do so. One community under Big Foot's leadership increased to 600 dancers, and when agents attempted to halt the dancing, Big Foot led the people away from the reservation.

Washington demanded a list of names of "agitators" and among those submitted was the name of the Lakota spiritual leader, Sitting Bull. An arrest order went out and troops were dispatched to the Pine Ridge reservation. On December 15, 1890, 43 federal police surrounded a few hundred people at Sitting Bull's compound at Standing Rock -- with cavalry at the ready a few miles away. In the shooting that followed, Sitting Bull lay dead.

Hundreds of Hunkpapas, Sitting Bull's people, fled and took refuge in the Ghost Dance communities or at the Pine Ridge agency. Some 100 reached Big Foot's Minneconjou camp near Cherry Creek on the same day that the War Department issued an order for the arrest of Big Foot. When Big Foot learned that Sitting Bull had been killed, he led his people toward Pine Ridge to turn themselves in to the agency for protection. As they neared Porcupine Creek on December 28, they encountered four troops of cavalry. Big Foot raised a white flag and met with Major Samuel Whitside of the Seventh United States Cavalry, who told Big Foot that he had orders to take him to the army camp on Wounded Knee Creek. There were 120 men and 230 women and children among the refugees. Upon arriving at the camp, the major issued rations and the Sioux set up camp.

Surrounded by cavalry and targeted by two Hotchkiss cannons, Big Foot and his people camped for the night. Under the cover of night, the remainder of the Seventh Regiment marched in and Colonel James W. Forsyth, the commander of Custer's former regiment, took charge. He had orders to take Big Foot and his people to the military prison in Omaha and he installed two more Hotchkiss guns on the hill overlooking the Sioux encampment.

The soldiers celebrated their success with whiskey. They were aware that there were Sioux warriors in Big Foot's camp who had been in battles when Custer commanded the Seventh Regiment; revenge may have played a role in their subsequent behavior. However, no officer or soldier involved was court-martialed or even reprimanded for his actions.

The following morning, the people were searched for weapons and a few guns were stacked in the center of the camp. Not satisfied that all weapons had been found, officers searched the tepees and then did skin searches. They took axes, knives, and tent stakes. Then, routinely, the soldiers opened fire and the Hotchkiss guns were all fired on the unarmed refugees. The immediate dead reached 153, but others died later with the final count of those piled in a mass grave reaching over 300. Twenty-five soldiers were killed, apparently struck by their own crossfire. The wounded survivors, four men and 47 women and children, reached Pine Ridge in the evening and were left lying in open wagons in the sub-zero winter.

The story of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, still officially called a "battle" in military texts, is known to every Sioux and is a tale of genocide. Yet another story lies within that holocaust: "The spirit of Crazy Horse" -- resistance. During the fierce military attacks on the Sioux following the Civil War, the traditional Lakota chief, Red Cloud, began negotiating away Sioux rights and territory, flattered by the perks offered by the invaders. In 1866, a young warrior named Crazy Horse insisted on resistance and went against the hereditary leadership. Sioux resistance led the United States to sue for peace and resulted in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which for the Sioux remains the sole authentic relationship between their sovereign nation and the United States.

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the sacred heart of the Sioux nation, the United States violated the 1868 Treaty by appropriating the territory. The warfare that followed culminated in the 1876 battle of the Little Big Horn, led by Crazy Horse and the spiritual leader of the resistant forces, Sitting Bull. There Custer's entire regiment was destroyed. The following year, Crazy Horse was murdered. It is interesting that the FBI began its 1975 assault on the Jumping Bull compound on the anniversary of the Little Big Horn, June 25.

In a full chapter, Matthiessen traces the rise of the American Indian Movement, and its adoption of Crazy Horse's strategy, from 1968 through the siege of Wounded Knee in 1973, and the aftermath. Since the time of Crazy Horse, the Sioux have been deeply divided between the "progressives" and the "traditionals." Another characterization of the two camps is "half-breeds" and "full-bloods." Matthiessen explains the distinction:

Full-blood traditionals sometimes refer to the mixed-bloods as

"breeds" and to themselves as "skins"...but since many mixed-bloods

resist the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], while certain full-bloods

have reason to endorse it, these terms refer less to actual blood ratios

than to cultural attitudes. Older traditionals who speak Lakota call the

mixed-bloods iyeska, or "those-who-speak-white," the name given to

the scout-interpreters of the nineteenth century, most of whom had a

"squaw man" for a father.... Despised and exploited, the traditionals

-- many of them full-bloods who spoke little English -- were the

people who suffered most from despair and apathy, poverty and unemployment,

alcoholism, and the random angry violence that besets

depressed Indian communities to a degree almost unimaginable to

most Americans, who still suppose that "the government takes care of

the Indian." In truth, the government takes care of the "progressive"

Indian who does not resist the assimilating policies of the BIA (p.


The American Indian Movement emerged among young Indians in the urban ghettos, where Indians had migrated for work or had been enticed by relocation, and in prisons. As Milo Yellow Hair explains in the excellent 1990 PBS "Frontline" documentary, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (not based on the Matthiessen book), "it became cool to be Indian with all the white youth wanting to be Indians." He explains that when the young urban Indians sought their roots, they found the traditionals still there "like a library that never got used" and that the young Indians returning were "like people who recently discovered their face."

The encounter of angry young Indians, who had largely lost their language and culture, and the traditionals produced a bolt of lightening, an explosive energy. So when the unending division between the progressives and traditionals swelled to the breaking point in 1972 on the Pine Ridge reservation under the chairmanship of progressive Dick Wilson, it was perfectly natural, but also very courageous, for the traditionals to invite the American Indian Movement in to help them. Wilson then deputized progressive cohorts, who called themselves "Guardians of the Oglala Nation," AIM called them Wilson's "goon squad." Their sole purpose was to harass traditionals who associate with AIM and AIM activists themselves.

Having exhausted all channels for federal intervention to get rid of Chairman Wilson, the traditionals and AIM seized the trading post in the tiny hamlet of Wounded Knee, just down the hill from the mass grave of the 1890 massacre. The symbolism was powerful, with Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee a best seller for two years. For once in the history of Indian-U.S. relations, the American public overwhelmingly supported the Indians.

After the 71-day siege ended, the AIM leadership was entangled in long felony trials and hundreds of Indian activists were harassed and even killed under mysterious circumstances. Many others, mostly local activists, were framed and imprisoned. This was the period of the FBI covert program, "COINTELPRO" (Counterintelligence Program), when the American Indian Movement and the Black Panther Party, along with other antiwar and civil rights organizations, were listed by the FBI as "terrorist" organizations. A reign of terror against the traditionals and AIM families ensued on the Pine Ridge reservation under Wilson's vindictive leadership and implemented by his "goons," one of whom, Duane Brewer, admits they were provided with armor-piercing ammunition from the FBI occupiers. Matthiessen covers the period in depth; an even more detailed account is Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall's book, Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (South End Press, 1988).

In a heart-breaking capsule biography of Leonard Peltier (pp. 41-51), using mostly Peltier's own words, Matthiessen traces the birth of an American Indian Movement warrior. Peltier was born in 1944, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where the family stayed when they were not on the migrant-worker circuit picking potatoes. Peltier's maternal grandmother was "full-blood Sioux, my father was three-quarters Ojibwa, one-quarter French." He was enrolled at the Turtle Mountain Chippewa (Ojibwa) reservation. His parents divorced before he started school and he stayed with his grandparents near Turtle Mountain. They moved to Montana where his grandfather died. His childhood was a life of grinding impoverishment, and he was shuttled from place to place until at age 10 he was placed in a federal boarding school for Indians.

When Peltier was a teenager, his mother migrated to the Pacific Northwest for work and he followed. By the age of 20, Peltier was part owner of an auto body shop in Seattle and was active in the Indian community, a community involved in a decade-long, intensive struggle for their fishing rights. In 1970, Peltier was involved in his first AIM-type activity, the seizure of Fort Lawton outside Seattle, during the occupation of Alcatraz. Indian activists who knew Peltier in those days describe him as already a dedicated activist, a leader.

Peltier returned to Turtle Mountain and then traveled with Dennis Banks to the Southwest and Los Angeles overseeing AIM chapters. In November 1972, he joined the "Trail of Broken Treaties" caravan, which ultimately occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. Peltier was then one of the AIM activists inside Wounded Knee.

In recounting Peltier's story, Matthiessen weaves together the history of the period and introduces dozens of AIM activists and traditional people. As John Trudell comments in the feature documentary based on Matthiessen's book, Incident at Oglala: "We were a generation caught between the past and the future in a society that wants to deny us a present." Peltier remains stranded in that vacuum.

The third section of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse deals not only with the litigation and FBI misdeeds surrounding Peltier's trial and appeals, but also with Peltier himself, his development in prison, holding on strongly to his ideals, taking up painting, working on his own defense. It is a portrait of a calm, dedicated, humble leader who draws strength from the support he receives and from his Indian heritage and the Indian people -- not of a broken man. He is living testimony to the continued injustice against American Indians. Whether in prison or free or dead, he will remain a thorn in the side of the United States government and its "Indian Policy."

The film version of Matthiessen's book, Incident at Oglala, produced and narrated by Robert Redford, is disappointing. None of the life and spirit of the movement or Peltier is allowed to come through. It has the feel of having been made by a committee rather than by the artist that British film maker Michael Apted is. A dry litany of legal and technical facts told mostly by attorneys in monotone, the film is mind-numbing. Even Peltier talks dull legalese, unlike in other filmed interviews, such as the excellent CBS "Sixty Minutes" segment which aired September 22, 1991, and the already-mentioned PBS "Frontline" documentary, where his passion and character glow. Another independently produced hour-long documentary, Warrior, is also much more alive and showcases Peltier's development as an activist.

The director of Incident at Oglala, Michael Apted (who made Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist, and the highly acclaimed documentary Seven-Up), must have felt that the documentary hadn't worked, for he spun off a vibrant fictional account of the material and directed Thunderheart, which has been a near blockbuster in theater malls across the country. The film stars Val Kilmer (The Doors) and Sam Shepherd as FBI agents, but Chief Ted Thin Elk, who is a traditional Lakota, not an actor, steals the show as a medicine man. Veteran AIM leader John Trudell plays the role of an Indian militant being hunted by the FBI agents. Trudell is also the only interesting and passionate voice in the documentary. Trudell, whose wife and children were incinerated in a mysterious house fire soon after Wounded Knee, is a poet and in recent years has been performing his poetry to music. His video and audio production, AKA Graffiti Man, bridges the gap between politics and art.

Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse will live on as a great work of literature and a late-20th-century documentation of Leonard Peltier's and the American Indian peoples' journey toward justice and sovereignty. Only an informed citizenry in the United States can insist on justice for Peltier and assure that the government completely reviews and revamps its policy toward the indigenous peoples within U.S. borders. With In the Spirit of Crazy Horse available, no good-willed U.S. citizen can claim not to know what their government is doing.

ROXANNE DUNBAR ORTIZ is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies, California State University, Hayward, CA 94542. She is the author of numerous books and articles on indigenous peoples of the Americas including The Great Sioux Nation: Oral History of the Sioux-U.S. Treaty.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Crime and Social Justice Associates
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ortiz, Roxanne Dunbar
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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