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Leonard Peltier Supporters Hoping for a Presidential Pardon

A column by Adrian Jawort about Leonard Peltier.

To Leonard Peltier supporters, the fact that Barack Obama has taken such personal interest in the U.S. government’s relations with American Indians renews hope of a presidential pardon after he was denied parole in 2009 for his role in the murder of two FBI agents on June 26, 1975.

However, there’s one glaring obstacle in the way of his way potential freedom, and ironically it stems from one of his biggest adherents that brought his plight to the public eye: Peter Mattheissen, the author of the controversial 1983 book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. The book brought Peltier’s case to fame—“immortalized” him—and he’s since garnered sympathy from the likes of Indian country to two Nobel Peace Prize winners to a host of A-list celebrities who deem him a political prisoner.

After Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams approached an American Indian Movement (AIM) compound on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in search of a suspect named Jimmy Eagle, they were incapacitated by a hail of gunfire before being summarily executed. This is not disputed. But according to Matthiessen’s version of events, it all began when a brawl ensued after a night of drinking and cowboy boots were stolen. The FBI was looking for the perpetrators of the stolen item(s), and one of the culprits named Teddy Pourier was described in In the Spirit of Crazy Horse as “a small light-skinned boy who could have passed for a white anywhere else.”

Truth be told, however, Pourier was a six-foot, 200 pound Oglala Sioux with long traditional hair in his early 40’s and the brawl was anything but a typical boys will be boys-type scenario. Pourier, Eagle, and two others had held captive at gunpoint college student Jerry Schwarting and an actual boy of 14 named Robert Dunsmore. For an entire night the victims were beaten as guns were fired over their heads repeatedly. Dunsmore was kept undressed and had bruises on his forehead from the barrel of a gun being pressed against it. That’s why the FBI searched for Eagle—not because of cowboy boots.

Perhaps Mattheissen had a case of mistaken identity when describing Teddy Pourier, but his misleading tone sets a precedent if one reads between the lines. If Mattheissen told the real backdrop of the cowboy boots story, it’d detract from his continuous narrative of creating contempt against agents of the state who only sought to oppress Indians instead of serve them. 

Indeed, it was renowned Harvard Law School Professor Alan M. Dershowitz who noted in a New York Times book review that because Matthiessen goes out of his way to obtain a paranoid atmosphere, he “inadvertently makes a strong case for Mr. Peltier's guilt. Invoking the clichés of the radical left, Mr. Matthiessen takes at face value nearly every conspiratorial claim of the movement, no matter how unfounded or preposterous. Every car crash, every unexplained death, every unrelated arrest fits into the seamless web of deceit he seems to feel was woven by the FBI and its cohorts.”

Following Matthiessen’s assumptions, a list of 57 AIM supporters whose deaths were supposedly never investigated by the FBI was produced by Peltier supporters. When the cases were reviewed, most of the actual murders listed in their jurisdiction were in fact prosecuted. Undoubtedly tensions between the GOONs and AIM led to violence, but many deaths listed were the result of automobile wrecks, domestic violence, children playing with guns suicides, and exposure. Also listed as supposed murdered AIM supporters were a 9-month-old baby who died after an inebriated mother fell while holding her, and a 16-month-old and his 7-year-old sister who’d been abused to death.

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Dershowitz wrote while reading In the Spirit of Crazy Horse that he wanted to shout at Matthiessen for his naivete because “…allegations, such as systematic beatings and ‘contracts' on the lives of AIM leaders, do not seem credible. Mr. Matthiessen surely provides no proof beyond the self-serving claims of the alleged victims and their partisan lawyers.”

Caught up in such a frame of mind, Mattheissen was easily taken in when the late AIM member Bob Robideau contrived a plan of conjuring up a shadowy, sunglass wearing, black hooded figure by the name of “Mr. X.” Before In the Spirit of Crazy Horse was printed in its 1992 second version, the secretive Mr. X went on record for it claiming he committed the murders Peltier was framed for. He did the same act for the Robert Redford narrated Incident At Oglala film. While Mr. X ‘s intent was to further the case of Peltier’s innocence, his fabrication has condemned him to being a permanently imprisoned martyr.

In Serle L. Chapman’s (Cheyenne) extensive interview with AIM member Dino Butler in the book We, The People of Earth and Elders Volume II, Butler said he was adamant against using the Mr. X illusion. Creating lies to fight liars would make them “lose in the end.” Mr. X was utilized anyway for what Butler called hidden agendas—he said Robideau sold the Mr. X story to Oliver Stone and Robert Redford’s scriptwriters for $10,000 a piece. Perturbed, Butler told anyone who asked about Mr. X the story was “bullshit” since other AIM members had collectively agreed not to use the story. “I believe the story was concocted just to keep Leonard in jail longer,” Butler contemplated to Chapman.

Matthiessen called Butler and was “pissed-off” his credibility had been put in doubt, and Peltier also called and asked why he didn’t back the Mr. X story. In Chapman’s book, Butler said he simply told Peltier that it was because it was lie, and then explained his reasoning:

I said, “Imagine Leonard if I’m the President of the United States and there’s this piece of paper on my desk to release this Indian man who was convicted of killing two FBI agents but now he’s gotten so much support that people want to release him; but this Indian man is sitting in prison and he’s saying, ‘Yeah, I know who killed those agents but I’m not saying because it’s the warrior way and I don’t snitch on my own people.’ And I said, ‘Me, as the President, I’m not going to release you.’ Nobody is going to release you. You came out after the Mr. X story and that’s what you said, ‘Yeah, I know who Mr. X but I’m not going to snitch on my brother, that’s not our way.’ So who do you expect to release you, Leonard? Don’t you see why this story was created?”

When Peltier supporters catch the ear of the president, it’s a question Obama will undoubtedly ask himself. It’s also a question Peltier and his supporters will also have to acknowledge if they want their argument for a presidential pardon taken seriously.

A lifelong Montana resident, Adrian Jawort is a freelance journalist, writer, and poet. A proud member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, he is a contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network as well as Native Peoples, Cowboys & Indians and many other publications.