John Trudell BOOKS & THE CULTURE The FBI Takes Aim BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN INCIDENT AT OGLALA Directed by Michael Apted 66 liked the whole idea of letting people involved at the time tell the story,” John Trudell, one of those people, said in a telephone interview. “I liked letting the audience make up its own mind.” Incident at Oglala is a cinematic inquest into what happened on June 26, 1975 at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Narrated by Robert Redford, who also served as executive producer, the film examines a shoot-out between two FBI agents and members of the American Indian Movement that resulted in the deaths of both federal officers and one AIM man. Incident at Oglala proceeds chronologically, from the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota in February 1973 to the present, the 16th year of Leonard Peltier’s lifetime incarceration for the murder of the FBI agents at Oglala, on Pine Ridge. It weaves brief statements by people involved witnesses, lawyers and law officers into its exposition. The FBI refused to cooperate, though three prosecutors did agree to face the camera. One maintains: “YoU don’t simply retry cases simply because people aren’t satisfied with the result that the jury came up with.” Yet when an audience makes up its own mind about the story, it is likely to conclude that Peltier deserves a new trial, if not exoneration. Home to 10,000 Lakota at the time of the shootings, Pine Ridge had the highest rate of homicide of any area in the United States. “It was a war zone,” declares AIM leader Dennis Banks. The combat was between “full bloods” and “mixed bloods” designations defined less by genealogy than attitudes toward indigenous traditions. With the aid of his GOON \(Guardians Of the Oglala president of the tribal council, conducted what Trudell describes as “a reign of terror” against local full bloods and the members of AIM who came to Pine Ridge to protect them. More than 60 murders remain unsolved. The violence of June 26, 1975, occurred within a context of corruption, collusion and despair. Despite a massive manhunt, Leonard Peltier, one of those present at the shoot-out, managed Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature living in San Antonio. to slip across the border to Canada. However, Darrelle Butler and Bob Robideau were apprehended and placed on trial for the deaths of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams. When a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, jury acquitted them, federal authorities pressured Canada to extradite Peltier. After their defeat in Cedar Rapids, prosecutors made sure that their case, before a very different kind of judge, in a Fargo courtroom, would be much stronger. Peltier was convicted, and sentenced to two consecutive life terms, on the basis ofquestionable evidence: the red-and-white van he was driving was not quite the same as the red pickup observed at the scene of the crime; rifle casings alleged to connect Peltier to the shootings could not have come from the murder weapon; and, most blatantly, Myrtle Poor Bear’s testimony that she was Peltier’s girl friend and had seen him shoot the agents was inaccurate on both counts. The most dramatic moment in Incident at Oglala occurs toward the end, when a masked man who calls himself “Mr. X” tells the camera that he, and not Leonard Peltier, killed the two agents. “This story is true,” says Peltier from prison about Mr. X’s account, “but I won’t testify against him.” Deprived of freedom and virtually all hope, Peltier explains his stoicism: “I’ve got my dignity.” In a telephone conversation from California, Trudell is coy about whether he knows the identity of Mr. X. “I didn’t see him putting his mask on,” he says, indignant that a substitute should have to be produced in order to free Peltier. “There are integrities involved here. We’re being asked to provide someone to take Leonard’s place. Either they have the evidence to fairly convict Leonard, or they don’t. To me, what is most important is the fact that the government manufactured evidence. They didn’t alter evidence; they made it up.” Incident at Oglala is one of two recent films made by English director Michael Apted that focus on murder at an Indian reservation. The other, Thunderheart, is a fictional varia THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.