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Home » Culture and Criticism

18/31: Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story

Submitted by on December 19, 2011 – 11:00 PM2 Comments

John Douglas has a line in The Cases That Haunt Us where he's wrapping up the Lindbergh case, and after reviewing all the evidence, disputed and otherwise, he's like, "So, did Hauptmann do it? I think he did something."

My conclusion about Leonard Peltier's trial for the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation in the mid-'70s, is about the same. I think the FBI held a match up to a powder keg that day; I think it's impossible for anyone, including the victims had they lived, to tell us with any accuracy what went down exactly during that firefight; I think we can deduce that Peltier did not receive a fair trial and still has not received fair treatment from the government in terms of producing documents, pretending that "truck" and "van" are porously interchangeable when it comes to a murder case, etc.; and I think Peltier knows more than he's telling. I don't know if he shot at the agents, or finished them off execution-style, or knows who did, or murdered Anna Mae Aquash because she thought he did, or what. But I think he did something.

The film itself is a bit confusing at times; director Michael Apted (the Up series) doesn't chyron the interviewees, and most of the time, it's clear from context who's speaking and I like that he trusts us to keep up, but sometimes it gets muddly. He keeps a good pace, though, and the brisk editing reflects the confusion of the shoot-out and the two-sides-and-then-the-truth nature of the story. Many stories about Native Americans, including non-fiction narratives, devolve via the best of intentions into black-and-white cartoons starring pet eagles, respect for the land, and the tragic hubris of the paleface — the Sioux is noble, peaceful, and kind of humorless; the emissary of the Great White Father is craven, grubby, and eminently easy to starve to death. Apted neatly dodges that kind of patronizing "woe is kindly Iron Eagle" oversimplification. In fact, while Apted may not have meant to point the audience in that direction, you may start to wonder whether Peltier would admit to a more nuanced (or at least involved) role at this point, except such an admission doesn't play as well for activist leadership as "he did nothing, he's the victim of a grave injustice." Imagine coming from generations of history that mean nobody is allowed to act a fool, or get swept up, or position himself as anything less than righteous.

It's raffishly built, I'd say, but a solid doc that sticks with you.

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  • Matt says:

    An interesting companion piece that came out about the same time was Thunderheart, with Val Kilmer and Sam Shepherd. It references the real life events of the documentary to some extent, but it's the excellent Graham Greene as a tribal cop who makes the movie.

    Except I don't know why the cast Fred Ward as an Indian tribal leader. That one still puzzles me. But look, skinny Val Kilmer! in a striped polo!

  • Kitty says:

    Oh god, Leonard Peltier. Some of the most heated arguments I've ever had with my father have been over this man and this case. I'm Native American (although not Sioux) and my parents were card-carrying members of AIM, so this case was always something that was discussed in my house throughout my youth.
    I agree with you; Peltier still did something, or knows something more than he's said. I absolutely think however that the man has done his time for whatever crime/act he was responsible for.

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