Havoc, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Dogs of War

The violent confrontations splashed across the media in the last few days recall not just another Avatar-esque confrontation between militarized resource-exploiting corporations and local indigenous inhabitants– and yet another ironic use of an appropriated Native name– but also the sordid 523-year history of the use of dogs by European colonists to attack Native Americans.

First, some background.  Dakota Access LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, has recently received permission to build an underground pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois.  The goal is to transport Bakken crude oil to a terminal that will connect it with Gulf Coast and East Coast refineries and markets.  The pipeline is controversial among white farmers, as eminent domain was used to acquire private farmland for a private oil enterprise.  The pipeline is controversial among Native Americans, especially the Dakota and Lakota of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, because the pipeline passes under the Missouri River just a mile upstream of their land.  (Note it was a pipeline under the Yellowstone River that ruptured and caused large oil spills in Montana in 2011 and 2015, affecting drinking water.) At the same time, construction of the pipeline disturbs sacred sites and burial grounds.  The tribe argues that the required consultation with them was insufficient and has filed for an injunction to stop construction.  A ruling is expected on September 9.


This woman, especially, has allowed herself to become a cog in the wheel of exploitation.  Note the blood already on her dog’s lips.

In the meantime, construction is sometimes halted, sometimes not, in a sometimes-violent game of cat-and-mouse with protesters.  Shots have been fired, construction equipment set on fire, and chiefs have been arrested.  Most of the protests have involved nonviolent actions.  And then,  on September 3, during a holiday weekend just days before a court ruling, there was mace and attack dogs, used by the company while law enforcement watched from a distance.  Several nonviolent protesters were bitten, including women.

Natives from tribes across the land have traveled there in solidarity, while others have sent material aid.  Over 100 nations have passed resolutions in support of the Standing Rock Sioux in this battle.



Back to the dogs, the most visceral part of the video above.  The use of trained attack dogs against Native Americans goes back to the Spanish conquest.  It began in 1493, with Columbus’ second expedition, a military style invasion with seventeen vessels.  In his famous account of Spanish barbarity and genocide, Devastation of the Indies, Bartolome de las Casas writes:

DakotaAccess2the Spaniards train their fierce dogs to attack, kill and tear to pieces the Indians. It is doubtful that anyone, whether Christian or not, has ever before heard of such a thing as this. The Spaniards keep alive their dogs’ appetite for human beings in this way. They have Indians brought to them in chains, then unleash the dogs. The Indians come meekly down the roads and are killed. And the Spaniards have butcher shops where the corpses of Indians are hung up, on display, and someone will come in and say, more or less,”Give me a quarter of that rascal hanging there, to feed my dogs until I can kill another one for them.” As if buying a quarter of a hog or other meat.
Other Spaniards go hunting with their dogs in the mornings and when one of them returns at noon and is asked “Did you have good hunting?” he will reply, “Very good! I killed fifteen or twenty rascals and left them with my dogs.”

DakotaAccess3He relates another story where a Spanish expedition, traveling through Nicaragua, was running low on food for their dogs.  They tore a child from his mother’s arms, cut off his arms and legs, and fed him to the dogs.

War dogs were used in Florida in 1528, when the fated Narváez expedition used them to kill a chief’s mother DakotaAccess4near Tampa Bay.  They were a key instrument in De Soto’s deadly foray through the American southeast in the 1540’s, terrifying local chiefs into compliance.  An entire book has been written on the subject, Dogs of the Conquest, which describes mastiffs, greyhounds, and wolfhounds that became renown, with names like Becerillo, Leoncillo, Amigo, and Bruto, and who could distinguish natives from Castilians, disemboweling Indians in seconds at the command tómalos, “take them.”


After the dog confrontation on Saturday, the company backed down and left the site.  But with a $3.7 billion project on the line, and oil deliveries already contracted to begin before the year is out, the company will certainly return.  (However, Enbridge has just backed down from a similar pipeline project running through Ojibwe rice harvesting lakes.  It seems that economic factors, like the low price of oil, may have been the deciding factor there.)  The Standing Rock Sioux, have established a dedicated protest camp and vow to protect the river.  Furthermore, the protest may be becoming a rallying point for larger issues involving climate change, national priorities, and tribal sovereignty.  Even with a federal court ruling in a few days, this conflict is likely far from over.

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Burkini Bans, Cultural Assimilation Policies, and National Identity

In recent weeks, beachgoers along the French Riviera have witnessed the unusual site of fully uniformed police officers, some complete with flak jackets, walking on crowded sandy beaches among speedos and thong bikinis, handing out $43 citations to people wearing too much clothing.


Over two hundred years ago, the French Revolution championed the poor, downtrodden, and underclass.  It was a landmark moment in the development of civil rights and democracy in Europe.  In 1903, these words were engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the US, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”   These sentiments have their limits.  Two years later, France adopted a policy of religious freedom and the promotion of secularism.  The ultimate goal was to mold French society, and all of its citizens, into a homogeneous culture, regardless of ethnic or religious backgrounds.  Today, these policies have reared their ugly head in the form of bans on traditional Muslim clothing.  Ironically, the new law reads like a religious edict, “Access to beaches and for swimming is banned to any person wearing improper clothes that are not respectful of accepted customs and secularism.”


These policies are, of course, prejudiced, designed to stigmatize certain ethnic groups as second-class citizens.  They attempt to define what it means to be French—and to be not-French.

American reaction has been tepid, torn between libertarian ideals and anti-Muslim sentiment.  As of now, it seems unlikely the US will follow France’s path.  Nevertheless, the US does have a long history of similar controversies.  Battles over discriminatory dress codes are regular in public school settings involving youth.  Examples include bans on dreadlocks, cornrow, and Afro hair styles, feathers on graduation caps, and facial hair.  As with the burkini ban, there have been the usual appeals to hygiene and distractions as rationale for the bans.  The US also has a history of nationwide policies designed to mold the nation along specific ethnic and religious lines.  (See this blog post about past US immigration policy.)  Here are some more significant examples of cultural assimilation policies targeting Native Americans:

  • From the late 1800s thru the 1970s, the US’s official policy toward Native Americans was assimilation, to “kill the Indian, save the man”. Throughout this period, hundreds of thousands of Native children were removed from their homes and send to far-off boarding schools, where their traditional long hair was cut off, their traditional clothing and language was banned, and often they were given new “Christian” names.  Even on reservations, Native religious ceremonies were banned until 1978.


  • In the 1950s, the US began implementing “termination”, a policy that abolished old treaties and banned the official status of entire Native tribes (much like Turkey refuses to acknowledge the existence of Kurds).
  • As recently as the 1970s, up to one-third of Native children were removed from their homes and sent to group homes or foster homes with white parents. (At the same time, up to 25% of Native women were sterilized, often without their consent, dropping the Native fertility rate in the US from 3.3 to 1.3 children per woman.)

Like Muslims in France, these measures were meant to “Americanize” Native Americans, to repress their language and culture and to remold them into the larger ambient culture.

The operative question is whether a nation defines itself as a homogenous or multi-ethnic society.  The candidacy of Donald Trump poses this question to the Republican Party.  While the US is saturated with reminders of white supremacy and celebrations of ethnic cleansing, US law, at least on paper, embraces respect for different religions and ethnicities.  When the French diplomat, Alexis de Tocqueville, published Democracy in America in 1835, he warned that democracies risk falling into a tyranny of the majority.  Given that 64% of French people support the burkini ban, it seems that tyranny has arrived on the French Riviera.  The victims, this time, are traditional Muslim women.

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New Landmark Book Documents Genocide by Design in California

MadleyA recently published book, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 by Benjamin Madley, provides a thorough and exhaustive review of the well-documented but poorly-known genocide of Native Americans in California, primarily after the Gold Rush.  Madley provides appendices that list every local account of killings by vigilantes, as well as details the state and federal government funding and policies that encouraged them.  It may prove to be a landmark work in the documentation of genocides worldwide.  As Yale University Press states, “Madley considers why the slaughter constituted genocide and how other possible genocides within and beyond the Americas might be investigated using the methods presented in this groundbreaking book.”

Some of the reviews:

“Madley’s extraordinarily comprehensive research leaves no source unexplored: state and federal archives, legislative reports, memoirs and manuscripts, and library collections. This is the definitive account of California’s genocide.”—Tony Platt, News from Native California

“An American Genocide provides one of the most detailed and stunning narratives of violence, murder, and state-sponsored genocide in North America, making this book a major achievement in the fields of both Native American history and Genocide Studies.”—Ned Blackhawk (Yale University)

“This book is a powerful contribution to the study of Native Americans, to California history, and to genocide studies as a whole. It should be read by every Californian.”—Norman Naimark (Stanford University)

“Benjamin Madley has changed the conversation on genocide and American Indians. After An American Genocide, it will no longer be possible to debate whether or not genocide took place. Instead we will need to confront the questions of how and why genocide against American Indians took place and what the United States owes its indigenous communities.”—Karl Jacoby (Columbia University)

Madley also raises questions for today regarding official government apologies and reparations (in a context where the State takes a cut of Indian casino earnings, and where the State continues to deny aboriginal fishing and hunting rights to most tribes).

For more information and reviews, see:

This book would be a timely read for a certain professor at Sacramento State, a genocide denier who got into a very public conflict with a Native student.

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Occupied Lands: The Great Sioux Nation

This is the first installment of a multi-part series looking at lands that were ethnically cleansed of Native Americans, focusing on what has become of those lands today, and what has become of the people that lived there. 

The Sioux call themselves the Lakota, Dakota, and (historically) Nakota, all of which mean “allies”. The word “Sioux” is derived, via the French, from an Anishinaabe word meaning “those who speak another language”.  They are a large and complicated nation, divided into many sub-tribes, which have evolved and moved over the centuries.  Originally from the Minnesota region, many of them moved west hundreds of years ago, pressured by Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and ultimately white expansion.  They were traditionally divided into seven groups, sometimes called the Council of Seven Fires.  It was the Lakota, or Teton Sioux, that first moved out onto the High Plains, further subdividing into seven more groups.  This is the primary group that fought Red Cloud’s War, in which the Lakota (with Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho support) effectively defeated the US, culminating in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which created the Great Sioux Nation (GSN).  (Note:  Most of the Dakota bands followed a different historical path.  In the aftermath of Little Crow’s War in 1862, they were removed from Minnesota onto a variety of reservations, where they suffered from high rates of starvation and disease.)

Sioux bands

The boundaries of the GSN, combined with the Unceded Lands, encompassed nearly 90,000 square miles, including parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.  According to the treaty, it was “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians and no unauthorized person shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in.”  The terms also defined Hunting Grounds beyond the GSN, which encompassed large portions of Colorado and Nebraska, plus a tiny corner of Kansas.  It lasted about eight years.

Great Sioux Nation map

In 1874, after trespassing white pioneers reported gold in Paha Sapa, the sacred Black Hills near the center of the GSN, President Ulysses Grant ordered Generals Sheridan and Custer to lead an expedition to confirm the rumors.  They did, and immediately published it in prominent eastern newspapers.  Despite no Lakota attacks on the resulting flood of trespassers, Grant contrived a war to “open the country” to white gold prospectors.  This led directly to the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Custer’s Last Stand), the eventual surrender of the Lakota, their imprisonment on reservations, the assassinations of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and the massacre at Wounded Knee a generation later.


The Homestake Gold Mine, the primary reason for the abrogation of the Treaty of 1868 and the imprisonment of the Lakota.

Originally, the US wanted one thing from the GSN:  gold.  Looking back from the present across the entire area, one economic operation dwarfs all others:  the Homestake Gold Mine in the Black Hills.  Opened in 1876 during the contrived war, the mine helped create the Hearst family fortune.  Delved 8,000 feet deep, it is one of the largest and deepest gold mines in the world.  It’s fair to say the occupation of the GSN and removal of the Lakota was motivated by this sole enterprise.  Thus the GSN was essentially a “banana republic” to be toppled, like Guatemala toppled for the United Fruit Company in 1954 (with the ensuing genocide of its indigenous people) or the covert coup in Iran in 1953 to protect British Petroleum (BP).

But the GSN did not persist even as an American puppet state.  It was taken over by the US federal government by 1877 and eventually absorbed into various states of the union (in 1889 and 1890), while the Lakota languished on reservations.

The Great Sioux Nation Today

Today, 17% of the GSN is comprised of five Indian reservations.  There are several more reservations to the south and east.  Another 11% is federal lands (including Black Hills National Forest, Mount Rushmore National Monument, Custer National Forest, and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument).  The Homestake Gold Mine makes up less than 1% of the land mass.  The remaining 71% is in private hands, primarily white farmers and ranchers.

Buffalo Gap NG

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Driving across it, one sees a lot of open country.  It’s the kind of place where you fill your tank when you can because you don’t know when you’ll get to the next town.  Despite the low population density, it is still probably higher than it was in the 1800s.  At the time the Sioux had a population of about 25,000, or about 0.28 people per square mile, which is relatively high for a nomadic society that engaged in little farming.  Hunting buffalo was central to their subsistence, culture, and lives.  The population of the GSN today is roughly 420,000.  The buffalo herds are gone and the area is used for primarily as range and pasture, plus some crops (hay, corn, soybeans, and wheat).  Range and pasture land is worth $600 to $1500/acre; cropland is worth almost double that.


Hearst Castle in California, built with profits from the Homestake Gold Mine in the Black Hills.

In 1923, the Lakota filed a claim against the US for the illegal seizure of their lands.  The case was eventually resolved by the US Supreme Court in 1980 in favor of the Lakota.  The Court ruled that the Lakota were entitled to compensation in the form of money for the value of the land, plus interest going back over a hundred years.  This came to over $100 million.  The Lakota, however, assert that “the Black Hills are not for sale”, and to this day have refused the money.  The funds sit in a US government account, collecting interest, and now total over a billion dollars.  That’s a lot of money, over $50,000 for every Lakota household.  However, it doesn’t compare with the value of the land today ($46 billion, assuming a modest value of $800/acre) or the value of the gold removed from the Homestake Mine (over $45 billion).  Furthermore, most of the Black Hills are federally owned, and thus could simply be turned over to the Sioux.


Wyodak Coal Mine.

The Homestake Gold Mine ceased operations in 2002, but its massive pit remains.  Its deep tunnels are used for scientific research.  On the west side of the Black Hills lies the Wyodak Coal Mine.  Built in 1923 to supply power for the Homestake mine, it is now the oldest continuously operating surface coal mine in the nation.  There was some uranium mining in the Black Hills in the 1950s—and more is proposed but is currently on hold.

Over a century after the confinement of the Lakota, there is only one town of significant size inside the GSN:  Rapid City (population 68,000, with up to 125,000 in the “metropolitan area”).  The other “large” towns within the GSN are Gillette (32,000), Sheridan (17,000), Spearfish (10,000), and Sturgis (7,000).  Bismark, Mandan, Dickinson, Pierre, and most of Casper lie on the other side of river boundaries, just outside the GSN.  Subtracting these few urban areas (totaling about a third of the population), the population density of the vast majority of the GSN today (about 95% of it) is only about 3 people per square mile, relatively low for an agrarian society.  It’s fair to say that the white settlers have not really swarmed over the land and occupied it in large numbers.  They took the gold and the coal and now do some ranching and farming in the rest of the area.


The Powder River as viewed from Google Earth. This was the primary battleground of Red Cloud’s War. Today, the total population from its headwaters to its confluence with the Yellowstone River is less than 700 people.

There are actually more Lakota living in the GSN today than historically.  Today’s population of over 56,000 Native Americans is about double what it was in 1880 when they were imprisoned on the reservations.  Remarkably, the Lakota are pretty much still where they were in 1880.  The land remains extremely segregated.  Of the fifty counties within the GSN, thirty of them are more than 95% white.  In fact, the GSN now includes several of the whitest counties in the entire US. Ten of the remaining counties are more than 50% Native American.  This is because three-fourths of the Natives live on the reservations. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, while less than 4% of the landmass of the original GSN, holds 50% of the Native American population within the GSN today.  They are packed in.  The population density at Pine Ridge is over 8 people per square mile, much higher than in adjacent white agricultural lands and 16 times higher than historically.  Within Pine Ridge, the population is actually concentrated into a smaller portion of the reservation.  During World War II the US Department of War took over 500 square miles for use as an artillery range, which to this day is littered with unexploded ordinance. Contrast this with the population density of the federal lands, mostly national forests and grasslands, which is near zero.  Looking at a population density map color-coded by ethnicity, Pine Ridge still looks like a Native American concentration camp.


Children at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Pine Ridge today is comparable to the poorest of Third World countries.  Per capita income is under $5,000, compared to a national average of about $27,000.  Unemployment exceeds 80%; alcoholism is only slightly lower than that.  50% live below the poverty line; infant mortality is five times the national average; diabetes and tuberculosis rates are eight times higher; the teen suicide rate is four times higher.  13% of homes lack plumbing; elders freeze to death each winter. Life expectancy is under 48 for men and 52 for women, lower than Haiti.  Worldwide, only war-torn Sierra Leone has lower numbers.  Through the early 1970s, Pine Ridge essentially was a banana republic, its tribal officials in the pocket of US political and business interests.  When a faction on the reservation protested, they suffered several hundred political assassinations.  The unrest culminated in the Wounded Knee occupation of 1973 and the Oglala Shootout of 1975, resulting in the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier.


History painted on a wall at Pine Ridge.

There is one more aspect of the GSN today that is difficult to ignore; it is peppered with names that honor the white conquistadors and remind the Natives of their occupation.  These are names that wave like Confederate flags in south Chicago, sending a message to every Lakota man, woman, and child that they are second-class citizens.  There is Custer National Forest, Custer city, Custer County (two of them), Custer State Park, Sheridan city, Sheridan County, and Grant County.  This list could go on.  Most of the Custer monikers are literally in the middle of the Black Hills.  In an egregious example of adding insult to injury, the faces of four US presidents, including Grant, are carved into the sacred cliffs of the Black Hills.  (It was Grant who contrived the war to steal the land; it was Theodore Roosevelt, also carved into the rock, who said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”) This was a conquest and a genocide that is celebrated today in place names, subtly continuing the repression from generation to generation, giving permission for continued repression and discrimination.  In an example of erasure, the massacre site at Wounded Knee is not a national memorial, but is instead owned by a private white landowner who will only sell at an inflated price (which some consider to be a “ransom”).

Oglala NG

Oglala National Grasslands

Despite these historic and present trials, the Lakota of the GSN today continue to preserve their ethnic identity and are striving to restore their pride and traditions, as well as meet their economic and social needs.  There are Lakota language schools for children, initiatives to combat teen suicide and promote community health, and a wide range of programs to assist tribal members.  In short, despite confinement to a small fraction of their original land, the Lakota remain in the GSN, resilient, adapting and surviving.

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The Case for Leonard Peltier

Today was the 41st anniversary of the Oglala Shootout. This blog post provides background to this event and the case for Leonard Peltier.

Memories of the People

leonard5Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist who currently sits in federal prison, serving two life terms for the murders of two FBI agents.  For the last four decades, Native Americans across the country have petitioned the out-going president to pardon him.  With Obama leaving office in January, fresh calls to “Free Leonard Peltier” are rising.

On June 26, 1975, two federal agents were investigating the theft of a pair of cowboy boots on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  This led them to the Jumping Bull property near the town of Oglala in search of a young man named Jimmy Eagle.  A shootout ensued in which the two agents were killed, apparently executed at close range.  This, in and of itself, begs for additional background information, as petty theft anywhere, much less on an Indian reservation, is not normally a case for the FBI.

leonard3The context that…

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Trump and White Supremacy: Making American White Again

Donald Trump’s proposals regarding immigration policy are part of a long history of US policies aimed at defining the racial composition of the country.  They are also paralleled by the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union– an anti-immigrant backlash.  It seems that after centuries of building their economies on the backs of exploited black and brown people, Trump and “Brexit” proponents are not willing to share the fruits of their economies with the people they oppressed.  As people of color move in, they seek to close the door.

Trump2From the beginning, full participation in US society was based on the supremacy of whites.  Early British colonial laws forbade intermarriage with Native Americans (in contrast to the French approach).  The Declaration of Independence opens with the line, “all men are created equal”  yet refers to Native Americans as “merciless Indian Savages”.  A few years later, the Constitution treated African American slaves as 3/5ths of person and denied women the right to vote until 1920 (and Native Americans until 1924).

In the immediate aftermath of independence, the Naturalization Act of 1790 was created to limit citizenship to whites.  It was not until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that racial criteria for immigration were removed (but a ban on homosexuals was maintained through 1990).  The timeline below highlights just some of the policies that have set immigration and citizenship rules over time.  For example, most Asians and people of color were not allowed to become US citizens until 1952.  These policy debates were often accompanied by a barrage of racist cartoons and speeches in public forums.  In the mid-1800s, the immigration debate occurred against a backdrop of ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and calls for “Indian extermination”.

Trump6Hypocricy of advocates of the 'Chinese Wall' around the USThese policies all sought to control membership in the American club, if you will, and to define the US as a white nation.  Trump’s promises to exclude all Muslims and to deport 11 million Latinos fit clearly within this historical pattern.    When Trump recalls that “in the good old days”, protesters at his events would have been severely beaten, it brings to mind the lynching of African Americans during the civil rights struggles—or current encounters with white police officers.  His “straight talk” and “saying what he feels” is code for open racism.  His motto, “Make American Great Again”, is not-so-subtle code for “Make America White Again”.

At least one politician, Rick Tyler of Tennesee, is using this expression with purpose.  Tyler refers directly to past immigration policies, stating,

“The Make America White Again billboard advertisement will cut to the very core and marrow of what plagues us as a nation. As Anne Coulter so effectively elucidates in her book, “Adios America,” the overhaul of America’s immigration law in the 1960’s has placed us on an inevitable course of demise and destruction. Yes…the cunning globalist/Marxist social engineers have succeeded in destroying that great bulwark against statist tyranny…the white American super majority.”

In this cosmology, white males occupy the supreme position. Disturbingly, while white, male journalists find innumerable faults with Trump, they repeatedly ignore his misogyny and white supremacist proposals.  But it’s not lost on most others, as racist bullying using Trump’s language is spreading across schools and playgrounds.


For the millions of American Muslims, Trump’s message is that they are unwanted.  For the millions of American Latinos whose family members face deportation, Trump represents a very real threat.  For all the people of color that Trump has ridiculed (African Americans, Native Americans, Asians), as well as women, Trump’s message is that they are second-class citizens.


When Obama was re-elected in 2012, he was so based on a loose coalition of non-white male voters, a first in US politics.  Rather than court the growing number of voters among people of color, as some Republican strategists recommended, Trump has doubled-down on the white male demographic.  Come November, he may regret that, as the new majority rejects him as a two-bit New York City billionaire snake oil salesman.


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The Case for Leonard Peltier

leonard5Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist who currently sits in federal prison, serving two life terms for the murders of two FBI agents.  For the last four decades, Native Americans across the country have petitioned the out-going president to pardon him.  With Obama leaving office in January, fresh calls to “Free Leonard Peltier” are rising.

On June 26, 1975, two federal agents were investigating the theft of a pair of cowboy boots on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  This led them to the Jumping Bull property near the town of Oglala in search of a young man named Jimmy Eagle.  A shootout ensued in which the two agents were killed, apparently executed at close range.  This, in and of itself, begs for additional background information, as petty theft anywhere, much less on an Indian reservation, is not normally a case for the FBI.

leonard3The context that explains this unusual investigation over a pair of cowboy boots is critical to understanding the Peltier case– and is largely unknown to most Americans.  From the establishment of the reservations, first as concentration camps in the late 1800s thru the mid-1970s, they were largely run by the federal government via the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  Tribal governments had to be approved by BIA officials, who established all rules and policies.  More significantly, the BIA also helped the US government manage reservations as de facto “banana republics”, contracting with large corporations to mine coal, uranium, oil, or whatever else was available.  In return the tribes got minimal royalties (which were massively mismanaged and essentially lost by the BIA, resulting in the nation’s largest lawsuit in the 1980s); tribal leaders fared better, as they were bribed and bought off, essentially becoming puppets of the BIA.  In a context of poverty and unemployment, tribal governments became a primary employer on many reservations (in addition to low-wage jobs working for the resource-extraction companies).  Nepotism was rampant; it paid to be connected to the reservation government.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the civil rights era swept across Indian Country, especially among disaffected young Indians who had been shipped off to boarding schools and then re-settled in urban areas.  The Red Power movement led to the creation of several Native rights organizations.  One, the American Indian Movement (AIM), sought to assert old treaty rights and tribal sovereignty, challenging the BIA.  They quickly found themselves in direct conflict with the puppet dictators entrenched on some reservations.

Of all the intra-tribal conflicts, none was more violent than that at Pine Ridge.  The reservation has a storied history.  Created in the aftermath of Custer’s Last Stand and the taking of the Black Hills, it was the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.  To this day, Pine Ridge is among the poorest areas in the world and has a life expectancy slightly lower than that of Haiti (49 years).  In 1973, AIM activists occupied the hamlet of Wounded Knee to protest the US’s taking of the Black Hills and violation of the Treaty of 1868 (a battle the Sioux eventually won in the US Supreme Court).  AIM also demanded the removal of Pine Ridge Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson because, they asserted, “this degenerated human being is financed and wholly supported by the FBI, CIA, BIA, U.S. Justice Dept., and the U.S. Marshals, it is virtually impossible to for any Oglala to voice any kind of opinion which may run contrary to this puppet government without being arrested or beaten.”leonard8


Pine Ridge Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson (right) gives instructions to his Goons

In the ensuing two years, Wilson ramped up his reign of terror.  In a situation recalling a US-supported dictatorship in Latin America, Wilson created a personal security force called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or “Goons”.  Political opponents were expelled from the reservation. Others were hunted down by aircraft and assassinated at point blank range, hanged, or chopped up with an ax.  Homes were shot at, or burned.  Mourners who attended funerals were gunned down.  Children were caught in the crossfire or killed when cars they were in were run off the road.  The BIA building in Pine Ridge was protected by snipers behind sandbag bunkers.  It became unsafe to venture outside, even in daylight, unarmed.  Hundreds were killed, all unsolved murders if they were considered murders at all.  Autopsies failed to notice gunshot wounds in the skull and listed cause of death as “frostbite”.  In the outside world, a few white liberals took note.  A team of white lawyers flew to the reservation, where they were assaulted at the airport and their plane shot too full of holes to fly again.  They escaped, bloodied, in a car with its front windshield bashed in.  Needless to say, residents described Pine Ridge as a “war zone”.

It was in this context that the elders in the community of Oglala, an anti-Wilson enclave, invited AIM activists to come live with them for protection and support.  Harry and Cecelia Jumping Bull, an elderly couple, permitted AIM to establish a camp on their property.  Among the leaders were Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, and Leonard Peltier.  They established a community garden, provided counseling to alcoholics, held ceremonies twice a day in a sweat lodge, and did basic home and car repair for members of the local community.  They also prepared to defend their camp from any attack by the Goons or their federal allies.

leonard7The federal government viewed AIM much like they viewed the Black Panthers or other “subversive” groups; they were a threat to the status quo.  It was in this context that the FBI was investigating the theft of a pair of cowboy boots, apparently a pretext for doing reconnaissance at the Jumping Bull property.

When the two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ron Williams, in unmarked cars, followed a red truck onto the property on the morning of June 26, 1975, no one there knew who they were.  They assumed they were associated with Dick Wilson, possibly his Goons or members of a local white militia.  The vehicles came to a stop in a valley below some ranch houses and rifles were brandished in warning from a distance.  After that, the first shot rang out, probably in warning.  Each side claims the other fired first.  Regardless, a shootout ensued between the two federal agents and perhaps dozens of men encamped at the Jumping Bull property, who assumed they were under attack.  There is no question that Butler, Robideau, and Peltier were present and participated in the shootout, though from cover at long range.  It is not clear if they ever shot either of the two agents.  They certainly did not fire the final fatal shots at close range.  Peltier said his first instinct was to protect the women and children present in the houses, and to get them out of there.  Eventually, it became apparent that the agents were injured and the shooting died down.  At this point, the men in the red truck (not Butler, Robideau, or Peltier) turned around and drove down to the injured agents, still not knowing who they were, why they had come on the property, and why they had engaged them in a shootout.  According to one of the men in the truck, who remains to this day anonymous, he got out of the truck and walked to within a few feet of Agent Williams. Williams then lifted his gun and managed to fire a shot into the ground.  The anonymous man reacted instantly, shooting from the hip and hitting Williams once and Coler twice, killing each of them instantly.  He then ran back into the truck and fled the area.  Butler, Robideau, and Peltier approached the agents several minutes later and discovered they had been killed.  With other law enforcement responding and closing in, all of the Indians on the property managed to elude the roadblocks and escape into the nearby hills on foot.  From the evidence left behind, it appeared that Coler and Williams were deliberately executed at close range. leonard2

Butler and Robideau were eventually arrested and tried for the murder of the two agents, but were found not guilty by reason of self-defense.  The jury found that they lived under such a reign of terror on the reservation from extra-judicial killings that they had reason to fear for their lives when the two strange white men entered the Jumping Bull property.  The jury also found that much of the witness testimony in support of the FBI’s case had been coerced.

Peltier had fled to Canada because he felt he could not get a fair trial.  He was captured and extradited back to the US, where he was tried separately and found guilty.  In Peltier’s trail, the judged dismissed all testimony from the first trial, all discussion of witness coercion by the FBI, and any mention of the political violence at Pine Ridge.  It was all considered “irrelevant”.  The FBI’s witnesses were free to contradict statements they made at the first trial.  Crucial evidence regarding the murder weapon turned out to be fraudulent, but the ballistics test results were hidden from the defense.

leonard6In this trial, Peltier was found guilty of killing both of the FBI agents and, on June 1, 1977, sentenced to two consecutive life terms in federal prison.  Fifty congressmen petitioned for a new trial, Amnesty International listed him as a political prisoner, and the “Free Leonard Peltier” movement began.  Robert Redford produced a documentary about him, Incident at Oglala, which can be seen here.  Another documentary about AIM and Leonard Peltier is on YouTube.  Had Peltier been tried alongside Butler and Robideau in the first trial, he likely would have been found not guilty.

Today Peltier is completing his 39th year in prison.  He remains a symbol of Native self-reliance and sovereignty.

leonard1There are several on-line petitions urging President Obama to grant clemency to Peltier.  Here are some of them:

And Free Leonard Peltier Facebook groups here and here, which have additional information.  The most well-known, and probably the most thorough, book on the subject is In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen.



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