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‘Incident at Oglala’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 22, 1992


Michael Apted
Parental guidance suggested

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On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents entered the Jumping Bull compound on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at Oglala, S.D. The agents, Jack Kohler and Robert Williams, were in pursuit of Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for the theft of a pair of cowboy boots. After a fierce shootout with a group of American Indian activists, the two agents -- and one Indian -- were dead. The other Indians fled.

This bloody event and its aftermath is the subject of Michael Apted's gripping new documentary, "Incident at Oglala," which through interviews and reenactments in the manner of "A Thin Blue Line" lays out a story of violence and abuse so complicated and so grim that it splinters your heart.

Apted, the British director who is best known here for "35 Up" and who fictionalized an event similar to this one in his recent film "Thunderheart," has attempted to reconstruct the facts and place them in historical context. His approach comes off partly as a detective story and partly as a legal brief.

Because one of the filmmakers' main intentions was to discount the conviction of Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist who since his trial in 1977 has been serving back-to-back life sentences for the murders, Apted and his collaborators -- including Robert Redford, who functioned as executive producer and narrator -- have cast themselves unapologetically as counsels for the defense. The movie doesn't make the slightest claim to objectivity; instead, it's a cry of outrage against, specifically, the injustice of Peltier's conviction, and, in general, the government's history of misconduct toward the Indian population.

In the first matter, the film, through scores of interviews with FBI agents, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and residents of the Pine Ridge reservation, certainly succeeds in creating doubt about Peltier's involvement; at the very least, the filmmakers' desire to see the case reopened seems justified.

Peltier's trial was the second attempt by the prosecution to find a scapegoat for the agents' murders. Because Peltier was bogged down in the extradition process in Canada where he had been apprehended, two other defendants, Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, were tried separately and acquitted. As a result, the pressure on the government to convict Peltier grew exponentially, and, as Apted documents, the lengths to which the prosecution went to concoct a case against him were as preposterous as they were desperate.

At times, the legal details become such a thicket that we tend to miss the forest for the trees. And the quick-cutting, back-and-forth structure Apted has chosen for the film is often disorienting. Still, his historical point does come through. What he reveals is the spirit of angry desperation that hung over Pine Ridge. One of the poorest reservations in America, Pine Ridge had become the site of a bitter civil war between the traditionalist Lakota Sioux -- who looked back to the Indian past in an attempt to restore a sense of pride in the population -- and the pro-government Indians.

Most of the members of this first group belonged to the American Indian Movement and had staged the 71-day siege of the Wounded Knee Memorial in 1973. They were seen as dangerous dissidents, while members of the pro-government faction -- who had the support of the FBI, which also supplied them with weapons -- were the armed enforcers for the reservation's leader, Richard Wilson, who was accused of using federal money to line his own pockets. Apted is most effective in showing, as he did in "Thunderheart," how the government used the shootout at Jumping Bull to drive a stake into the heart of AIM and destroy the traditionalists.

Without being strident, "Incident at Oglala" is a passionately meticulous and convincing record of a shameful set of circumstances. As a partial solution, Redford has asked that President Bush intervene on Peltier's behalf, either by commuting his sentence or granting him a pardon. Even in the unlikely event that Redford's plea is answered, the hopelessness and pain that he and Apted have shown us at Pine Ridge will still exist. No movie can change that shocking state of affairs.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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