WHAT PRACTICAL GAIN or purifying new truth

can emerge from yet another rehashing of that perfidious history through which white-skinned people stole this land from its original red-skinned inhabitants? Haven't Vine Deloria Jr. (author of Custer Died For Your Sins,) and other talented writers already pounded our consciences with eloquent truths--and to little avail? If their clarion calls, sounded in more hopeful times, produced only a pitiful whimper for reform, then how will attention now be paid to Indian rights in this cruel season of Reaganomics?

With such cynical preconceptions dancing through my mind, I picked up In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, motivated foremost to savor whatever new prose gifts the multi-talented Peter Matthiessen would offer admirers of his brilliant nature writing and finely honed fiction.

At first, I found Matthiessen's writing surprisingly uneven, his lengthy narrative at times difficult to follow, his major themes slow to crystallize, and hard to accept.

Nevertheless, by the time I had turned the final page, I felt angry enough--inspired perhaps by the spirit of that legendary warrior Crazy Horse--to want to shout from the rooftops, "Wake up America, before it's too damned late!"

For Matthiessen, in this extraordinary, complex work, powerfully propounds several large and disturbing themes which the white majority in America will ignore at extreme peril.

His first warning concerns the administration of justice in the United States: If federal, state and local authorities can with impunity stomp out the procedural rights of the Indian protagonists described in this book, then each of us should tremble at our own vulnerability to a reign of official terror in which secret government ends justify any means.

Matthiessen's second eloquent warning concerns the imminent, savage destruction of our land and water resources in the American West. If we disembowel that great region in a mindless gouging for coal, oil and uranium, then the most likely result will not be glorious energy independence, but a vast scarred plain which will spread its poisonous wastes throughout the land.

His final message concerns the values which stimulate our aggressive behavior in the continuing but unfinished white conquest of Indian America. If we persist in driving Indians off their remaining mineral-rich land, if we continue trying to crush those stubborn Indians who insist on proudly defending their traditional ways, Matthiessen suggests we may be traveling a path towards our own ultimate doom.

It is a tribute to Matthiessen's literary powers that these large themes finally emerge so strikingly from a book whose story centers around the quest for justice by a single native American Indian, Leonard Peltier.

On June 26, 1975, a number of Indians, including Peltier, engaged in a shootout with two FBI agents who drove onto Indian land near Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The agents, Ronald Williams and Jack R. Coler, were seriously wounded in the initial long-range firefight, and then, while totally defenseless, were brutally murdered at point-blank range. Other law enforcement officials quickly joined the fray. Before the day ended, they had killed one Indian, Joe Killsright. Although numerous officers surrounded the property, all the other Indians involved in the shootout escaped to the hills.

Four Indians eventually were charged with murdering the two agents. A jury found two of the Indians innocent, believing they had only exchanged defensive gunfire with the agents. Charges against a third Indian were dropped. In a separate trial, Peltier alone was convicted by a jury in 1977 of two counts of murder in the first degree, and is now serving two consecutive life terms at the maximum-security federal prison at Marion, Illinois.

Much of the book involves Matthiessen's relentless investigation, sifting and resifting through the evidence, in an effort to discover what really happened that day in the Black Hills, and to understand how and why the U.S. government decided to center its attention on Leonard Peltier.

Matthiessen accepts Peltier's word that he did not finish off the agents, even though Peltier and the other Indians tried for the crime acknowledged that they later picked up and fled with the agents' guns and ammunition. But the thrust of his argument is that the government singled out Peltier for political reasons and then manufactured a case against him.

Matthiessen's case against the government's case is provocative:

Even the prosecutor dismissed as totally worthless the testimony of the only person to claim to have witnessed Peltier's participation in the killings. This witness later claimed to have signed her incriminating affidavits under duress, in a process which one U.S. Court of Appeals judge is quoted by Matthiessen as calling "a clear abuse of the investigative process by the FBI."

A Canadian supreme court judge involved in reviewing the FBI's tactics in gaining Peltier's extradition from Canada, where he had fled, is quoted by Matthiessen as commenting, "It seems clear to me that the conduct of the U.S. government involved misconduct from inception."

Between the government's first unsuccessful trial against two Indian defendants and the Peltier trial, Matthiessen indicates that a key FBI agent changed crucial testimony and thereby built a better case against Peltier. Another agent appears, from Matthiessen's account, to have given extremely implausible testimony about seeing Peltier through a telescopic sight at the scene of the shootout. Matthiessen suggests that the government's effort to produce and connect a particular shell casing and rifle as the murder weapons involves evidence that is patently far-fetched. Some FBI agents and their Indian witnesses also seem to Matthiessen to have altered their initial accounts so that a mysterious red pickup truck identified with another Indian suspect magically became transformed into a red and white van, identified with Peltier.

Matthiessen presents a plausible case to suggest that, even after Peltier was convicted and imprisoned, the government hired other inmates to kill him.

The prosecution sought to prove that Peltier was the leader of the Indians involved in the shootout and participated in the long-range exchange of fire with the FBI agents. Beyond that, the goverment tried to show through circumstantial evidence that Peltier had participated in the actual murders.

Why then, Matthiessen asks, the concerted government effort "to get" Leonard Peltier? "Whatever the nature and degree of his participation at Oglala," contends Matthiessen, "the ruthless persecution of Leonard Peltier had less to do with his own activities than with the underlying issues of history, racism, and economics, in particular Indian sovereignty claims and growing opposition to massive energy development on treaty lands and the dwindling reservations."

In that large mouthful of accusations, Matthiessen presents a stunning, conspiracy-laden view which challenges most comfortably accepted accounts of contemporary history. The remarkable strength of his book is that Matthiessen's sweeping yet fact-laden, closely reasoned account compels even a highly skeptical reader to consider seriously his notion that Peltier's is the Sacco- Vanzetti case of our generation. (The real enemies there, it should be recalled, were not two simple Italian immigrants, but the unpopular, unacceptable, and dangerous ideas they espoused.)

Matthiessen believes the FBI concentrated exclusively on Peltier and the two Indians who were found innocent because of their involvement in the militant American Indian Movement (AIM), earlier targeted for disruption by the FBI's COINTELPRO operation.

AIM, which came into existence in 1968 as a direct result of the termination and relocation programs which dumped thousands of bewildered Indians into the cities, sought to restore traditional Indian values and to seek independence on the remaining treaty lands and reservations. This land, onto which the Indians were shoved when it was considered worthless, now turns out to contain a considerable portion of the nation's reserves of oil, coal and uranium.

The corporate American state simply finds unacceptable the idea that this ragtag remnant of Indians should divorce themselves from America and refuse the development of those resources. Even Indian sympathizers, those erstwhile moderate, liberal and progressive reformers, dismiss as ridiculous such Indian ideals and goals.

And here Matthiessen branches out into his broader story, which includes a brilliant, moving summary of the last 150 years of American-Indian history. He compels us to realize that the contemporary struggle between white America and American Indians is a direct, living continuation of that history. It simply won't wash to romanticize the bygone Indian and bemoan our evil past, while considering the contemporary Indian and his pitiful situation as an unrelated piece of dirty social work.

The last great victory by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull at Little Big Horn and the massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee are only 100 years in our past. Today's battles in the Black Hills are being waged over the identical issues --the white man's insatiable need to violate his last inviolate agreements with Indians, whenever he finds new minerals to exploit and the Indian's continuing determination to live in his own way on his own land.

Was it only coincidence that on the day before the Black Hills shootout, a local Indian official quietly signed over the Black Hills mineral rights which Peltier and other AIM leaders were so fiercely protecting? As the two FBI agents drove onto the Indian land where the AIM leaders were camped, an armada of federal forces already was assembling near the property. Was that, too, a coincidence?

Whatever the Indian grievances, one must return inevitably to the point-blank wasting of those two FBI agents shortly after noon on June 25, 1975. Was this a calculated act to eliminate witnesses, an aimless individual venting of barbarity, or an inevitable piece of a still larger violence?

Matthiessen does not answer that question nor rationalize, nor does he gloss over the brutal manner in which the agents died. But he does place their deaths in the context of the violence which rages to this day in the Black Hills. In a recitation as grisly in the telling as Solzhenitsyn's reports from the Gulags, the author recounts an endless string of murders and beatings of, and other cruelties against, Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation --more than 60 and possibly as many as 300 violent deaths in the last three years:

A white ambulance driver sips coffee in a caf,e, while outside in his vehicle a critically injured Indian lies bleeding. An Indian with a bullet in the brain is judged to have died of frostbite. An Indian is sent to prison for "obstructing" a police officer who was pistol-whipping him. An Indian woman is informed that her brother and nephew died accidentally, even though one was hanged and the other chopped up with an axe. An Indian, refusing to stand to respect judicial authority in a South Dakota courthouse, has his eye poked out with a night stick. The message through all this brutal gore is that an Indian life is worth less than a white life. No authority questioned the death of the Indian who died in the Black Hills shootout.

Whatever the shortcomings of the AIM warriors, including their own propensity for violence, Matthiessen believes they have served well the Indians, by urging a proud restoration of independence and traditional ways of life. Given the Fort Laramie Treaty, which ceded the Black Hills to the Indians in perpetuity, given the environmental background of the struggle over minerals, given the nightmare years1968 as a direct r of violence on the Pine Ridge Reservation, given the successive failures of governments to the Indian people in countless moral and legal obligations, Matthiessen believes the Indians had no choice but to recapture "the spirit of Crazy Horse," who resisted until his death further exploitation of the Black Hills and their native inhabitants. Those values, especially towards the land, represent an intrinsic part of our history, one we should consider carefully and soon.