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‘Incident at Oglala’

The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 22, 1992


Michael Apted
Parental guidance suggested

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It's hard to leave "Incident at Oglala" without concluding that Leonard Peltier is innocent of his murder charges. Only the willfully partisan will disagree his trial was anything but a government-cooked travesty. This straightforward, illuminating documentary, directed by Michael Apted and produced by Robert Redford, shows the unscrupulous lengths government prosecutors and the FBI went to in order to get their man.

This much is known: On June 26, 1975, FBI special agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams were slain following a gun battle in the Jumping Bull Compound, Oglala, S.D. Also killed in the multiple fire was Native American Joe Stuntz, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) whose death prompted no legal action. The agents had been looking for a certain Billy Eagle for the theft of a pair of cowboy boots. They reported seeing a red pickup matching Eagle's enter the compound. They went after it and never returned alive.

The government went after four Indians, all AIM members, who were on the compound -- and armed -- at the time. They were James Eagle, Darrelle (Dino) Butler, Bob Robideau and Peltier. Eagle was let off on insufficient evidence. Butler and Robideau were acquitted by a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, jury. Peltier was extradited later from Canada on the strength of sworn affidavits that government prosecutors later admitted to be coerced fabrications.

The AIM members claim they heard gunfire, went to investigate, then returned fire in self-defense. After the shooting was done, Robideau recalls, he and his friends went to the car (some distance away) to see that the agents had been killed at close range, execution style.

"At that moment," recalls Robideau, "it seemed our whole lives had been transformed. There was nothing left. The only thing we could look forward to was death. And at that moment, we knew it."

In "Oglala" there are conversations with several pertinent players and witnesses, including Peltier (in a federal prison); AIM cofounders Dennis Banks and Russell Means; former South Dakota senator James Abourezk; William Kunstler (attorney for Butler and appellant attorney for Peltier); Robideau-Butler jury foreman Robert Bolin; and also Myrtle Poor Bear, who asserts she was threatened and coerced into changing her affidavit in order to extradite Peltier.

Two assistant U.S. attorneys and one U.S. attorney speak essentially for the other side, but spokesmen for the FBI agents are noticeably absent. Bureau policy prevents comment on active cases; a fifth appeal for a Peltier retrial is pending.

The documentary also gives an informative feel for the atmosphere at the time. Alcohol abuse, unemployment and poverty were manifold on the reservations. The 71-day siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 was still a recent memory. Tribal Council President Richard Wilson, closely affiliated with the U.S. government, and opposed to AIM, led a reign of terror, resulting in the highest per-capita murder rate in the country. Agents Coler and Williams drove into one jumpy area of the United States.

Peltier, a softspoken man, his mustache now gray at the edges, dreams of dinner with friends -- outside jail. He also claims to know the identity of the real killer, but will not reveal it. But he seems resigned and despondent. This is his 16th year in prison, after all, with four rejected retrial requests to boot. There's little reason to be hopeful.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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