Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Incident at Oglala


Michael Apted has a serious bee in his bonnet over the Leonard Peltier case. First he made Thunderheart, which wasn’t about the shootout on the reservation where two FBI agents were killed, but mentioned it, and explored the tensions between two tribal factions and the government, and now this, a documentary that explores the facts of the case. And does a damn good job of it. All the evidence against Peltier is, at the very least, suspect, and more likely actually fabricated. All the witnesses against him are either incompetent or clearly lying, probably intimidated by threats from the government. It is crystal clear that Peltier never got a fair trial, and that the rage that still simmers within the FBI against the slaughter of their men comes from an impulse that really has to be expressed as “Well, we may not have nailed the right son of a bitch, but this one will do.”

The movie hits on all cylinders for 75 minutes … then suddenly reveals that at least two people claim that Peltier is innocent … because they know who the real killer is. He is identified only as Mister X, and he has apparently admitted that he did the killing—and you can’t sell it to me as self-defense. The shootout was self-defense when it began, but it ended with somebody walking up to the wounded agents and blowing their heads off at close range with a high-powered rifle. One of the people who claims to know the identity of Mister X is Peltier himself.

Now, you can make a good case, especially in the context of the ’70s with the government’s neglect of the Rez and their support of a band of Indian thugs who were robbing their own people, that the FBI was an occupying army, and I am very sympathetic to that idea. However, even in war, you do not execute wounded soldiers from the other side. Uh-uh. We’ve put Marines on trial for doing that in Iraq.

So it comes down to this. Two murders were committed. We either have the culprit in jail (highly unlikely), or he’s walking around, a free man. (It seems to me it’s probably this Jimmy Eagle who the agents were chasing in the first place. The film is silent on Eagle’s whereabouts.) Peltier says he knows who the killer is … but it is against his principles, against his culture, against a long list of crazy reasons for him to name the guilty man. So, you know what? Fuck you, Leonard Peltier. Shield the murdering bastard all you want, and enjoy yourself in prison. I guess if you won’t finger the guilty party, you’ll just have to do.