The Aging Myth of Leonard Peltier

Editors Note: Many of our readers will remember the 20+ or so years of support NFIC gave to Leonard Peltier and other AIM myths before our investigative work with the late Richard LaCourse and other Native journalists turned up numerous changing alibis, evidence of additional murders, and convincing recorded interviews about Peltier interrogating Annie Mae Pictou Aquash by putting a gun in her mouth and bragging about shooting FBI agent Ron Williams. In recent years Peltier has also chosen to utilize his lobbying efforts in support of attempts to keep John Boy Patton Graham from going to trail in the alleged execution of Annie Mae, writing to Denise and Debbie Pictou Maloney to tell them that he would not “lift a finger” to assist in finding justice for their mother if it meant “another brother would go to jail.”

Part of the result of those revealations led to our endorsement for reading purposes and fact checking reality of the other side of the story -- that one written by former FBI agent Joe Trimbach and his son John.

By Adrian L. Jawort
Printed first by Native Sun News April 2010

Joseph H. Trimbach said that the idea for the book about the landmark American Indian Movement led 1973 Wounded Knee standoff initially surfaced when he was told by his granddaughter that a book assigned to her in school “said some pretty nasty things about her grandfather.” He happened to be the FBI Special Agent in Charge of the area during that turbulent time.

So when Trimbach, with the help of his son John, set out to write a book to factually portray the event, the inclination to include deemed political prisoner Leonard Peltier was not on the forefront of their mind. He wasn’t involved in the standoff, after all, and they knew Peltier’s Amnesty International supported name was already a hot button subject that would cloud the book’s Wounded Knee standoff focus.

Their priorities changed after having a lunch with a Native American U.S. Marshall that also advised to avoid AIM’s intrinsically attached Peltier subject that came with any discussion of, and concluded that they should “Let the Indians have their hero.”

John and Joseph were startled by the revelation that a man tried and sentenced to 2 life sentences for the murders of 2 FBI agents was still deemed a role model to Native American people.

“The suggestion that the Indians deserved no better than to have a killer as their hero kind of woke us up,” John Trimbach said.

It was early afternoon and hot and dusty out on June 26, 1975, when Special Agents Ronald A. Williams, 27, and Jack R. Coler, 28, pursued a vehicle near the Jumping Bull compound on a remote part of the Pine Ridge Reservation in which they believed a fugitive was hiding, according to court documents. One passenger happened to be Leonard Peltier, wanted on charges for attempted murder of a Milwaukee off-duty police officer.

Fearing being captured, Peltier and his AIM associates unleashed a hail of gunfire on the agents, outgunning and wounding both of them. There were over 125 bullet holes in the agents’ cars alone compared to 5 shots fired by the agents in defense. Williams died after being shot through his upheld hand and face at close range. An unconscious Coler, who was suffering from a severe shoulder wound that nearly took his arm off, was shot twice in the head at point blank range.

During trial [in 2004], Ka-Mook Nichols, the common-law wife of AIM founder Dennis Banks, said that Peltier had mocked William’s hand gestures to protect himself and bragged, “The motherf-er was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.”

6 months after the agents were killed, AIM activist Anna Mae Aquash was killed execution style on false suspicion of being an FBI informant. Arlo Looking Cloud was finally found guilty of (aiding and abetting) her murder during a 2004 trial. Joseph Trimbach described how just a few months prior to her death, Peltier interrogated Anna Mae while putting a loaded gun in her mouth. Peltier called it his version of “truth serum.”

Joseph said, “So it seemed that it was all tied together through Anna Mae, perhaps the one person in the Movement who truly held up the ideals of what AIM should have been.”  

The book detailing all of this was titled American Indian Mafia, An FBI Agent’s True Story About Wounded Knee, Leonard Peltier, and the American Indian Movement (AIM). “Mafia’ is a term coined by the Congressional report on the American Indian Movement describing how the AIM leadership disposed of people ‘in the manner of the Mafia,’” John explained.

John said that the romanticized AIM legacy only serves to help perpetuate the poor state of affairs and negativity on the Pine Ridge reservation. Those negative attitudes will not change, John said, “Unless there is a fundamental shift in people’s awareness - both inside and outside the rez. And that can never happen if we start with a series of fables that are just as deceitful as the government officials who signed treaties.”

In preparing to write their book, the Trimbach’s knew they had to study where the countering claims surrounding Peltier were purveying from. One popular source, two-time National Book Award winner Peter Matthiessen’s 1983 controversial book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, was described in a New York Times book review by Alan M. Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard Law School, as “…one of those rare books that permanently change the consciousness about important, yet neglected, facets of our history.”

John said he read Mattheissen’s book at least 5 or 6 times, so “I could identify all the clever ways he wove elements of truth into a series of falsehood. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is well written,” he admitted, “with just the right touch of suggestive language and emotion that blinds and diverts.”

In regards to Peltier’s case, however, Dershowitz also wrote, “Invoking the cliches of the radical left, Mr. Matthiessen takes at face value nearly every conspiratorial claim of the movement, no matter how unfounded or preposterous.”

Although no singular contrived ‘fact’ reportedly proves Peltier’s innocence, one that has gained a foothold among his supporters seems to be Native singer/songwriter and activist Buffy Saint-Marie’s insistence that Peltier’s assault rifle was not the murder weapon. John said that this fallacy is “Pretty amazing for someone who claims to be familiar with the case.”

A Matthiesen claim in his book is a fanciful self-defense scenario, in which Joseph summed up, “Relies on Paranoia and fear: a small army of government agents ready to storm the Jumping Bull compound following the ‘advance team’ of Coler and Williams.”

Other rumors include the purported 140,000 documents that the FBI and CIA have been withheld in regards to the Peltier case for the last 30 years. Peltier’s lawyers are allegedly tying to retrieve these phantom documents with the Freedom of Information Act.

So how did Peltier manage to persuade so many people from poor rural Indians to Hollywood celebrities that he’s merely a political prisoner and oppressed AIM scapegoat if the bottom line seems to be that he essentially executed 2 wounded FBI agents?

“Good question, and one that still confounds me,” John said.

He theorized since a lot of Peltier’s supporters do include Hollywood types like Oliver Stone and Robert Redford - who produced and narrated a 1992 documentary called Incident at Ogalala, The Leonard Peltier Story - that in itself politicizes Peltier in that it gives liberal minded people a cause. Amnesty International supports Peltier and he is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year. Multi-platinum selling rock band Rage Against the Machine’s song Freedom has a Leonard Peltier tribute on it’s 1994 music video. As a result, the Trimbach’s have been often been dismissed as neo-con right wingers in ad hominem attacks by opponents.

“We didn’t start out trying to be political, but we have noticed that nearly all of Peltier’s supporters are on the left side of the political spectrum,“ John said. “The whole idea of a modern-day political prisoner in an American prison fits their political template. … I really don’t have a quarrel with anyone’s politics, but if you support Leonard Peltier well, now we’ve got a quarrel.”

Using primary sources, the Trimbach’s delved deep into the Wounded Knee trial transcripts in federal archives that had never even been touched or looked at since the trial - not even by the supposed historians of the matter. They interviewed people that were there, and they were eager to help set the record straight.

Former AIM member and Wounded Knee standoff veteran Richard Two Elk traveled with John to the village ruins of Wounded Knee. The town was condemned and bulldozed after AIM left. They spoke to a lady that claimed she knew where Ray Robinson, a black Civil Rights activist seen at the Wounded Knee compound, was buried. Two Elk allegedly witnessed Robinson’s murder in the compound after an argument. The woman was too frightened to go into details about the exact location of Robinson’s remains. Indian activist, actor, and AIM member Russell Means has a ranch in nearby Porcupine.

From what the Trimbach’s garnered about the public’s perception, the AIM legacy and Peltier support has been losing steam in the last few years, so their cause to raise awareness about AIM and Peltier has not been a lost one. “After 30 years of taking advantage of people’s generosity and humanity, it’s time to hold Peltier accountable. It’s time for the charade to end,” John said.

At Peltier’s parole hearing in July 2009 - and perhaps last until 2024 - John and Joseph Trimbach actually argued on behalf of Peltier’s parole. Joseph said that Peltier’s only chance for parole is and always has been that he confess and ask for forgiveness for his crimes.

“I noticed that this was the only time Leonard stared at the floor instead of looking at us. He knew,” John said.


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