The controversial text about the Leonard Peltier case, The Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen is not simply a non-fiction work offering details about the government-led violent events that occurred during the infamous shootout and conflicts between the F.B.I, United States government, AIM activists and the people they were defending, this case instead represents a mere microcosm of the repeated historical injustices done to Native people in the United States and in being such, has the effect of compelling readers to inadvertently rationalize and justify murder. Instead of being a retelling of the events, this book is instead a history of inequality and overt racism that extends far before reservation lands were ever designated and organizations like the BIA or AIM ever existed.
The frame narrative of the Peltier case merely provides the backdrop to further this discussion of a constant subversion of justice for Native Americans and functions as a metaphor to explore the much broader and pervasive theme of a history of extraordinary injustice against an entire race of people rather than just an isolated incident as is present in the Peltier case. Instead of merely maintaining a storyline that is consistently focused on Leonard Peltier and the events at Pine Ridge, Matthiessen relies on an extensive set of sources that implicate the American justice system in far more serious and long-ranging crimes than were ever committed at Pine Ridge and in many ways, he does not focus on the guilt or innocence of Peltier so much, instead justifying the crime outside of the context of personal guilt or innocence in terms of the much larger, broader crimes against the Native Americans throughout history.
Throughout In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Matthiessen consistently points to the massive number of crimes committed against the Native American people and demonstrates how they are genocidal in their destruction of Native cultures and people. The author not only cites a long string of historical injustices, ranging from mass slaughter to the takeover and reapportionment of sacred or Native lands to mining or symbolic use (such as in the case of Mount Rushmore) but of the annihilation of a future of the Native Americans. At one point In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Matthiessen, when discussing the Pine Ridge reservation as it is now, he comments on how “alcoholism…where 70 percent of the people are unemployed, is approximately five times the national average” (Matthiessen 427) and how the rates of suicide among teenagers are drastically higher than those of white American teenagers. When citing these “shameful statistics” he also indicates that the average life expectancy among people on the Pine Ridge reserve “averages forty-four years, or about thirty years less than among white Americans—and this is a people who, in the old days, commonly lived for a hundred years of more” (427). In short, there is never a point in the text that Matthiessen allows his readers to forget the sad history of Native Americans and how they have been the victims of the utmost injustice.
At one point, as Matthiessen discusses some of his conversations with the questionable figure of Bob Robideau, he imagines that Robideau looks at him as though he were being “obstinate” in trying to understand the specifics of circumstances, saying that “from the Indian’s viewpoint—and increasingly from my own—any talk of innocence or guilt was beside the point. All the Indians who were here that day were warriors…because no Indian that day was guilt” (547). Encountering this passage produces a revelation as it becomes clear that the events at Pine Ridge are viewed as a battle that replaces the standard daily rule of law with the contorted laws of war, where murder is an unfortunate but expect part of the course of action. In war situations, killing is an accepted part of the act, however, in the case of the shooting of the F.B.I agents and their “occupation” of the area there was no official war on the Native Americans declared, thus murder was an unacceptable act. What is most important about Matthiessen’s omission above is that he is equating the violence with an act of war by calling the men present “warriors.” Just as in the colonial wars between white settlers and Native peoples, killing was a necessity to preserve a way of life. By providing readers with constant reminders of the devastation of Native American tribes and culture and urging them to realize that the war for freedom never really ended due to a repeated subversion of justice, fairness, and equality on the part of whites, the acts by the F.B.I. at Pine Ridge are seen as legitimate acts of self-defense; not for the participants, but in defense of a dying culture.
The series of injustices against Native Americancs act both in a direct way through the corruption of basic legal practices and fairness, to more institutionalized ways, such as the many cited ways white seek to keep Native Americans from ever progressing with the steady supplies of alcohol, lower levels of available education and nutrition, to name but a few. The effect of these constant reminders renders the case of Peltier and the general concept of how is and is not guilt in this case indeterminable—guilt on the part of AIM members or Peltier himself no longer matters in the horrifying context of centuries of vast wrongdoing on the part of the American justice system and related governmental agencies and organizations. Furthermore, the secondary result of this broadened sense of what justice means on a case-based versus cultural and indigenous population places readers in the uncomfortable position of making exceptions for those who might be guilt of cold-blooded murder because of the buildup of the past wrongs.
Somehow, Matthiessen makes it too easy for us to rationalize and justify murder with the claim of a sort of large-scope cultural excuse. He uses historical figures and events, such as the symbolically devastating creation of Mount Rushmore to poke holes in our vision of the superiority of the American justice system when he contrasts the President’s victorious dedication of the monument with the words of Standing Bear who sadly states, “The Lakotas are now a sad, silent, and unprogressive people suffering the fate of the oppressed…Did a kind, wise, helpful and benevolent conqueror bring this about? Can a real, true, genuinely superior social order work in such havoc?” (Matthiessen 26). While the book has a definite bias that works to further the purposes of rationalization and deep historical motive for the Pine Ridge murders, by offering the contrasts in the victor’s versus the oppressed ideology and current state, Matthiessen makes it far too easy to sympathize with a criminal—whether it was a masked man, Peltier himself, or any Native American for that matter.