In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (book)

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Date: 1983

Region: North America

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Literature


Artist: US novelist and essayist, Peter Matthiessen, Viking Press, bookstores nationwide, and Leonard Peltier

Confronting Bodies: United States FBI agent David Price and South Dakota governor William Janklow

Dates of Action: 1983

Location: South Dakota, USA

Description of Artwork: Matthiessen's book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse looks at the plight of the American Indian community by focusing on the case of Leonard Peltier - an American Indian tried and convicted of killing two FBI agents in June of 1975. Portraying Peltier as a martyr to a cause, Matthiessen's book suggests that he should not be blamed for the events that led to the death of two FBI agents, but rather that it is the fault of the US government. He claims that for years the US government has been hostile, abusive and unfair to the Native American communities around the country; and, it is exactly this treatment that lead to and instigated the events that transpired.

The Incident: On June 25, 1975, members of the militant American Indian Movement (AIM) shot and killed FBI agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Four men were indicted for the murders; one was released, two were acquitted when a jury found that they acted in self-defense, and the fourth, a Chippewa Sioux named Leonard Peltier was convicted of the murders and sentenced to two life sentences in prison. Essayist and novelist, Peter Matthiessen strongly objected to the conviction of Peltier. And, the case inspired him to write In the Spirit of Crazy Horse in which he tells the story of Peltier, AIM, and the systematic oppression and inequity of Native Americans. In his book, Matthiessen argues that the killing of Coler and Williams was the result of years of the US government's unfair treatment and persecution of Native Americans, treating the AIM as domestic terrorists. According to Matthiessen, the death of the two FBI agents was the result of years of abuse inflicted onto the Native Americans. And, Matthiessen takes particular aim at South Dakota governor at the time William Janklow and FBI agent David Price. Matthiessen portrayed Janklow as a bigot and a sexual offender (Matthiessen reported, accurately, that the governor had been charged with sexual offenses on two separate occasions) and the written criticized Price for his longstanding anti-AIM position. Objecting strongly to their unfavorable characterization in the book both prominent figures file libel suits against the author, the publisher Viking Press, and booksellers that were stocking the book. The suits', asking for a total of $44 million in damages, effectively repressed In the Spirit of Crazy Horse for eight years and is considered one of the longest, most drawn out and most expensive libel suits in publishing history.

Results of Incident: Ultimately, both cases were dismissed, but only after years of legal wrangling and millions of dollars in legal expenses. In one of the suits, the US Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit sided against Agent Price when they concluded that "[...] the Constitution requires more speech rather than less". And, in 1990 when the US Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, Price finally settled his suit. Governor Janklow's suit was also settled in 1990 after the South Dakota Circuit and Supreme Courts dismissed it. Paltier has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Price and has been designated a political prisoner by Amnesty International, the former Soviet Union, and Desmond Tutu. Robert Redford produced a documentary about Peltier that is loosely based on Matthiessen's book. And, although Bill Clinton considered issuing a presidential pardon to Peltier before leaving office, Peltier remains in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

Source: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. Ed. Derek Jones. Chicago; London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.