Incident at Oglala

Incident at Oglala

Incident at Oglala is a documentary by British filmmaker Michael Apted about the killing of two FBI agents on a South Dakota Indian reservation which led to the murder conviction of Leonard Peltier. The shootout in which the killings occurred took place in 1974; the film is from 1992.

I appreciate the fact that the film follows a fairly straightforward, chronological format, that it relies heavily on interviews with people involved in the case, and that it doesn’t get too clever or cutesy. That being said, there were times I did get a little confused. I wasn’t always a hundred percent clear on who each interviewee was, and how different claims related to each other. Whether that’s because the film is a little obscure in places or I wasn’t always paying as close attention as I could have been, I’m not sure.

But I thought the approach chosen made it informative, even if not ideally so. I had only very slight knowledge of the incident and the surrounding context going in, and now I feel like I understand these matters substantially better.

The movie gives all sides an opportunity to speak, but pretty clearly comes down on the side that the Peltier conviction was a travesty.

Three other defendants were tried for the same killings, and acquitted, before Peltier was extradited from Canada—on probably false pretenses—and put on trial alone. The most plausible explanation of the available evidence is that the FBI and the prosecution learned from the first trial what worked and didn’t work with the jury, and then molded the Peltier case accordingly, doctoring physical evidence, intimidating witnesses, encouraging false testimony, lying by omission, etc. where necessary.

The killings occurred when two FBI agents pursued a vehicle onto the reservation. (The prosecution claimed it was Peltier’s, but that requires a very fanciful interpretation of the evidence. It’s very likely they were pursuing a different Indian who was a suspect the FBI is known to have been looking for.) They ended up in an area where several AIM (American Indian Movement) members were congregated, along with women and children. The agents and whoever they were chasing got out of the vehicles, some armed Indians saw what was happening and readied themselves for battle, and people scrambled to get the women and children out of danger.

Gunfire was exchanged—the details of who shot first and such are not clear—one Indian was killed and the two FBI agents were killed. There was evidence that one or both of the FBI agents were not killed in the original shootout, but were wounded, and then shot execution-style from closer up.

The context of it all is important. At this point in the ’70s, less than two years after AIM members seized the town of Wounded Knee, significant numbers of Indians had been radicalized and were increasingly vocal and belligerent about claiming their individual and tribal rights, with AIM serving as a loose analogue of the Black Panthers—a partly political, partly militia-type group.

And the powers that be felt about the same way about AIM as they did about the Black Panthers. Given that the government had escalated the fight against the Panthers to cold blooded murder in the Fred Hampton case, AIM members were understandably ready to believe the worst about what was in store for them.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of powerful Indians who opposed AIM, especially those who corruptly administered federal programs and were able to benefit from all the goodies they distributed. This included the government of the Pine Lodge reservation, site of the Wounded Knee incident and this later shootout with the FBI. The reservation leaders were openly hostile to AIM, and used violence to suppress them.

Whether the U.S. government was an accomplice or just a lucky beneficiary of this in-fighting is not known. But as one interviewee notes, with all the talk about AIM being terrorists or violent or a danger to whites or society at large, virtually all the criminal violence of the time was Indian on Indian, and the vast majority of the time AIM members were the recipients rather than the perpetrators of such violence.

So it was in this context that a bunch of AIM members observed armed men getting out of a car after a high speed chase onto the reservation. They were not visibly identifiable as FBI agents, but even if somehow they had been, it’s not like then the Indians would have known they were “good guys” and not a threat to them. In some ways, the FBI was the enemy.

It may never be known whose shots killed the agents. Many years later someone taped a confession, but they hid their identity, and who knows how much credence to put in that.

There’s no reason to think it was Peltier, or any of the three acquitted defendants. They seem to have been picked because the prosecution wanted to go after whoever would be the biggest losses to AIM and cripple the movement. (Though on the other hand, one interviewee says Peltier was far from a leader of AIM, and was really little more than a bodyguard.)

But while the trial likely had political motives like that—the government exploiting an opportunity to discredit and weaken AIM—my tentative read on the situation is that that wasn’t the main factor in the prosecution’s misbehavior.

I suspect this was “payback” for the fact that it was law enforcement personnel who were killed. Much like if a “made” man in a Mafia family is killed, extreme retribution is obligatory, niceties like fair trials and “innocent until proven guilty” and all that be damned.

It was probably collective punishment of Indians and AIM. The prosecution may well have realized that there was no individual they could convict if they played fair, but still, some Indians or other had killed the agents, and so some Indians or other would pay.

It feels like that kind of primitive, macho, end-justifies-the-means revenge, as much or more than a calculated political move against AIM. Though likely it had elements of both.

Anyway, it’s an interesting and important case, and the whole issue of the growing political consciousness of the Indians of the time is interesting and important. Incident at Oglala maybe isn’t perfectly organized, and maybe is slow and a little dull here and there, but for the most part it competently presents the evidence in a straightforward and understandable manner, and fosters a greater knowledge of these matters.

It deserves a moderate recommendation.

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