Ghost Dance

Activists still wonder if Standing Deer died in a plot by the feds or Indian foes or for no reason at all

The caravans arrived 143 years after the Seventh Cavalry slaughtered hundreds of Indian men, women and children on the same spot. AIM members called for congressional hearings on Lakota sovereignty and rallied against what they called tribal corruption.

The protests resulted in a 71-day standoff between AIM and federal and tribal authorities. AIM took two white hostages and two Indians were killed.

Leonard Crow Dog, the spiritual adviser during the standoff, was the great-grandson of a proponent of the 1889 Ghost Dance. Calling upon the spirits of their ancestors to make them immune to the white man's bullets, the earlier Indians performed the Ghost Dance and made special clothing to invite their ancestors into their bodies. The Indians slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890 wore those shirts. After their deaths, no one performed the Ghost Dance until Crow Dog revived the lost ceremony in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee.

Krull was one of the last to see Standing Deer before he died.
Krull was one of the last to see Standing Deer before he died.
Smashed Ice left for Houston without even a change of socks.
Smashed Ice left for Houston without even a change of socks.

In the two years following that standoff, more than 60 Indians were killed on Pine Ridge. AIM activists accused the FBI of stalling the investigations and of illegally spying on AIM activities.

Minneapolis FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams stumbled into this war zone in 1975. The agents, both in their twenties, planned to serve a warrant on a young Indian wanted for armed robbery. When they arrived, shots were exchanged with a band of AIM activists. One Indian was killed.

The outnumbered agents made desperate pleas for backup on their car radio, but it was too late. As they lay wounded, someone walked over to the agents and executed them at point-blank range.

In one of the largest FBI manhunts in history, agents captured and charged four men with killing the agents. The only one convicted was Leonard Peltier, a 31-year-old member of AIM who received two life prison terms.

Peltier gained instant martyrdom. Many people on the reservations believed Peltier was innocent, that the FBI -- in its zeal to avenge the agents' killings -- cooked affidavits and falsified evidence to convict him.


"I get real nervous," Standing Deer says.

He's sitting on a bench in a Pittsburgh park during an interview videotaped by a friend 14 months before his death. He had broken parole to visit friends. Now he was recounting the story that made him famous and, 23 years later, still had him scared.

The man on the tape -- pudgy, with a huge bulbous nose, wagging jowls and oversize sunglasses -- bears no resemblance to the notorious bandit who had robbed 17 banks in 12 months. He wears what looks like a tan suede jacket over a black "Free Leonard Peltier" T-shirt. Until this point in the tape, he's been describing his childhood in a soft, articulate manner. But when his story turns to Marion prison, he hesitates.

The tape stops, then catches Standing Deer at an angle. Nervous or not, he gets right into his tale:

He's in a locked room in the prison hospital. He's old beyond his 46 years, with a bad back and diabetes. In walks the head of corrections, a man called the Captain. With him is a blond-haired, blue-eyed stranger in a brown suit who never gives his name.

The Captain stands quietly while the stranger speaks. He tells Standing Deer that Peltier is being transferred to Marion, and he wants Standing Deer to "neutralize" him.

Lying on his hospital bed in agony, Standing Deer knows who Peltier is -- everyone does -- but he never met him. He asks the stranger what he's requesting.

"You'll have to figure that out for yourself," the stranger replies. "But we know that you're not averse to going all the way when you're in a desperate situation."

The stranger continues: He will personally deny any medical attention unless Standing Deer cooperates. The patient can barely walk. He's dependent on pills for his back and is always in excruciating pain.

Standing Deer hates authority. He hates the government. But he figures he has no choice. "What's in it for me?" he asks.

The stranger says he can be moved back to Oklahoma, to a state prison he's escaped from before. The feds would no longer care about him. But Standing Deer figures that returning to Oklahoma -- he was still facing trial there for shooting a cop in 1975 -- would be a veritable death sentence. He needs something more. He asks the stranger if he can get the Oklahoma charges dismissed.

"If you can do it, I'll kill Peltier in front of the control center anytime you want it done," he says.

The Captain chuckles, then tells the stranger, "I told you he was your boy."

The stranger agrees. He wants him to befriend Peltier and convince him to escape. The stranger will supply this inmate with anything he needs to prove he has the goods for an escape: a gun (loaded with blanks), hacksaw blades, material for making dummies. All he has to do is get Peltier to the fence.

Standing Deer says he'll do it. Before the Captain and the stranger leave, they warn him that if he tells anyone about this, he'll be dead. The convict knows they mean it.

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