Author Peter Matthiessen was a champion of Indian rights, not least of all for his controversial In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI's War on the American Indian Movement (Viking Press, 1991) and the prophetic Indian Country (Viking Press, 1984).
But as the writer and the teacher of Zen Buddhism would no doubt tell us, it was truth he had been championing all along. And he did so with rigor until the very end. On April 5, 2014, when Matthiessen walked on at age 86 due to leukemia, his latest book—which he himself had said could be his “last word”—was about to be released. The “haunting and bewildering” novel In Paradise, as the Washington Post described it, does no less as it “ventures to Auschwitz to confront the Holocaust.”
The novel grew out of the author’s week at the Nazi death camp on a Zen retreat designed for participants to pay homage, pray and meditate in memory of the victims who had perished there. And he felt that the truths that emerged from the experience could only be presented in a fictionalized format.
Not so, of course, with his works that focused on Natives. The truth Matthiessen unearthed was hard-hitting enough that one of the books, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, was in litigation for eight years while those who did not like some of what he had to say waged a legal battle to keep it off bookstore shelves. In the end, though, the detailed examination of the American Indian Movement and the trial of Leonard Peltier that was shown by Matthiessen to be “based on widespread fraud and government misconduct,” as The New York Times noted in its review back in 1983, persevered.
“In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is one of those rare books that permanently change one's consciousness about important, yet neglected, facets of our history,” wrote reviewer Alan M. Dershowitz in The New York Times. It is an effort that is still under way today as Peltier, given consecutive life sentences after his 1977 murder conviction on the killing of two FBI agents, remains in prison.
Soon after that would come Indian Country, equally scathing in its indictment of the environmental, cultural and psychological damage that centuries of European occupation have wrought. Matthiessen spent time with the Miccosukee Seminoles in Florida; the Hopi and Navajo in Arizona; the Eastern Cherokee in Tennessee and North Carolina, the Mohawk on the St. Lawrence River in New York; the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Wind River Shoshone, members of the Black Hills Alliance in Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota; and California tribes including the Chumash, Yurok, Karuk, Pit River Nation, Western Shoshone and Paiute. The resulting book provides insight not only into the hurt being inflicted on Turtle Island’s First Peoples but also the injury that those who are attempting to eradicate them inflict on themselves.
The author of 33 books—the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction—was profiled in an article in The New York Times Magazine printed just a couple of days before his death. “Peter Matthiessen’s Homegoing” does not discuss his connection with American Indians, though it does mention his reporting on the infringements upon Indigenous People’s lands and the environment in general, worldwide, and alludes to the folly of continuing along that path. Matthiessen’s words would seem to be common sense, yet the same battles are still being fought today.
“It isn’t enough to admire Indian teachings; we need them,” he wrote in the introduction to Indian Country. “We belong to this earth, it does not belong to us; it cares for us, and we must care for it. If our time on earth is to endure, we must love the earth in the strong, unsentimental way of traditional peoples, not seeking to exploit but to live in balance with the natural world. When modern man has regained his reverence for land and life, then the lost Paradise, the Golden Age in the race memories of all peoples will come again, and all men will be ‘in Dios,’ people of God.”