Peter Matthiessen: A True Warrior

Snow Leopard

"He fought for the poor and the weary, the sick, and anyone who had problems that were brought to his attention. He took time from his own life to try to help them in whatever way he could. He ALWAYS gave freely when someone needed anything, fought for those who were being mistreated.

...Native People need to know, we owe a great debt to this man, Peter Matthiessen. He was a very brave man, a true warrior. He battled HARD for us as a people. He fought tirelessly for my freedom." - Leonard Peltier, 6 April 2014.

Peter Matthiessen died of leukemia on 5 April 2014, at the age of 86. He had written over 30 books. The work that readers interested in the Himalaya are most likely to know is The Snow Leopard. But if that is the only one of his books that you have read, you have probably missed the point of the man.

The Snow Leopard describes a journey made in 1973, when Peter Matthiessen accompanied biologist George Schaller to the Dolpo region of Nepal. Dolpo was at that time within the sphere of operations of Tibetans fighting against the Chinese occupation of their country from secret bases in Nepal1. The Nepalese government. had turned a blind eye to their presence for many years. It did not not normally grant permission for foreigners to enter the area.

Schaller's objective was to study bharal - blue sheep - and perhaps to obtain a glimpse of a snow leopard. His invitation to Matthiessen was made on the basis of time spent together in 1968 in east Africa, where Schaller had been studying lions. That trip had led to Matthiessen's book The Tree Where Man was Born.

Peter Matthiessen had established a reputation as a nature writer, but it was not precisely as a nature writer that he seized the opportunity his friend gave him. He had for several years been a student of Zen, introduced to it by his wife Deborah Love. Shey Monastery, in Dolpo, followed the Karmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and its Lama was regarded as an incarnation of the 12th century Tibetan teacher Marpa. Matthiessen saw parallels between Zen and Karmapa meditation techniques - "almost identical", he said - and imagined himself as a student of the Lama of Shey.

Yak caravan, Dolpo

Yak caravan, Dolpo
Photo: Carsten Nebel, Some rights reserved

Shey Monastery stands at an altitude of about 4300m. Peter Matthiessen and George Schaller reached it at the beginning of November, after crossing a 5300m pass. Winter was approaching. They found the monastery locked and the Lama gone. It was "a reprimand to spiritual ambition", Matthiessen wrote.

For some readers, The Snow Leopard is the story of an "inner journey". Perhaps; but the cliché is not quite apt. Peter Matthiessen makes the outer journey seem very compelling. Objects and actions are vivid and precise. What is absent, or at least muted, is the fabric of gossip and social exchange that usually dresses these things. It could hardly be otherwise - Peter Matthiessen could understand almost nothing of the language of his porters and the people whose villages he passed through.

I can think of no one else who has succeeded half so well at conveying in print the effect that the air and light of high places have on the senses and the mind. He said afterwards that he made the writing of The Snow Leopard his Zen practice.

And the snow leopard? George Schaller saw one, almost at the end of the expedition. Peter Matthiessen did not.

Neither of them appear to have run into the Tibetan guerrillas - many of them Khampas - operating out of Mustang. CIA support for the Tibetans was being wound down. The Government of Nepal had ceased to turn a blind eye to them, and during 1973 had begun demanding that they hand over their weapons. Peter Matthiessen wrote in The Snow Leopard that after the expedition had ended - in the last days of 1973 or the first days of 1974 - George Schaller "had word from Nepal that because of a bloody skirmish between Khampas and Nepali troops near the Tibetan border north of Shey, the Land of Dolpo had been closed once again to the outside world."

Most of the guerrillas surrendered peacefully to Nepali forces the following summer, having been urged to do so in a taped message from the Dalai Lama. Those who did not were killed or captured. Dolpo remained closed until 1989.

There is an odd coyness about The Snow Leopard. George Schaller is always GS; Deborah Love is D. Perhaps this has something to do with Zen, but it could as easily be a homage to the austere scientist George Schaller - a man of "fine, old-fashioned qualities," according to Matthiessen. Without  a bit of reticence the book might easily have got out of hand. D died of cancer a year before Peter Matthiessen made his journey to Shey. The Snow Leopard is partly a recollection of their shared experiments with LSD, their shared spiritual quest, and their unconquerable tendency to quarrel.

The wild wide eyes of a naljorpa

The Snow Leopard is also partly about a man called Tukten, one of the porters that the expedition employed. Tukten was a ruffian and sometimes a drunk, and was not entirely trusted by the other porters, though he was perhaps the most capable of them.

A year or two after Matthiessen returned to the US, an anonymous Sherpa who seems to have been Tukten contrived, by improbable means, to send him something that Matthiessen called a "lama's delusion-cutting knife "2.

To Peter Matthiessen, it seemed that Tukten had "the wild wide eyes of a naljorpa, or Tibetan yogi," and was somehow familiar, "like a dim figure from another life." In the end, Matthiessen suggests, Tukten, and not the Lama of Shey, turned out to be the teacher that he had hoped to find. Even with the supporting evidence of the ritual knife, all this is rather a lot to project onto someone with whom Matthiessen could barely conduct a conversation (Tukten's English was rudimentary).

Edward Said's book Orientalism was published in the same year - 1978 - as The Snow Leopard. It analysed the tendency of writers in the "West" to deal in a cavalier way with subjects in the "East", and especially with their habit of substituting texts treasured in the "West" for the myriad changing circumstances of the "East". The Snow Leopard is an ambitious book, but it does not show much awareness of orientalist pitfalls.

It is probably better known around the world than any other  work of literature set in Nepal. That fact can hardly fail to irritate a lot of Nepalis. It is as though Britain were represented worldwide by a book about a journey to Iona, written by a Japanese man who wrote like an angel and knew a good deal about Saint Columba and red deer, but didn't concern himself too much about the rest of British and Scottish life.

That isn't really Peter Matthiessen's fault, but it should serve as a warning of the effortless cultural and marketing power attached to creations of the "West".

The CIA and cultural warfare

Peter Matthiessen was on a political journey as well as a spiritual one. He was born in New York in 1927. That put him five years behind Jack Kerouac, one year behind Allen Ginsberg, eight years ahead of Edward Said and ten years ahead of Thomas Pynchon.

He graduated from Yale in 1950, started work on a novel (which he later abandoned as beyond redemption) and was recruited into the CIA by one of his Yale professors, Norman Holmes Pearson. The CIA sent him where he wanted to go - Paris. He became one of the founding editors of the legendary Paris Review, which brought out its first edition in 1953.

The Paris Review Cover, issue 1

Matthiessen said later that he had created the Paris Review as cover for his CIA work, but insisted that the CIA itself had nothing to do with the magazine. Nevertheless, the  Paris Review received  a modest early donation ($1000, worth about $8700 today) from Julius Fleischman, a man known to have acted as a conduit for CIA funding. Letters discovered in 2012 by Salon show that in the winter of 1953/4 Matthiessen put on the table an offer of $20,000 (worth about $175,000 today) from unnamed backers.

The unfolding awfulness of McCarthyism, combined with the better example provided by the  people Peter Matthiessen was spying on, prompted him to quit the CIA in 1953. He said in recent interviews 3 that he told his CIA bosses "I am not on your side any more." If he indeed spoke in those terms in 1953 it was a brave thing to do. He said later that his time with the CIA was the only one of his adventures that he regretted.

He wasn't a whistleblower. US law prohibited him from disclosing his CIA activity, and he mostly kept quiet. In 1966 he explained himself to Harold L Humes ("Doc Humes") who had been managing editor of The Paris Review. Humes had by then become mentally ill, haunted by a supposedly paranoid belief that the CIA were following him. Matthiessen thought his disclosure would help. It didn't.

Peter Matthiessen evidently believed he had drawn a line under his CIA adventure. Doc Humes seems to have understood the issue differently, and perhaps better. In a letter that he wrote to Paris Review editor George Plimpton in 1966, after hearing Matthiessen's confession, he worried that the magazine might have been "created and used as an engine in the damned cold war?"

It turns out, at least partly, that it had. The letters discovered by Salon in 2012 show that, through the 1950s and 1960s, editors of The Paris Review  maintained strong links with the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CCF was a formidable  instrument of cultural warfare and many otherwise respectable people were associated with it. Its dependence on CIA funding became public knowledge in 1967, though a lot of people must already have guessed what was afoot.

Rumours of Peter Matthiessen's CIA adventure must have spread after he came clean to Doc Humes, but the story didn't become public knowledge until it found its way into a New York Times article published in December 1977.

After resigning from the CIA in 1953, Peter Matthiessen returned to the US, found work as a fisherman and kept writing: novels, books about American wildlife, travel books. He opposed the Vietnam war and was one of 500 or so people who signed up to the writers and editors war tax protest in 1967-68. In the summer of 1968 he met farm labour leader Cesar Chavez and began working and travelling with him. This became the material for Matthiessen's book Sal si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution.

In 1975 Peter Matthiessen's novel Far Tortuga was published. He had been working on it since 1966. For the rest of his life he declared it to be his favourite out of all his works.

Wounded Knee Hill, Pine Ridge Resevation, South Dakota

Wounded Knee Hill, Pine Ridge Resevation, South Dakota - site of the 1890 massacre
Photo: Napa, Some rights reserved

In the late 1970s he began travelling through the Indian lands of the USA. Dee Brown's book Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee had been published in 1970. It told the history of the Wild West over the period 1860-1890, and told it in a way that had not been done before. Dee Brown's introduction suggested that "Americans who have always looked westward when reading about this period should read this book facing eastward" - they should stand among Indians, in other words.

Peter Matthiessen stood in the same place to write about the Indian affairs of his own time. Dee Brown had relied on oral histories of Native Americans, preserved in print in US government records. Peter Matthiessen had to gather his own oral histories from contemporary Native Americans. He could not have done so without the help of a man called Craig Carpenter.

Carpenter had come to Indian country a quarter century earlier as, in his own estimation , a "half-baked, detribalized Mohawk." He had helped build what he called the "Indian rebirth movement", become a Hopi spiritual "messenger", and played a part in the youth movement of the sixties. Carpenter became Peter Matthiessen's guide and teacher.

Matthiessen's book Indian Country was published in 1984. While working on it, he encountered the story of Leonard Peltier, a Native American unjustly convicted over the killing of two FBI agents. That became a book too - In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, published in 1983.

Shoot-out at Oglala

The two agents - Jack Coler and Ron Williams - were killed on 26 June 1975 after they drove onto the property of the Jumping Bull family, near Oglala on the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. They were pursuing a truck, apparently believing its driver to be a man named Jimmy Eagle whom they were seeking.

The agents and the men who killed them were protagonists in a drama that had come close to being a war. Wounded Knee town had been occupied by Native American protesters for 71 days in 1973. A section of the Indian community on Pine Ridge Reservation subsequently found itself in conflict both with Federal forces and with an Indian militia run by Dick Wilson, the President of the Oglala Sioux tribal council.

The dissidents were mainly "traditional" Indians and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM). 60-70 of them were murdered over a three-year period and many more suffered assaults. A dirty tricks campaign by the FBI contributed to the fear and confusion.

During May and June 1975 there was a build-up of FBI agents on Pine Ridge. A number of AIM activists - including Leonard Peltier - were camped on the Jumping Bull ranch at the request of the Jumping Bull family, for their protection.

When agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams drove onto the Jumping Bull ranch they became involved in an exchange of fire. It isn't clear how the shooting started. Massive support for the two agents arrived swiftly, in the shape of over 150 FBI agents, BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) police and others. When the shooting stopped, a young Indian man called Joe Stuntz lay dead. Jack Coler and Ron Williams were dead beside their cars, the fatal shots having been fired at close range, when the men were already wounded. Many of the Indians on the ranch managed to escape the scene via a bushy culvert.

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse

AIM members Dino Butler and Bob Robideau were subsequently arrested over the deaths of the FBI men. They were tried in 1976 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both men accepted that they had exchanged fire from long range with the FBI agents, but denied responsibility for the final close-range shots. They said they had been acting in self-defence on behalf of women and children on the ranch. A wide range of evidence was presented by the defence to explain the background to the events at Oglala. Butler and Robideau were acquitted on 16 July 1976.

If Leonard Peltier had stood trial alongside them, he would have been acquitted too. But he had fled to Canada, only to be extradited to the US in December 1976 on the strength of an affidavit later found to be false. He went on trial in Fargo, North Dakota, on 16 March 1977, charged with firing the shots that killed Jack Coler and Ron Williams. The judge refused to allow the court to hear the kind of background evidence that had been used to show that Butler and Robideau had acted in self-defence. Information that would have refuted the ballistics case against Peltier was withheld from the defence team. He was convicted of double murder.

At a court hearing in 1985 dealing with Leonard Peltier's request for a re-trial, the prosecution abandoned the claim that Peltier had shot the agents from close range, saying: "We can't prove who shot those agents." In 1986, the US Court of Appeal for the Eighth Circuit said: “We recognize that there is some evidence in this record of improper conduct on the part of some FBI agents, but we are reluctant to impute even further improprieties to them.” It denied Leonard Peltier's request for a re-trial. He was to remain in jail for actions exactly parallel to those for which Dino Butler and Bob Robideau had been acquitted by the jury in Cedar Rapids.

Peter Matthiessen's book was published ahead of these legal developments. It exposed some of the flaws in the prosecution case and put forward the self-defence argument that the Fargo jury had been prevented from hearing. Naturally, that made Peter Matthiessen some enemies.

Alan Dershowitz - a lawyer and commentator who was later to propose a system of licensed torture for terrorism suspects - responded with a piece of beautifully crafted malice. In a review for the New York Times in 1983 he said: "'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."

Beneath the candy-coating, there was poison. Matthiessen was a "naif"; he "seems to have been taken in and to have left most of his otherwise excellent critical faculties at home when he interviewed Mr. Peltier and his followers"; AIM "did not act in the selfless spirit of Chief Crazy Horse" but "more in the violent spirit of Custer."

Crazy Horse was an uncompromising man who was assassinated by a US soldier with the complicity of an Indian warrior turned policeman. There was no reason - apart from a wish to annoy - why Alan Dershowitz should have used him for a literary assassination of Peter Matthiessen and Leonard Peltier.

Governor William Janklow of South Dakota and FBI agent David Price didn't like the way they were portrayed by Peter Matthiessen. Soon after In the Spirit of Crazy Horse appeared in US bookshops they filed lawsuits against Matthiessen and his publisher, Viking Penguin. Viking took the book out of print, destroyed the copies in its warehouses and suspended plans to publish a paperback edition. Both lawsuits were dismissed on the grounds that the views expressed in the book were protected by the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in the US constitution. The legal battle finally ended in 1990, after seven years of what Martin Garbus, lawyer for Matthiessen and Viking, called "censorship by libel suit." In the Spirit of Crazy Horse was republished in 1991.

Leonard Peltier is still in jail. He says:

"When he [Peter Matthiessen] wrote his book about my case and conviction 'IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE,' the F.B.I. first tried to ruin his career by filing false, multi-million-dollar libel suits against him and his publishing company, also effectively BANNING the book during the lawsuits. When that did not work, they threatened his life and the lives of his family. In true warrior form, Peter told them to get off of his property. Peter told me 'Sure I was concerned,' but his beliefs in the Constitution and his belief in America were stronger than any fear they could put on him.

Others who were threatened and became afraid, burned thousands and thousands of copies of our book; yes!… in modern times they burned In the Spirit of Crazy Horse."

Peter Matthiessen's novel Killing Mister Watson was published in 1990. It was the first part of a trilogy. Lost Man's River followed in 1997, then Bone by Bone in 1999, then finally Shadow Country - the trilogy re-written as a single volume - in 2008. The books dealt with the half-legendary E J Watson - farmer, family man, outlaw, killer - who was gunned down in the Florida Everglades in 1910. Each book creates a different set of perspectives on the enigma of Mister Watson. The exercise sounds like a minor literary curio. On the contrary, it is a vivid, monumental, incisive portrait of the USA.

Matthiessen's last book, In Paradise - a novel dealing with the Holocaust - was published a few days after his death.

  • 1. The bases were in Mustang, but the guerrillas had a wireless outpost in Dolpo. See The CIA's Secret War in Tibet, 2002, by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison
  • 2. The Sherpa gave a package containing the knife to an American trekker in Nepal with the instruction: "Give Massin." Matthiessen told this story in an interview published in The Missouri Review in 1989.
  • 3. eg Conversations from Penn University