“My crime’s being an Indian. What’s yours?”
Leonard Peltier turned 63 years old on September 12, 2007, an international day demanding the immediate, unconditional freedom of this Native American artist, writer, and activist––one of the most widely recognized political prisoners in the world.
Leonard has spent more than 31 years in some of the cruelest prisons in the United States, unjustly condemned to a double life sentence for the shooting death of two FBI agents in 1975. His situation is now aggravated by health problems.
From his cell in the federal prison at Lewisberg, Pennsylvania, he keeps right on struggling for the rights of indigenous people. He’s contributed to the establishment of libraries, schools, scholarships, and battered women’s shelters among many other projects. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and again in 2007.
In his autobiography My Life Is My Sun Dance, Leonard explains that his bloodline is mainly Ojibway and Dakota Sioux and that he was adopted by the Lakota Sioux and raised on their reservations “in the land known to you as America….but I don’t consider myself an American.”
“I know what I am. I am an Indian–an Indian who dared to stand up to defend his people. I am an innocent man who never murdered anyone nor wanted to. And, yes, I am a Sun Dancer. That, too, is my identity. If I am to suffer as a symbol of my people, then I suffer proudly. I will never yield.”
Leonard tells us that when he was nine years old a big black government car drove up to his house to take him and the other kids away to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school in Wahpeton, Dakota del Norte. When they got there, they cut off their long hair, stripped them, and doused them with DDT powder.
“I thought I was going to die…that place…was more like a reformatory than a school…I consider my years at Wahpenton my first imprisonment, and it was for the same crime as all the others: being an Indian.”
He goes on to say that “We had to speak English. We were beaten if we were caught speaking our own language. Still, we did….I guess that’s where I became a “hardened criminal,” as the FBI calls me. And you could say that the first infraction in my criminal career was speaking my own language. There’s an act of violence for you….The second was practicing our traditional religion.”
When Leonard Peltier was a teen-ager, President Eisenhower launched a program to eliminate the reservations and move the people off, giving them a small payment. Leonard remembers that the words “termination” and “dislocation” became the most feared words in the people’s vocabulary. The process of fighting against dislocation was his first experience as an activist.
During the 60s, Leonard worked as a farm worker and, later, in an auto body shop in Seattle. At that time he got his first taste of community organizing. At the beginning of the 70s, he joined up with the American Indian Movement (AIM), initially inspired by the Black Panthers.
In 1972, he participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties, a march / caravan from Alcatraz in California to Washington D.C., and also in the occupation of the BIA in the nation’s capital. He became a target of the FBI program to “neutralize” AIM leaders and was set up and jailed at the end of the year.
1973: The Occupation of Wounded Knee
One of AIM’s boldest actions was the occupation of the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the same place where the United States Army carried out its cowardly, infamous massacre of 300 Lakota people in 1890.
At the beginning of the 70s, AIM was getting together with the Lakota Indians who were true to their ancient traditions and wanted to hold on to their culture and their lands.
The BIA, worried about AIM’s growing influence in the area, imposed Dick Wilson as tribal chairman on the reservation, running roughshod over the will of the traditional elders and chiefs.
The puppet Wilson hated the AIM militants and allied himself with the FBI to destroy the movement that the agency saw as a threat to the American way of life. His paramilitary group known as the “GOONS” (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) had committed a long chain of abuses against the people.
On the night of February 27, around 300 Lakota and 25 AIM members occupied the town of Wounded Knee, joined by several Chicanos, Black, and white supporters. They opposed the murders of Native Americans on the reservation, the extreme poverty that the people lived in, and the corrupt tribal government. They demanded that the government respect the ancient treaties signed with native peoples to protect their territory and autonomy.
The next day, General Alexander Haig ordered an invasion. According to Ward Churchill and Jim Vanderwall in their book Agents of Repression, “In the first instance since the Civil War that the U.S. Army had been dispatched in a domestic operation, the Pentagon invaded Wounded Knee with 17 armored personnel carriers, 130,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 41,000 rounds of M-1 ammunition, 24,000 flares, 12 M-79 grenade launchers, 600 cases of C-S gas, 100 rounds of M-40 explosives, helicopters, phantom jets, and personnel, all under the direction of General Alexander Haig.”
The operation also relied on 500 heavily armed policemen, federal marshals, and BIA and FBI agents. They surrounded Wounded Knee and set up barricades all along the road.
The occupation lasted 71 days and ended only after the government promised to investigate the complaints, something that never happened.
The next three years were known as the “reign of terror” on Pine Ridge. More than 300 people associated with AIM were violently attacked and many of their homes were burned. During these years more than 60 Native American people were killed by paramilitaries armed and trained by the FBI. There was also an increase of FBI SWAT team agents on the reservation.
It’s now known, as a result of a suit based on the Freedom of Information Act, that AIM activities on and off the reservation were under FBI surveillance and that the FBI was preparing the paramilitary operations on Pine Ridge a month before the shootout at Oglala.
Oglala: The fatal shootout
In a situation that was getting worse all the time, the Council of Elders on the Jumping Bull ranch near the town of Oglala asked AIM to come back to the reservation to protect them. Leonard Peltier, along with many other AIM members and non-members responded to the call and set up camp on the ranch.
On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ron Williamsen, followed a red pick-up truck onto the Jumping Bull ranch. They were supposedly looking for young Jimmy Eagle, who was said to have stolen a pair of cowboy boots.
A shootout began between the FBI agents and the people in the pick-up, trapping a family in the crossfire. Several mothers fled the area with their children while other people fired in self-defense. More than150 FBI SWAT team members, BIA police, and GOONS surrounded approximately 30 AIM men, women, and children and opened fire. Leonard Peltier helped a group of young people to escape from the rain of bullets. When the shootout ended, AIM member Joseph Killsright Stuntz was found dead, shot in the head. His death has never been investigated.
Coler and Williamsen were wounded during the shootout and then killed at point blank range. The two agents had in their possession a map with the Jumping Bull ranch marked on it.
According to FBI documents, more than forty Native Americans participated in the shootout, but only four were charged with killing the two agents: three AIM leaders––Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, and Leonard Peltier–– and Jimmy Eagle.
Butler and Robideau were the first to be arrested, and at their trial they stated that they had fired in self-defense. The jury believed the act was justified due to the atmosphere of terror that prevailed at Pine Ridge at the time. They were both found innocent.
The FBI was furious about the verdict and dropped the charges against Jimmy Eagle, according to their memos, “…in order to direct the full weight of the prosecution on Peltier.”
Meanwhile, Leonard Peltier went to Canada, believing that he would never have a fair trial. On February 6, he was arrested and then extradited to the United States due to the statement of a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear, who said she had been his girlfriend and had seen him fire at the agents. As a matter of fact, she had never known him and was not present at the time of the shootout. In a later statement, she said that she had been coerced into giving false testimony as a result of being terrorized by FBI agents.
Two life sentences!?
The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee has cited a number of examples of the injustice of the trial:
-The case wasn’t brought before the judge who had presided over the trial of Robideau and Butler, but instead before another judge with a reputation for making decisions favorable to the prosecution.
-Myrtle Poor Bear and other important witnesses were forbidden to testify about FBI misconduct.
-Testimony about the “reign of terror” on the Pine Ridge Reservation was severely limited.
-Important evidence, such as conflicting ballistic reports, was deemed inadmissible.
-The red pick-up that had been followed onto the ranch was suddenly described as Peltier’s “red and white van.”
-The jury was isolated and surrounded by federal marshals, making jurors believe that AIM was a security threat to them.
-Three young Native Americans were forced to give false testimony against Peltier after having been arrested and terrorized by FBI agents.
-The prosecutor couldn’t produce a single witness who could identify Peltier as the shooter.
-The government said that a cartridge found near the bodies was fired from the presumed murder weapon, and alleged that this was the only pistol of its kind used during the shootout and that it belonged to Peltier.
As a result of the Freedom of Information Act suit, FBI documents turned over to the defense showed that:
1. More than one weapon of the type attributed to Peltier had been present at the scene.
2. The FBI intentionally hid the ballistics report showing that the cartridge could not have come from the presumed murder weapon.
3. There was no doubt whatsoever that the agents followed a red pick-up onto the territory, and not the red and white van driven by Peltier.
4. Strong evidence against several other suspects existed and was withheld.
None of this evidence was presented to the jury that found Leonard Peltier guilty. He was given two consecutive life sentences.
Two consecutive life sentences?! How do they plan to implement that? Doesn’t the sentence reflect a deep fear of the spirit of Crazy Horse?
Bill Clinton: at the service of the FBI
The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee explains that a new trial was sought after several of these abuses came to light. During one hearing, the federal prosecutor admitted that “…we can’t prove who shot the agents”. The court realized that Peltier could have been found innocent if the evidence hadn’t been unduly withheld by the FBI, but a new trial was denied on the basis of technical errors.
The Committee says:
“In 1993, Peltier requested Executive Clemency from President Bill Clinton. An intensive campaign was launched and supported by Native and human rights organizations, members of Congress, community and church groups, labor organizations, luminaries, and celebrities. Even Judge Heaney, who authored the court decision [denying a new trial], expressed firm support for Peltier’s release. The Peltier case had become a national issue.
On November 7, 2000, during a live radio interview, Clinton stated that he would seriously consider Peltier’s request for clemency and make a decision before leaving office on January 20, 2001.
In response, the FBI launched a major disinformation campaign in both the media and among key government officials. Over 500 FBI agents marched in front of the White House to oppose clemency. On January 20, the list of clemencies granted by Clinton was released to the media. Without explanation, Peltier’s name had been excluded.”
The efforts of the defense team are now focused on obtaining more than 6,000 documents that are still being retained by the FBI and on urging Congress to investigate FBI misconduct on Pine Ridge and the “reign of terror” that existed between 1973 and 1976.
In a recent letter Leonard said: “If my case stands as it is, no common person has real freedom. Only the illusion until you have something the oppressors want…. In the spirit of Crazy Horse, who never gave up.”
Let’s change how it is.
This September 12, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee has announced cultural events in different parts of the world. In Philadelphia there will be a demonstration to demand freedom for Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the MOVE 9, and the Cuban 5, convened by the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal (ICFFMAJ), Philadelphia Jericho, Philadelphia Anarchist Black Cross, the African Peoples Solidarity Committee, and the Uhuru Solidarity Movement.
What will you do?
Write a letter to Leonard:
Leonard Peltier # 89637-132
PO BOX 1000
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania 17837
To sign an online petition or obtain information about letter writing campaigns, consult the page of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee: www.leonardpeltier.net
Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, case summaries
Leonard Peltier, My Life is My Sun Dance
Ward Churchill and Jim Vanderwall, Agents of Repression