AnalysisIndigenous rights

After 48 years of unjust imprisonment, free Leonard Peltier!

Today 48 years ago, Leonard Peltier, a young 31-year-old Native man, was arrested in Canada and extradited to the United States. He has been in U.S. federal prison ever since. Now 78 years old, he is still held in an 8 x 10 foot cell at a maximum-security penitentiary at Coleman, Florida.

Support rallies demanding his release are taking place today across the United States, Canada, Europe and Latin America.

Why is Leonard Peltier one of the longest held prisoners ever in the United States, despite worldwide calls for his freedom? Currently seven U.S. senators and numerous U.S. representatives along with dozens more in the past; world leaders past and present like Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, former Irish President Mary Robinson, European Parliament President David Sassoli, Irish Republican activist Gerry Adams, Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell; Indigenous organizations and individuals, including the National Congress of American Indians, religious leaders Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa; and many more have all called for his freedom.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions issued their findings of their investigation into Peltier’s case in 2022, stating that he “continues to be detained because he is Native American,” among other arguments calling for his freedom.

In December, 200 Indigenous actors, artists and other non-Native celebrities signed a letter to President Biden calling for Peltier’s freedom. The list of supporters is long.

Despite overwhelming support for his freedom, Leonard Peltier is denied not only his release, he is denied even a transfer to a lower-level facility to be near his family in North Dakota and Minneapolis.

Even former U.S. attorney and one of Peltier’s prosecutors, James H. Reynolds, wrote a letter July 9, 2021, to Biden saying, “I write today from a position rare for a former prosecutor, to beseech you to commute the sentence of a man who I helped put behind bars.

“With time, and the benefit of hindsight, I have realized that the prosecution and continued incarceration of Mr. Peltier was and is unjust. … The events that occurred, and the lives that were lost, are a tragedy. However, throughout Mr. Peltier’s prosecution and appeal, there was little or no consideration given to the FBI’s role in the creation of the dangerous conditions present at Pine Ridge.”

The FBI is the crux of the reason Peltier remains behind bars

Leonard Peltier’s continued incarceration is the never-ending FBI campaign of revenge after the June 26, 1975, “Incident at Oglala” that resulted in the deaths of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, and one Native man, Joe Stuntz. Authorities never cared to investigate Stuntz’s death. Instead they zeroed in exclusively on the FBI deaths.

There is extensive background history in the lead up to the incident. Dick Wilson, the dictatorial tribal chairman of the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge, led ongoing assaults on the people of the reservation who struggled against his government’s corruption and in defense of their traditional ways. He had marshaled a group of thugs, Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOON squad. On behalf of Wilson, they terrorized their own community that simply wanted fair treatment and an end to the chairman’s corruption.

For 25 months, from 1973 to 1975, 64 residents of Pine Ridge were murdered by gunshot, even being fired on in their homes, largely at the hands of Wilson’s men. The violence began soon after May 8, 1973, at the end of the 71-day historic takeover of Wounded Knee at Pine Ridge by American Indian Movement leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means and many young AIM members. Among their demands were calls for the U.S. Senate to investigate the notorious Bureau of Indian Affairs, Dick Wilson’s administration, and for hearings on the hundreds of broken treaties between Native nations and the U.S. government.

The U.S. military surrounded the occupiers of Wounded Knee for those 71 days, conducting a pitched assault on the encampment. More than 250,000 rounds were fired by U.S. military forces. The occupation ended by agreed surrender, but AIM members were arrested and indicted. None of AIM’s demands at Wounded Knee were met. Banks and Means were tried and faced years in prison. However, due to prosecutorial misconduct, the judge dismissed their charges.

The war on the Oglala Lakota was not over

Against the ongoing deadly violence and the refusal of authorities to protect the people, traditional Lakota women elders appealed to the American Indian Movement to come to Pine Ridge and protect their community. AIM members were already nationally known for organizing for Native people’s rights and taking a militant stance.

From the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz island in California to the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in D.C., a national movement was on the rise, with various Native organizations demanding their sovereignty, that treaties to be honored and for an end to longstanding genocidal U.S. practices.

On June 26, 1975, using a false pretext of serving a warrant on a Native young man over an alleged pair of stolen boots, FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams conducted a sudden raid onto the small Jumping Bull farm on Pine Ridge, where AIM supporters, children and elders were camped. The FBI agents were in plainclothes and drove an unmarked car.

A firefight ensued. Coler, Williams and Stuntz were killed. In the months that followed, Peltier’s two co-defendants, Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, were captured and tried by an all-white jury in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the deaths of the agents.

Amazingly, both were found innocent by reason of self-defense, despite an avalanche of negative media publicity and government attempts to terrify the jury with the myth that Native supporters in town could carry out violence at any time.

Key to Butler’s and Robideau’s innocent verdict was Judge Edward McManus’s decision to allow the argument of self-defense to be made by the defendants. He permitted them to point out that the 25-month reign of terror on Pine Ridge was their reason for being there. Their exoneration by the jury was a clear acknowledgement of the extreme violence on the reservation that preceded the shoot-out. 

The FBI turns its guns on Leonard Peltier

The FBI publicly declared its shock and anger at the defendants’ innocence verdict. They vowed that Leonard Peltier who had escaped to Canada would pay for the agents’ deaths.

Tragically, if Peltier had been in the same docket as Robideau and Butler, he would have been freed at the end of the trial. He would never have been convicted nor served 48 years. But as a Native man in a situation where two FBI agents were killed, he was convinced he had no chance to be fairly tried. 

To make a long and painful story short, the FBI forced a confession on threat of death from a Native woman Myrtle Poor Bear, who was burdened by poverty and developmental delay. They made her claim she was Peltier’s girlfriend and that he had bragged to her that he killed the agents. She had never met Leonard Peltier. She later admitted that the FBI threatened to kill her and her little daughter. Yet, her false statement was used to extradite Peltier from Canada.

On February 6, 1976, Leonard Peltier was arrested and extradited. It marked the beginning of a scandalous prosecution marked by FBI and government misconduct. The FBI terrified numerous witnesses to falsely testify. Several later recanted. Most of all, the judge in the new venue of Fargo, North Dakota, a conservative named Paul Benson, refused to allow Peltier the argument of self defense. He denied the evidence of the reign of terror preceding the shoot-out. The only question he declared valid was whether Peltier’s rifle fired the shots that killed the agents.

In appeals after Peltier’s conviction, it was proven that the FBI falsified the ballistics study, and that indeed, his rifle did not kill the agents. But the panel led by Judge Heaney of the 8th Circuit of Appeals ruled against Peltier despite the exonerating evidence. Heaney later came out calling for Peltier’s release.

Against this backdrop and with the FBI’s determination to win a conviction, Leonard Peltier never stood a chance. He was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

In a significant new development, former FBI agent Coleen Rowley wrote a letter to Biden in December 2022, calling for Peltier’s release, saying in part, “Retribution seems to have emerged as the primary if not sole reason for continuing what looks from the outside to have become an emotion-driven ‘FBI Family’ vendetta.” (The Guardian, Jan. 18, 2023

While much of the FBI’s vehement campaign against Peltier’s release is behind the scenes, one particular event exposed its open threat to a U.S. president, Bill Clinton, as he was preparing to leave office. 

The FBI threatens President Clinton regarding Peltier

In an unprecedented action that could only be interpreted as a threat, on December 15, 2000, 500 FBI agents, current and former, and mostly armed, surrounded the White House with a petition signed by 8,000 FBI agents demanding continued imprisonment of Peltier. Carrying a banner saying, “Never Forget,” they were supported by John Sennett, president of the FBI Agents Association, who said, “There are situations in which mercy is warranted, but clearly what this man has done puts him outside of the reach of any presidential pardon.”

Today, a petition sits on President Biden’s desk seeking clemency for Peltier. The times are different from previous years. Not only has knowledge of and support for Leonard Peltier grown, but the Indigenous movement is once again showing its strength. Recent years have seen the great struggle to protect water and land against the DAPL oil pipeline at Standing Rock, and the movement of #MMIW seeking justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The broader recognition of Native peoples’ right to true sovereignty, for respect of Native treaties and recovery of stolen lands, protests against the inordinate imprisonment of Native people and the deep poverty of their communities, all of this is at the root of Leonard Peltier’s freedom struggle. 

Everyone who loves freedom and justice, should learn about Leonard Peltier. Resources include, the film Incident at Oglala, his biography, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, and much more. The time is now. Free Leonard Peltier! Clemency Now!

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