“THERE ARE hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people I would call political
prisoners” in the United States, declared Andrew Young in 1978, while
he was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (UN). Young’s indiscreet
comments about political persecution in the U.S. ignited a firestorm of attacks
from newspapers and politicians across the country.
Within a year, Young would be gone from his post at the UN, but many of the
political prisoners that he referred to continue to languish in America’s
prisons. February 6, 2006 marks the 30th anniversary of the arrest of one of
them: Leonard Peltier.
Peltier was arrested in Canada for a crime he did not commit--the murder
of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in June 1975.
He was illegally sent to the United States because of coerced and fraudulent
testimony, and later convicted in federal court in one of the most infamous
political frame-ups in modern U.S. history.
During his long years in prison, he won acclaim and support across the globe.
Historian Howard Zinn called Peltier’s prison writings, My Life is My
Sun Dance, “an accusation against monstrous injustice, a beautiful expression
of a man’s soul, demanding release.”
Amnesty International says it “considers Leonard Peltier to be a political
prisoner whose avenues of redress have long been exhausted...Leonard Peltier
should be immediately and unconditionally released.”
For many years, Peltier’s case has been better known outside the U.S.
than inside, due to the self-censorship of the U.S. media (which scoff at the
idea that there are “political prisoners” in the U.S.) and the fanatical
determination of the FBI to keep him in prison.
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PELTIER, A citizen of the Lakota and Anishinabe nations, was an active member
of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the early 1970s in the upper Midwest
and on the West Coast.
AIM was a product of the militant struggles of the 1960s against racism and
the Vietnam War. Its most important leaders during the 1970s--Dennis Banks and
Russell Means--were inspired by the civil rights movement and, more importantly,
the Black Panthers.
Formed in 1968 by Anishinabe Indian activists in Minneapolis, AIM quickly sprouted
chapters across the country, and moved from civil rights to issues of Indian
sovereignty and pride.
In 1972, on the eve of Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election to the presidency,
AIM led a nationwide caravan, called the “Trail of Broken Treaties,”
which culminated in the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters
in Washington, D.C. The BIA had long been a source of hatred for its flagrant
embezzlement of funds that were supposed to go to impoverished Native Americans,
and for its legalizing of the theft of reservation land.
The following year, at the request of Pine Ridge residents, AIM led the armed
occupation of Wounded Knee on the reservation--the site of the historic massacre
of Sioux men, women and children in 1890. The event marked the coming together
of urban Indian radicals with reservation traditionals, who resented the corruption
and abuse of the BIA-sponsored tribal administration, as well as its denigration
of Native traditions.
During the ensuing 71-day standoff, BIA police, FBI agents and U.S. military
personnel fired 500,000 rounds of ammunition at the entrenched Indian encampment,
killing two AIM members.
While the siege provided little in tangible concessions from the federal government,
it succeeded in publicizing AIM and generated a surge of popular interest in
Native American issues and history.
It also resulted in AIM becoming a greater target of ferocious government repression.
The FBI led the attack on AIM as part of its COINTELPRO program, begun in the
mid-1960s under Director J. Edgar Hoover and used with terrifying effectiveness
against the Black Panther Party.
COINTELPRO employed many dirty tricks against its targets, including wiretapping,
assassination and the use of agents provocateurs--all in coordination with state
and local police forces. The goal, according to FBI documents, was to “neutralize”
AIM members across the country faced constant harassment and frame-ups that
drained the organization’s resources and eventually broke its leadership.
One of the AIM members caught up in this dragnet was Leonard Peltier.
During the aim occupation of Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Tribal Chair Dickie Wilson
formed the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (literally and boastfully known as
GOON), paid for with a $62,000 BIA stipend--and launched a reign of terror on
AIM and its supporters at Pine Ridge.
From 1973 to 1976, more than 60 AIM members and supporters, many of them traditionals,
were murdered without the state government or the FBI lifting a finger to investigate
A new generation of rabidly racist, self-proclaimed “Indian fighters”
emerged in South Dakota, led by William Janklow, the future South Dakota governor,
who declared: “The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota
is to put a gun to the AIM leaders’ heads and pull the trigger.”
In the desperate and highly charged atmosphere of repression after Wounded
Knee II, the traditional leaders on Pine Ridge appealed to AIM for help to defend
themselves. Peltier was among the dozens of AIM members and supporters who went
to Pine Ridge.
They provided protection from attacks by Wilson’s GOONs, which usually
took place late at night, making the late-evening hours a nightmare of gunfire
and screams for help. AIM activists, including Peltier, were armed for their
own protection as well as that of the residents.
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WHAT HAS now gone down in history as “the incident at Oglala” occurred
on June 26, 1975, when two unmarked cars chased a red truck onto the Jumping
Bull compound near the village of Oglala.
Without identifying themselves, the FBI agents in pursuit of the red pickup
began shooting at it. The FBI later claimed the agents were chasing an Indian
named Jimmy Eagle for allegedly stealing cowboy boots.
When the agents began firing on the ranch, Peltier and others, who were defending
the compound against GOON violence, fired back, not knowing who the men were
or what they wanted.
Within minutes, more than 150 FBI agents, BIA police and GOONs had surrounded
the ranch. Peltier and others escaped the encirclement.
When the FBI occupied the ranch, they found AIM member Joe Killsright Stuntz
and two FBI agents, Jack Koler and Ron Williams, shot dead at close range. No
one has ever been convicted for killing Stuntz.
The largest manhunt in FBI history ensued, eventually resulting in the arrest
of three AIM members--Dino Butler, Robert Robideau and Peltier--for the murders
of Koler and Williams. None of the defendants denied being at the Jumping Bull
ranch that day, or firing in self-defense, but all denied killing the FBI agents.
Butler and Robideau were the first arrested and charged, and the first sent
to trial, while Peltier fought extradition in Canada. The two were tried in
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, which
believed that the white working class and lower middle class residents of this
small city would easily convict them.
On July 16, 1976, to the shock of government attorneys, the jury found Butler
and Robideau not guilty of murder, accepting the argument for self-defense put
forward by their famed radical attorney, William Kunstler.
In their humiliation, the FBI was determined to convict Peltier, who was captured
by the Canadian Mounties on February 6, 1976.
To obtain Peltier’s extradition, the U.S. government presented to the
federal Canadian court affidavits signed by Myrtle Poor Bear, who claimed to
be Peltier’s lover and to have witnessed Peltier shoot the FBI agents.
Though it was later revealed that Poor Bear’s testimony was coerced by
the FBI, the Canadian court turned Peltier over to U.S. authorities.
In March 1977, Peltier went on trial in North Dakota, before an all-white jury
and a hostile Judge Paul Benson, who refused to allow the self-defense argument
and ruled repeatedly in favor of the government. The judge and prosecutors suppressed
all evidence favorable to Peltier.
Though the lead prosecutor--the aptly named Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn Crooks--failed
to produce a single witness who could identify Peltier as the gunman who killed
the agents, the jury found Peltier guilty, and he was sentenced to two consecutive
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IN THE nearly 30 years since Peltier’s false conviction, the case against
him has continued to unravel.
For example, a successful Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in the early 1980s
turned up a concealed ballistics report showing that the gun Peltier allegedly
used during the incident couldn’t be matched with the bullet casing found
near the agents.
In 1985, when the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held oral arguments
on a motion filed by Peltier for a new trial, Lynn Crooks admitted, “We
can’t prove who shot those agents.” Though the court found that
the jury might have acquitted Peltier had the FBI not withheld evidence, it
refused to grant him a new trial.
In 2000, when Bill Clinton said that he was considering granting clemency for
Peltier, he began making plans for his release. His friends even began planning
to build him a new house. But after the FBI mobilized a campaign that included
a march of 500 agents in front of the White House, Clinton backed down.
Peltier’s appeals have been denied more than 10 times, and he remains
in prison. But his spirit is not broken.
Not long after Clinton’s betrayal, he wrote: “Since that dark Saturday,
I have managed to get up and dust myself off, and begin to lift my spirits once
more. I am just as determined now to fight for my freedom as I was on February
6, 1976, when I was first arrested. I will not give up. This is the second time
in the span of my incarceration that I made it to the top of the hill and saw
that freedom was in view, only to be kicked right back down to the bottom again.
In 2008, Leonard Peltier comes up for parole, but the FBI and other forces
will resist his release tooth and nail. If we are going to get any measure of
justice for Leonard Peltier, we will have to be the ones in front of the White
House when the time comes.