Leaders of the Oglala Lakota nation have announced that June 26th would be Leonard Peltier day.
But who is Leonard Peltier and why should you care?
Let’s learn some history…
In the early seventies there was a three year period of very serious political violence on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This small community had the highest per capita murder rate in the state. Much of this was due to the work of the corrupt tribal chairman Richard “Dick” Wilson who used a private militia known as the “Guardians of the Oglala Nation,” or GOONs, to crush political opponents and dissent very violently. His opponents were traditionalist members of the tribe that opposed his election and rule.
These traditionalist members eventually reached out to the American Indian Movement (AIM), a group that Peltier was a member and leader of. Peltier, with other AIM members, set up camp on the Jumping Bull family ranch in order to help protect the traditionalist members from the violence.
On June 26th, 1975, two FBI agents in unmarked cars followed a car into the ranch. In this tense environment a shootout quickly erupted that left both of the initial FBI agents dead as well as the Native American Joseph Stuntz. The FBI agents had been wounded and then were executed at close range. Joseph Stuntz death has never been investigated.
Eventually the AIM members Bob Robideau, Darrell Butler, and Leonard Peltier were brought to trial for the deaths of the FBI Agents. Robideau and Butler were tried together but were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
Peltier, who had fled to Canada, was extradited to the U.S. under the false testimony of Myrtle Poor Bear. Poor Bear was coerced by the FBI into testifying that she saw Peltier shoot the FBI agents and that she was Peltier’s girlfriend even though neither claim was true and she was not even present at the shoot-out.
Peltier’s trial in 1977 was tried in what has been recognized by many as a sham of a trial. The FBI description of the vehicle they followed into the compound was changed to match a vehicle Peltier sometimes drove. Poor Bear and others were not allowed to testify. Evidence explaining the climate of fear on the Pine Ridge Reservation at the time of the shooting was severely suppressed. Three teenage Native witnesses testified against Peltier but later admitted the FBI coerced their testimony. More than 140,000 pages of FBI documents were withheld from the defense. A ballistics test proving Peltier’s gun was not a match to casings found near the FBI agent’s bodies was suppressed. The defense argued that they proved Peltier executed the two FBI agents at close range but later admitted they had no idea who executed the two agents at close range.
In this sham of a trial the jury found Peltier guilty and Judge Benson sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences and he is slated for release in 2040. Numerous appeals and even a request for a new trial based on new documents received through the Freedom of Information Act have all been squashed. President Clinton succumbed to heavy pressure from the FBI to not grant Peltier a pardon and President Bush denied it outright.
So why care?
There are many things to be concerned about today. The Supreme Court of the United States just weighed in on a variety of cases that impact the rights of many U.S. citizens, especially gay couples, workers and minorities. So why should we look back at a dying prisoner and an injustice that happened decades ago in an era most of us don’t remember in a community most of us have no connection with?
Who do you think paid for this?
The Civil Rights we enjoy today (and that are now being eroded by a Supreme Court that believes we live in a post-racial USA) were hard-won by people like Peltier who were from groups like AIM.
Part of the difficulty did not come from civilian opposition or a lack of public support but very intentional government suppression. The FBI disruption and tracking of Occupy Wall Street is not something new. The FBI was acting as a force to crush dissent and to maintain the status quo long before our time.
During Peltier’s day many activists groups were intentionally targeted by the FBI in a variety of ways, most notably through COINTELPRO. AIM was certainly no exception to this FBI aggression. During the violence on the Pine Ridge reservation more than 60 traditionalist tribal members and AIM members were murdered and scores more were assaulted. Evidence indicated GOON responsibility in the majority of crimes but despite a large FBI presence, nothing was done to stop the violence. The FBI supplied the GOONS with intelligence on AIM members and looked away as GOONS committed crimes. One former GOON member reported that the FBI supplied him with armor piercing ammunition.
So people better than most of us, people like Peltier, had to endure much to win a variety of victories for their people and ultimately for our nation as a whole. Despite their fellow citizens’ apathy and their governments overt and covert aggression. These victories were earned through suffering beatings, imprisonment, torture, and even death.
In this light, Peltier is not a relic from a by-gone age but an activist that is still enduring the price of his activism. Peltier is still being the symbolic pound of flesh the FBI has demanded for their two agents even though it was they who failed to stop the violence on the Pine Ridge Reservation and were rather clearly fanning the flames of violence themselves.
The bottom line:
Peltier has been imprisoned longer than most of you reading this have been alive. Peltier has been imprisoned longer than most contemporary activists have been waiting for justice or working towards it, while they enjoy their freedom. Peltier has served more than enough of his life for a crime he did not commit and it is far past time we release this activist that is being held as a political prisoner.