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A Political Prisoner of the U.S.

Updated on March 9, 2015


It might be hard to imagine that the United States-land of the free, home of the brave- has kept a person in jail for his beliefs longer than the former apartheid regime of South Africa incarcerated Nelson Mandela. Sadly, it is very much true. Mandela spent 27 years on Robbin Island Prison for his opposition to apartheid. In 2015, Leonard Peltier, age 70, begins his 38th year behind bars, a victim of the failed policy of the federal government and the FBI toward Native Americans in this country. Falsely convicted in 1977 of the murder of two FBI agents, Peltier has been denied a new trial, despite numerous appeals, and refused commutation of his sentence by every president since Ronald Reagan.

The story of Leonard Peltier’s early life, growing up in the 1950’s, mirrored that of most Native Americans. Born into poverty on a Minnesota reservation to Ojibwa-Sioux parents, Peltier endured the devastating impact of the government’s termination policy. Determined to get out of the Indian business (as the catch phrase went), the Eisenhower Administration wished to terminate its relationship with Native tribes. This translated into ending funding for the reservations, and moving the Indians to urban areas, thus completing the (not very successful, it might be said) process of assimilating them into white society, which began in the 1800’s. Peltier’s Ojibwa or Chippewa were among the first to be slated for termination. The result was to drive the reservations deeper into despair, and create Indian ghettoes in such cities as Minneapolis. Touted by the government as for the Natives’ benefit (conveniently ignoring what they might want themselves), the termination policy masked a more devious design- gaining control of the mineral resources, particularly uranium for A-bombs, that lay underneath reservation lands.

Peltier moved from Minnesota to the Sioux Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, home of his mother’s people, after the start of termination. Finding conditions there no better, Leonard took to the road as a teenager, like many other young Native Americans at the time. After wandering, he eventually settled on the west coast, working odd jobs, trying to help other Indians, raising some hell, getting into trouble with the law. Before his current 38 year term in jail, Peltier was behind bars for several minor offenses. Significantly, in light of what happened in 1977, despite being charged numerous times with assault, he was never convicted of a violent crime until the case of the two agents. In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Leonard desired to become more involved in the struggle for Native American rights, and joined the American Indian Movement or AIM. A decision which gave greater focus to his life, and changed it forever.

AIM was founded in Minneapolis by young Native Americans, disillusioned with the lack of opportunity and treatment of their people. Their stated goal being to work for Indian rights and the return of tribal sovereignty. Its popularity grew rapidly as chapters soon opened in many cities. The movement’s first major attempt to draw attention to the plight of Native peoples was an occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. While gaining some national media coverage, it did not achieve its major objective of getting the federal government to seriously address issues concerning Indians. Peltier became a respected member of AIM, though never achieving the national prominence of leaders such as Russell Means and Dennis Banks. Admired for his steadfastness and quiet dignity, he led by example, while combating the wild alcohol and drugs reputation which swirled around AIM. Leonard also immersed himself in the spiritual side of the movement, which connected the young city Indians, many who never set foot on a reservation, with the traditionals and elders, who taught of the tribes’ cultures and religions. Peltier was often employed to act as security at AIM rallies and events.

In such a capacity, he participated in the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington D.C. AIM would take over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building for several days after the Nixon Administration ignored the Native protesters, some of whom journeyed across the continent to participate. After a vague promise (which of course was not kept) from the government to meet with AIM leaders, the Indians left the BIA building and departed the capital. Unfortunately, the occupiers damaged the BIA offices, which the media decided to focus on, instead of the administration’s deft side-stepping of the real problem- the woeful conditions of Native Americans in the U.S.

The Trail of Broken Treaties also marked a change in the way the FBI viewed AIM. The movement went from an inconsequential group of malcontents to Soviet Union/Cuba infiltrated subversives, seeking to overthrow the U.S. government. A seemingly ludicrous stance looked at from today, but not totally surprising, given the communist paranoia which permeated the FBI during the early post J. Edgar Hoover days. The consequences would be tragic all around. The next year, AIM and traditional Lakotas occupied the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, site of the 1890 massacre of 300 Lakotas by the 7th cavalry, to protest the government’s indifference. The FBI responded with a massive military build-up, surrounding the hamlet with hundreds of agents, BIA police, local law enforcement units, SWAT teams, and vigilantes, who supported the pro-government tribal council on Pine Ridge. The agency asked that the 82nd airborne division be sent in, so the village could be stormed. A request that cooler heads wisely declined. Sporadic firing went on every day for the 3 month stand-off between besiegers and occupiers, with 2 AIM members being killed before it ended. The occupation finally ceased when the government made its standard commitment of looking into Native grievances, then doing nothing, but arresting the AIM leaders who were present.

The tribal council, riddled with corruption in its distribution of federal funds, employed the Wounded Knee occupation as an excuse to launch a vendetta against the traditionals on the reservation. Between 1973 and 1975, over 60 traditional Lakotas and AIM supporters were murdered on Pine Ridge, with the FBI, who has jurisdiction over felonies on Native lands, displaying little interest in investigating the crimes. Understandably, reservation residents called for more help from AIM to defend themselves. It was these circumstances that caused Leonard Peltier to be on Pine Ridge that fateful day of June 26, 1975. That morning, the two FBI agents followed a pick-up truck onto the property of the Jumping Bull family, supposedly in search of a suspect wanted for a crime in the town of Oglala. Many believe they were there to start a confrontation with a group of AIM members, including Leonard Peltier, who were camped on the property. The presence of BIA police and heavily armed tribal council goons just outside the property lines, ready to rush in to arrest or perhaps even wipe out the agitators, lend credence to this theory. Others maintain the whole thing was a set-up to distract attention from the tribal council’s secret negotiations with the federal government to lease reservation land for uranium mining, something the majority of the residents did not want. Whatever the impetus, the mission went seriously awry from the start.

The two agents got out of their cars, quickly to realize, they faced at least 30 armed Indians, staring down at them from a ridge above. Conditions on the reservation had deteriorated to the point that most people kept weapons close at hand. A shoot-out ensued in which both agents were wounded. The pick-up truck that had been tailed onto the property then drove down to where the two agents were, whereupon several more shots rang out. The truck sped away, and several minutes later, the two men were discovered to be dead. The agents’ reinforcements had beaten a fast retreat when they heard the volume of firing emanating from the property, leaving them to their fate. Leonard Peltier took part in the shoot-out, but did not fire the fatal bullets, having been approaching the agents’ location from some woods when the last shots rang out. The AIM members and traditional Lakotas who participated in the fire fight, took to the hills, seeking to elude what became the biggest manhunt in FBI history. Everyone escaped unscathed. Peltier and two AIM associates were eventually identified by the agency as main suspects in the shootings, though many others had been present. Their prominence in AIM appeared to be the primary motive for being singled out for prosecution.

His two comrades were arrested and put on trial for the murder of the two agents, while Leonard crossed the border into Canada, seeking refuge. The two supposed accomplices were acquitted of the charges, leaving Peltier as the last person of interest for the FBI. Learning of his presence in Canada, the agency pressured the Canadian government, using falsified documents as it turned out to, into arresting Leonard and extraditing him back to the U.S. The Canadians cooperated, much to their chagrin when the truth came out later, and Peltier would be tried in Fargo, North Dakota. Needing someone to be held responsible for the fiasco which left two agents dead, the federal government and FBI pulled out all the stops to guarantee a guilty verdict: the judge who presided over the acquittal of the other two AIM members, and supposed to sit on Peltier’s case, was arbitrarily removed in favor of another judge, notorious for his anti-Indian leanings; witnesses were threatened or cajoled into perjuring themselves; evidence was withheld from the defense or tampered with; defense was not allowed to enter any testimony taken from the trial of the other two AIM members. Leonard Peltier knew he stood little chance, and thus was not surprised by the guilty verdict handed down- 2 consecutive life sentences. His lawyers would begin the lengthy appeal process, which bore no fruit.

In the early 1980’s, taking advantage of the Freedom of Information Act, Peltier’s attorneys discovered the FBI had, indeed, withheld vital evidence which may have turned the trial in Leonard’s favor. Appeals for a new trial were still stonewalled. In 1985, the government prosecutor on the case admitted they could not prove who actually killed the agents, but someone had to be punished for the crime, that person being Leonard Peltier. Three years later, the AIM member, who had been the passenger in the pick-up which drove down to the agents, came forward anonymously to admit that he fired the fatal shots, although claiming it was in self-defense. Peltier knew his identity all along, but would not reveal it to save himself. In 1988, he also encouraged this individual not to turn himself in, feeling it would not secure his own release. This new information did not budge the court system in granting Leonard Peltier a new fair trial.

With any legal recourse seemingly exhausted, Leonard’s last hope resided in getting a president to commute his sentence. He cannot be pardoned as those are not granted to a person already in jail. As we know, 5 presidents so far have refused to release Peltier from his unjust imprisonment. It is a sad commentary on the state of our judicial system, and gives weight to the arguments of minorities in this country that they cannot expect justice in our courts. Leonard Peltier’s next chance for parole will come in 2024, when he is 80 years of age.

For anyone interested in learning more about Leonard Peltier, that fateful day in June of 1975, and the general situation which existed on the Pine Ridge reservation at the time, I would recommend the following

Book- “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” by Peter Mathiessen

Documentaries- “Incident at Oglala” by Robert Redford, “The Spirit of Crazy Horse”- a Frontline Presentation

Film- “Thunderheart”- starring Val Kilmer, Graham Greene, and Sam Shepard


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