The Case of Leonard Peltier
by Carl Sack / March 2009
Below is a transcript of a speech delivered at a Socialist Action forum at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in March, 2009.
When Christopher Columbus set foot on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, he began a process of genocide which would last until modern times. Since Columbus’s fateful voyage, Native American peoples have faced an onslaught of European disease, war technology, and trade that has irrevocably altered their cultures and resulted in the loss of their lands and lifeways.
In the 19th century, Euro-Americans pushed Westward in a drive to disinherit indigenous peoples of their land so that it could be put to cultivation and converted to private property to drive the expansion of capitalism. The clash of races was a cover for the clash of two profoundly different economic systems: what Marx called primitive communism, where all land and resources were held in common and managed for the good of the people, and the new system of agrarian capitalism, which needed to destroy the former to expand itself and create a willing paid workforce. The racist banner of capitalism was Manifest Destiny, an ideology which lasted into the history textbooks of the 20th century. It said that Whites were a superior race ordained by God to “civilize” all the lands of the American continent—meaning convert it to private property for purposes of White ownership and trade.
In 1890, the “frontier” was declared extinct and “allotment” became policy, which deprived indigenous people of the right to control even the resource-impoverished postage-stamp reservation lands left to them by the U.S. government. In the late 19th through mid 20th centuries, the government attempted to exterminate indigenous culture through the mass kidnapping of indigenous children, who were forced into boarding schools run by Christian churches. There they were not allowed to speak any language but English and beaten if they displayed any “Indian tendencies.”
Native Americans did not become recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924, and it is only within the last few decades that they have been successfully able to assert some of the treaty rights they were cheated out of for over a century. Indigenous activists have had to fight hard for every gain both in the courts and through mass action such as protests, civil disobedience, land occupations and even armed insurrection. Groups such as the American Indian Movement and leaders such as Leonard Peltier have played pivotal roles in the movement for Native rights. Just as in the struggle for Black civil rights, many Native activists have had to sacrifice their personal freedom or even their lives to gain more freedom for their people.
Indigenous peoples have never taken the White onslaught lying down. The Indian Wars and insurrections that took place in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in loss after loss for indigenous tribes, as they fell before the superior weapons, greater numbers and sheer brutality of the White invaders. Beaten militarily, their lands stolen through legal and extralegal treachery, treaty after treaty made then broken, most indigenous people fell into desperate poverty on reservations. Many moved off reservations and into cities to look for work.
Things began to change in the 1950s. In 1953, the U.S. Congress approved what was called “Termination Policy,” a policy ostensibly meant to improve living conditions for Native Americans on reservations, but one that turned into yet another tool for dispossessing them of what little advantages they were left with. The government’s goal was to end federal supervision of tribes and assimilate tribal members into mainstream American society, in essence to “terminate” tribal identity. Practically, this meant ending U.S. aid to tribes and selling off lands held in trust for the tribes. Two states, Wisconsin and Oregon, also attempted to use Termination to deprive Native Americans of their hunting and fishing treaty rights.
The new policy was tried on several reservations. It sparked a backlash of protests among tribal members who found themselves faced with the choice of giving up their tribal membership and moving away to cities or staying put and starving for lack of government food assistance, which they had been forced into dependence on. Lawsuits brought to the Supreme Court by tribes in Wisconsin and Oregon succeeded in re-asserting native hunting and fishing rights, even for those who had abrogated their tribal membership.
At the same time, the civil rights movement was awakening the pride of African-Americans, whose ancestors had been kidnapped and brought to the United States to work as human mules on Southern plantations, and subsequently “freed” from their masters only to be re-bonded as sharecroppers or low-paid urban workers and denied the basic rights afforded to Whites. Many indigenous people recognized themselves as a similarly oppressed nationality, with common interests with Blacks, and were inspired by the Black struggle for liberation. Calls by the most militant African-Americans for “Black Power” resounded with Native American youth, who rebranded the slogan “Red Power” to express their own drive for liberation.
Out of this cauldron of radicalization was born the American Indian Movement. The group was formed in the summer of 1968 at a meeting of some 200 Native activists in Minneapolis, brought together and subsequently led by Dennis Banks, George Mitchell and Clyde Bellancourt. These young people first focused largely on problems faced by urban Native Americans, including police brutality, slum housing, high unemployment, poverty and institutional racism—problems also faced by the Black community. But they also fought for a change in Indian policy at the federal level and to re-assert treaty rights. Embedded in the anti-colonialism of AIM were appeals to Native spirituality and cross-tribal ethnic unity—the renewal of an “American Indian” identity.
In 1969, AIM supporters from several tribes gained national attention by declaring Alcatraz Island, in the San Francisco Bay, reclaimed Indian land and occupying it for 19 months. The occupiers, hailing from many different tribes from around the country, took the name “United Indians of All Tribes,” and set up an independent government operated by consensus. Although the occupation ultimately ended with the Indians’ removal by Federal marshals, this bold action awakened the political consciousness of many Native Americans and their supporters, and played a key role in subsequent land victories.
In 1970, 71 and 72, AIM activists conducted several takeovers, including abandoned air base property in Minneapolis and a hydroelectric dam on the Lac Court Orielles Reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin. They took over a Mayflower replica on Thanskgiving Day at Plymouth Rock, and briefly held Mount Rushmore. In 1972, AIM and other groups conducted the Trail of Broken Treaties, a caravan from the West Coast to Washington, D.C., which ended with the takeover of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters. Native activists presented a list of twenty demands to President Nixon, which included abolition of the BIA, ending treaty rights violations, restoration of 110 million acres of land to Indian control, and Indian self-determination.
Taking part in the Trail of Broken Treaties was a 27-year-old AIM activist named Leonard Peltier. Peltier was born in 1944 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Ojibwe and Lakota parents. He spent much of his childhood with his father’s family on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. At age 9, he was forcibly shipped off to an Indian boarding school 150 miles from home, where he stayed through ninth grade.
As a teenager, Peltier became radicalized by participating in protest actions against Termination Policy. An awakening experience for Peltier took place one harsh winter, when BIA social workers came to the Turtle Mountain reservation to investigate reports of people starving because the government had cut off aid. Peltier went around to houses before the BIA workers arrived to tell the families to hide what little food they had, only to be told at each house he went to that there was nothing there to hide.
Peltier worked for a time as a migrant farm worker. In 1965, he moved to Seattle, where he co-owned an auto body shop that employed Native Americans and served as a halfway house for Native ex-prisoners. After his company folded, he began to travel to different cities and reservations, doing construction work and community organizing among Native communities. He joined AIM in Denver, the last city he stayed in before taking part in the BIA occupation.
The actions of AIM activists including Peltier succeeded in winning some gains, most notably the reversal of Termination Policy in the 1970s. But their effectiveness earned AIM the ire of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and the group became a prime target of COINTELPRO, the FBI Counterintelligence Program that attempted to smash radical organizations by any means possible.
The most violent battleground between AIM and the FBI soon took shape on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. In February 1973, a group of AIM activists led by Russell Means arrived in the small town of Wounded Knee, near the site of an 1890 massacre of Lakota Sioux by federal troops. They came for a meeting with local “Traditional” Lakota who opposed corrupt tribal chairman Dick Wilson. Wilson was supported by mixed-blood pro-assimilation residents and the White ranching community, as well as the BIA and FBI. He was rumored to be getting kickbacks to approve contracts for uranium mining.
Within a couple hours of the AIM activists’ arrival at Wounded Knee, FBI agents and Federal Marshals surrounded the town and began to arrest anyone leaving. This led to a 71-day standoff, in which both sides traded gunfire daily. The government brought in armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, automatic rifles, flares, and 133,000 rounds of ammunition. Two Native Americans were killed and a Federal Marshal was paralyzed.
The Wounded Knee incident began a three-year period of intense political violence against AIM activists and their supporters on Pine Ridge. FBI agents were authorized to engage in “paramilitary activity” with AIM. Tribal chairman Dick Wilson used tribal funds to deputize vigilantes self-described as “GOON squads” (GOON nominally stood for “Guardians Of the Oglala Nation”). The Goon squads conducted beatings, drive-by shootings, and executions, resulting in over 60 murders of Traditional tribal members and AIM activists. Only one of these murders was ever prosecuted (the resulting conviction of an AIM activist in 2004 should be considered highly suspect as key witnesses were paid by the FBI—more on this later). The FBI supplied the Goons with intelligence on AIM and in at least some cases, ammunition.
Peltier answered the call to assist the Traditional people of Pine Ridge in the struggle against Wilson’s goons and the FBI. He arrived with a group of AIM activists, who set up camp on a ranch owned by an elderly couple, the Jumping Bulls. While there, the AIM activists advocated sobriety and helped organize traditional religious ceremonies, self-sufficiency projects, and community activities, as well as security for tribal members endangered by the cops and Goons.
On the morning of June 26, 1975, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, drove into the Jumping Bull compound. They were ostensibly in pursuit of a red pickup truck driven by Jimmy Eagle, a young Lakota accused of stealing a pair of cowboy boots from a White rancher. Over 40 AIM and tribal members were at the compound at the time. AIM members Bob Robideau and Norman Brown testified that the agents—who they did not know were agents at the time—fired on the camp, and they returned fire. A major shootout erupted which resulted in the deaths of Coler, Williams, and a young Lakota named Joseph Stuntz. The bullet that killed Williams was fired at close range and went through his hand before entering his head. Coler was also shot in the head at close range after being injured. Stuntz was shot in the forehead, but his death never received an investigation.
The camp was soon surrounded by 350 U.S. Marshals, FBI agents and BIA cops. They began a manhunt for Bob Robideau, Darrelle Butler, Jimmy Eagle, and Leonard Peltier, who fled the scene and were charged with aiding and abetting the agents’ murders (no witnesses came forward to identify the agents’ shooters). Butler, Robideau, and Eagle were soon apprehended. Peltier fled to Canada and was apprehended there on February 6, 1976. Bob Robideau and Darrelle Butler were tried together, and were found not guilty by reason of self-defense. The case against Jimmy Eagle was subsequently dismissed. But because the extradition of Peltier was delayed, once he was extradited to the U.S., he was tried later. By that time, the FBI was out for vengeance.
The cornerstone of the U.S. case for extraditing Peltier was a set of three affidavits from a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear, who was believed by many who knew her to be mentally unstable. The affidavits were inconsistent with one another, one claiming she had not been at the Jumping Bull compound, and two others claiming she was there with Peltier as his girlfriend. Poor Bear has since recanted the affidavits, saying she had never met Peltier and claiming FBI agents threatened to take away her daughter and to “put [her] through a meat grinder.”
Nevertheless, the affidavits were enough for Canada to extradite Peltier, and he was tried in early 1977 in Fargo, North Dakota before an all-White jury and anti-Indian Judge Paul Benson. The prosecution’s main witness, FBI agent Mike Anderson, changed his previous account and claimed that it was Peltier, not Jimmy Eagle, who agents Coler and Williams had been in pursuit of, and Peltier got out at the compound and single-handedly shot the agents to death. The jury was shown a .223 shell casing from an AR-15 rifle traced to Peltier that they said had been found in Coler’s trunk. Judge Benson repeatedly ruled against defense attempts to introduce evidence and barred key defense witnesses, including Myrtle Poor Bear, from testifying. Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
Several appeals attempted to introduce evidence repressed by the FBI. The most damning piece of evidence was a ballistics test conducted soon after the shootout that concluded that Peltier’s gun had a different firing pin than any of the shell casings found at the scene and could not have been the weapon used to kill Coler or Williams. In fact, not one witness who was not an FBI agent identified Peltier as the actual shooter. Three teenage witnesses who testified against Peltier later said they were forced into testifying and recanted.
In a case connected to Peltier’s, homeless Lakota Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud was tried in 2004 for the execution-style murder of fellow AIM activist Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. The prosecution claimed that Aquash was executed by Looking Cloud and two other AIM members because they thought she was an FBI informant. The ex-wife of AIM leader Dennis Banks, Darlene “Kamook” Nichols, claimed during the trial that Peltier had confessed his guilt to a group of AIM activists including Aquash and her in 1975. Nichols acknowledged she was paid $42,000 by the FBI for her cooperation in the trial, and soon after the trial she married Robert Ecoffey, the Director of BIA Law Enforcement.
Aquash was a prominent AIM activist and a thorn in the FBI’s side. When Aquash’s body was discovered frozen in 1975, FBI agents who knew her well processed the case. They failed to identify the body, declared her death due to exposure, cut off her hands to send to Washington, D.C. for fingerprinting, and buried the body as “Jane Doe.” After she was identified by fingerprinting, AIM members exhumed the body and demanded a second autopsy, which discovered the gaping bullet hole in her head. Despite the FBI’s cover-up and their shady dealings at the 2004 trial, Looking Cloud was convicted of the shooting and sentenced to life in prison.
The FBI is not finished using the Aquash case to go after other AIM members. John Graham and Dick Marshall, the latter once a bodyguard for Russell Means, are both jailed and awaiting trial, charged with aiding and abetting Aquash’s murder. Unfortunately, the case has succeeded in sowing division and uncertainty in the AIM leadership, an outcome surely hoped for by the FBI.
As for Peltier, despite numerous appeals he has never been granted a new trial. Eighth Circuit Court Judge Gerald Heany admitted in 1991 that “there is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government's case.” The government prosecutor, Lynn Crooks, even admitted in court that year that the government had no proof that Peltier was the killer, though she defended his imprisonment by arguing that aiding and abetting the agents’ murder was just as bad as pulling the trigger.
Peltier has received the support of dozens of members of Congress, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Rev. Jesse Jackson, the National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Amnesty International, The U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, several European Parliaments, and many other individuals and groups. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and run for president. Yet he remains behind bars, thanks largely to the concerted interference of the FBI, who do not want the truth of their racist vendetta against AIM revealed to the public.
In 2000, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee appealed to outgoing President Bill Clinton to grant clemency. Thousands of people made phone calls and sent letters of support. But in the face of strong FBI opposition, Clinton declined, choosing instead to pardon billionaire tax-evader and Clinton campaign financier Marc Rich. (Where were the FBI protests over the pardon of a man confirmed beyond a doubt to have cheated taxpayers out of millions of dollars?)
Subsequently, Peltier was moved from Leavenworth Penitentiary to Lewiston, Pennsylvania. This past January, he was transferred again to USP-Canaan, near Scranton, PA, where he was reportedly assaulted by other prisoners in what may have been an FBI setup. He has been kept in solitary confinement since then and placed on meal restrictions. He is not in great health, suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart condition. But he continues to work as an artist, earning his defense committee up to $6,000 each for his paintings. He has written poetry and books, including the memoir “Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance.” He has continued to promote scholarships for Native youth and prisoner art programs, as well as donating to battered women’s shelters and the Pine Ridge Christmas drive.
Leonard Peltier’s is a clear-cut case of a man convicted of fighting government persecution against his people. After 32 years behind bars, the FBI still seeks to make an example of Peltier for others who would stand up for the liberation of indigenous people and the return of their stolen lands and livelihoods. He deserves our support, he deserves freedom, and he deserves recognition for his heroic acts and positive influence on so many Native communities. Socialist Action stands for a world free from oppression and persecution, for reparations to indigenous peoples and their self-determination, and for freedom for political prisoners like Leonard Peltier. Thank you.
Leonard Peltier's account of that day
Human Needs, Not Profits!
I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit. ~Kahlil Gibran