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On August 7th supporters of Leonard Peltier, Native American activist and political prisoner held in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA, will hold a rally in that town to demand clemency … or minimally, his release from solitary confinement. The night before, at the same location, the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee will hold a candlelight vigil to protest the use of solitary confinement in the U.S., which they deem cruel.
Leonard has been “in the hole” since June 27 and will remain there for six months. In a letter to his attorney, he described the cell as a “cement steel hotbox” with little ventilation. During this summer’s heat wave, when temperatures have routinely topped 90 degrees, the lack of ventilation has left him “drenched in hot sweat” and experiencing difficulty concentrating. Five days a week, Leonard is permitted one hour of exercise and three days a week he is allowed to shower; other than that, he spends all his time in his cell. His attorney, Robert R. Bryan, calls Peltier’s surroundings “a hell hole.”
The punishment stems from two minor offences, according to his attorney. The first involves a 20£ note sent to him by a supporter and which he was trying to send out in the mail after his request that the mailroom return it was ignored. The other infraction involves the discovery of live wires in the wall near the top bunk, which is used by a cell mate when he has one. Prison officials deemed Leonard responsible for the shock the guard received while pulling out the exposed wires, and called it an act “most like” an act of assault. This is a “greatest severity level” violation, as is the charge of destruction of property with which Leonard was also charged.
The fact that these seemingly minor offences would result in such a harsh penalty for a 67-year-old prisoner seems shocking, but when it comes to Leonard Peltier and the law, there’s little surprise.
Beyond Wounded Knee
Peltier, of the Anishinabe, Dakota and Lakota Nations, has been an activist involved with Native American civil rights since the 1960s, participating in the “Trail of Broken Treaties” march on Washington in November 1972 and joining the American Indian Movement (founded in 1968). Most notably, he was involved in a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation shortly after Wounded Knee.
An AIM and Lakota armed takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973 resulted from factional tensions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation between supporters of tribal chairman Richard Wilson and traditionalist members of the tribe. AIM’s goal was to draw attention to the plight of Native American tribes and protest injustices against their tribes, violations of treaties with the U.S. government and ongoing abuse and repression.
Wilson’s private militia, Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs) allegedly attacked the traditionalists, leading to impeachment hearings. During the 71-day siege by federal forces, known as the Wounded Knee Incident, Wilson’s resignation was demanded but not received.
Over the next three years, a period referred to by local Native Americans as the “Reign of Terror,” 50 murders were reported on the Reservation and more than 500 charges were filed by the FBI against key AIM leaders. According to the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the “Church Committee”), the FBI engaged in “lawless tactics” and fomented violence and unrest in an attempt to disrupt and “neutralize” AIM. Working in conjunction with Wilson and his GOONs, the FBI conducted intensive surveillance, harassment, arrests and more against AIM leaders and supporters. The FBI neither took measures to curb the violence nor investigated any of the murders.
With violence and persecution unending at Pine Ridge, Leonard arrived in June 1975 to provide support. On June 26, two FBI agents – Jack Coler and Ron Williams – entered private property on the Reservation: the Jumping Bull ranch. Driving unmarked vehicles and wearing plain clothes, they failed to identify themselves as law enforcement officers when they allegedly tried to arrest Jimmy Eagle for stealing a pair of cowboy boots after having followed him in a red pickup to the property. Neither agent had a warrant for Eagle’s arrest.
Somehow, a shootout began, resulting in the death of the two agents and Native American Joe Stuntz. Agents then shot up the Jumping Bull home. Warrantless assaults continued for days.
The U.S. government claims the agents had been wounded and then shot through their heads at close range, so the FBI immediately launched an investigation – the so-called RESMURS investigation – and the biggest manhunt in its history, which almost immediately and inexplicably focused on Darrelle “Dino” Butler, Bob Robideau and Leonard, out of nearly 50 people who were there and might have been considered potential suspects.
Indictments were issued against the three. Charges against Jimmy Eagle were later dropped. According to FBI documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the government decided to dismiss charges against Eagle, whom prosecutors admitted during Leonard’s trial was not even on the Reservation that day, so that “the full prosecutive weight of the Federal Government could be directed against Leonard Peltier.”
Butler and Robideau stood trial in Cedar Rapids, IA, in 1976 and were acquitted. Leonard, convinced he wouldn’t get a fair trial in this country, fled across the border to Canada, where he was arrested in February of the same year. Extradited on the basis of a false affidavit signed under duress by Myrtle Poor Bear, according to her later confession, Leonard returned to face trial. In addition to being a violation of Leonard’s rights, the United States government committed fraud on the court during the extradition proceedings and violated the sovereignty of Canada. It was the first of many times his rights would be trammeled.
Federal Bureau of Intimidation
As he predicted, Leonard did not receive a fair trial. Myrtle Poor Bear tried to recant her statement, but the judge barred her testimony due to mental instability. Testimony from three other witnesses placed Leonard, Robideau and Butler near the crime scene. Those three witnesses later recanted, alleging that the FBI, while extracting their testimony, had tied them to chairs, denied them their right to talk to their attorney and otherwise coerced and threatened them.
Other prosecution witnesses also claim to have been threatened by the FBI and either changed their testimony or were proven to have lied on the witness stand. Unlike the juries in similar prosecutions against AIM leaders at the time, the jury in Leonard’s trial were not allowed to hear about other cases in which the FBI had been rebuked for tampering with evidence and witnesses.
That wasn’t the FBI’s only tactic to win a conviction against Leonard. Documents acquired through the FOIA reveal that the FBI had informants in the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee around the time of Leonard’s capture, meaning the prosecution received first-hand information about defense plans, a violation of Leonard’s constitutional rights.
Ballistics evidence proving Leonard’s innocence was withheld during the trial. Documents obtained through the FOIA indicate that ballistics tests of the firing pin proved the fatal bullets did not come from the rifle alleged to have been fired by Leonard. Not only was that evidence withheld from the jury, but Evan Hodge, FBI ballistics expert, lied on the stand about being unable to perform tests on the weapon.
During the trial, the FBI produced approximately 3,500 documents, claiming that these were all the documents in existence. Through a FOIA request, Leonard’s attorneys discovered that 12,000 documents had been withheld. Six thousand documents were then released.
More recently, despite the FBI’s claim that only 6,000 full documents related to this case remain undisclosed – and that these are merely “administrative” documents, of no use to the defense team – Leonard’s attorneys have discovered that the government continues to withhold tens of thousands of documents concerning his case.
There were numerous inconsistencies in the FBI’s statements, including a sudden and significant change in their description of the vehicle the agents pursued to the Jumping Bull residence. (Radio dispatches recorded mention of a red pickup truck, but court testimony referenced a red and white station wagon/panel van-type vehicle, similar to the one driven by Leonard.)
No witness testimony identified Leonard as the person who shot the two agents and no witness testimony placed him near the scene prior to their deaths. Witnesses who claimed to have seen Leonard, Butler and Robideau near the scene after the killing later claimed their statements were the result of FBI intimidation and coercion.
The only evidence against Leonard is his presence at the Jumping Bull ranch that day. At the appellate hearing, the government’s attorney conceded, “We had a murder. We had numerous shooters. We do not know who specifically fired what killing shots…We do not know who shot the agents.” Nevertheless, in 1977 Leonard was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for first degree murder in the shooting of the two FBI agents.*
From behind bars
Thirty-four years later, Leonard remains in prison. He was convicted of aiding and abetting Butler and Robideau, who were acquitted based on a self-defense plea, a plea Leonard was denied. Leonard’s conviction begs the question: how does a man get two life sentences for aiding and abetting people acquitted of a crime?
Other questions come to mind, such as why Leonard remains in prison much longer than others convicted of similar crimes. In 1994 the U.S. Parole Commission determined that, according to guidelines, factoring the severity rate of the crime and Leonard’s conduct since imprisonment (which includes an armed escape in 1979 that added seven years to his sentence), he should have been eligible for release after 16 years. However, two full parole hearings and several interim parole hearings have all denied his release.
Amnesty International has fought for his release, deeming him a political prisoner. The European, Belgium and Italian Parliaments have adopted resolutions calling for his release. President Clinton was reported to have been contemplating clemency … until political pressure convinced him to reconsider.
And so he remains behind bars. Now 67, Leonard, father of seven, grandfather and great-grandfather, has gray hair and medical issues, some of which were compounded by beatings he received in prison. In fact, beatings at Canaan Federal Penitentiary in 2009 led to his transfer to Lewisburg, one of the oldest and most notorious prisons, and one too far away from his North Dakota home for his family to visit often.
Despite all the harsh and unfair treatment, Leonard is a warrior who has not stopped fighting for his people. From prison, he works for humanitarian and charitable causes, helping to establish a pilot program on the Rosebud Reservation – the Leonard Peltier Health Care Reform Package – to document needs. He also helped set up a program to stimulate reservation-based economics and investments in Native American business enterprises, including a component to teach business ownership and operation to the young people of First Nations. In 1992, Leonard established a scholarship at New York University for Native American students seeking law degrees. He has been recognized for humanitarian works, winning numerous honors and awards, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize six times.
Although many of his supporters consider him a warrior – and his past undoubtedly certifies that rank – I regard Leonard as a teacher. In his book Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance and in his letters to me, he passes on the oral tradition of his people, relating stories from his youth and from long ago. He talks to me of the horrors of Wounded Knee in 1890, as he heard it passed down from people who were there … as it is not recorded in American school books.
One of the messages that echoes through Leonard’s stories is the strength and resilience of Native Americans in the face of colonialism and racism, which combined to propagate 400 years of betrayal, excuses, discrimination, deceit, fraud and murder against the Indian people. It seems to me that things haven’t changed much.
Leonard displays a wit and humor that belie his abominable treatment. He is passionate about Native issues, yet remains open to other races and cultures. His compassion for the oppressed – be it man or animal – is unaffected by his fierce resentment of a corrupt government.
Having become a symbol of the oppression of Indians, a victim of political repression and government-led racism, Leonard personifies the cause of human rights. Whether you believe in his innocence or not, there can be no doubt that our current system remains deeply flawed.
As Leonard wrote, “Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity.” The rally and the candlelight vigil are intended to give voice to the decades-long injustice done to this political activist, this warrior who continues the struggle against oppression from behind bars, leaving many to speculate that six months in the hole was the only way to silence him. But, again in Leonard’s words, “But silence is impossible. Silence screams.” It will continue to scream until indigenous people are treated fairly and dealt with honestly, given the respect and admiration they deserve. It will scream until Leonard Peltier is freed from an unjust sentence for a crime he didn’t commit.
*For details of this complex story, Leonard recommends “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” by Peter Matthiessen, or “Incident at Oglala: the Leonard Peltier Story,” a documentary produced by Robert Redford, based on the book.