Leonard Peltier has been in prison longer than Nelson Mandela was imprisoned by the Apartheid regime of South Africa. He, also, has been imprisoned by an apartheid regime born of genocide, raised on racist oppression and grown fat through the building of a system that denigrates free thought, creativity and true compassion while rewarding fear, hatred, greed and other traits that spread violence. If you don’t adhere to the dogma of the dominant culture, you get no place at the table. Instead you stand in a corner and hope for scraps to fall to the floor.
While many people know that Leonard Peltier was convicted in 1977 of shooting two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, few know the sordid details of government coercion, intimidation, surveillance and manipulation of facts that led to this brutal act of injustice.
There are various threads of evil intent that can be weaved into a somewhat complex story here. This is my humble attempt to present a version of the story that doesn’t conform to the dictum of the oppressors currently running the show in our vile abomination of a society.
First a little background on the story:
On February 27, 1973 the Pine Ridge Indian reservation was the site of a gathering of approximately 250 Sioux Indians – including members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) – which started a ten week occupation of the site. This was one of many “occupations” organized by AIM in the 1970s for the purpose of exposing the horrid living conditions on reservations throughout the U.S. and to attempt to reopen treaty negotiations with the government. (Though labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, AIM was founded in 1968 as a Native American advocacy organization).
This event became known as the Wounded Knee occupation of 1973 due to the fact that it was near the site of the infamous Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 in which approximately 300 Sioux were killed by the U.S. 7th Cavalry, including more than 200 women and children. (Despite the fact that the U.S. was a foreign invader at the time stealing land and displacing families, at least 20 of the
soldiers terrorists were awarded the medal of honor).
The U.S. government’s response to the AIM occupations in the 1970s was to make over 500 arrests and initiate a reign of terror throughout the Native community with extensive paramilitary operations such as surveillance (through the COINTELPRO program) and infiltration through undercover operations.
Police invade Pine Ridge in 1973 to supress civil rights of ACTUAL Americans.
After over two years of armed conflict between AIM members and U.S.
law obedience enforcement officials, a plan was hatched to eliminate key members of AIM and the place chosen was the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
At Pine Ridge, one faction in the Native community was led by tribal chairman Dick Wilson who had at his disposal a mercenary force inappropriately called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (more commonly and aptly known as GOONs) who were supported and supplied by the FBI. He was using these thugs to quell activism and maintain control at the reservation.
Another faction was made up of traditional members of the tribe who called in AIM to help put an end to the violence that had left over 60 traditional members dead and dozens more wounded. (The more than 60 unsolved murders in a community of 12,000 people in a two year period were more than the rest of the entire state of South Dakota and represented the highest per capita murder rate in the country at the time).
The FBI had been supplying intelligence as well as weapons to GOON members who were methodically eliminating tribal members simply for questioning authority and demanding humane living conditions. (One former GOON member admitted that the FBI even supplied armor-piercing ammunition).
Now, Leonard Peltier’s part in the story:
On June 26, 1975 two FBI agents driving an unmarked car followed a red pickup truck driven by a young Indian, Jimmy Eagle, onto the Jumping Bull ranch at Pine Ridge where some families were camped out. (He was accused of the horrible crime of stealing cowboy boots at the time). The families in the compound had been living in fear of an organized attack by GOON and became frightened at the approach of an unknown vehicle. A shootout erupted and a force of at least 150 agents, GOONs and “law” enforcement, quickly surrounded the ranch.
After the dust had settled two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, and one Native American, Joseph Stuntz, were dead. Though Stuntz was shot in the head by a sniper’s bullet, no investigation was ever undertaken by the FBI or by any government officials. And no one has ever been charged with the murder.
According to the FBI report about 40 Natives had taken part in the shooting, but only three people were arrested – Rob Robideaux, Darrelle Butler and Leonard Peltier. All were known members of AIM.
While Peltier had managed to escape to Canada, Robideaux and Butler were arrested and brought to trial first. A Federal jury in Cedar Rapids, Iowa acquitted them of the charges stating that it was self defense. This happened despite the fact that the FBI conveniently presented a surprise witness who they decided to use to fill gaping holes in their case. James Harper testified that he’d heard Darrelle Butler admit to killing the agents while sitting in jail. Harper’s landlady read about the testimony in a newspaper and came forward to discredit Harper, calling him a “lowlife” and a “liar.”
The acquittal was based on two important facts:
One, it was widely known that the FBI and GOON had created a climate of fear that had permeated the reservation for years. Also, neither of the two men could be placed near enough to have committed a close range shooting which is what the evidence supported. Needless to say, the FBI didn’t take the verdict well. They apparently decided to make Leonard Peltier pay the price in their twisted desire for vengeance.
Leonard Peltier was arrested in Canada in February of 1976 and extradited to the U.S. to face murder charges. This is where the story becomes ominous.
Extradition was based on false affidavits signed by Myrtle Poor Bear who was, according to the FBI, Leonard Peltier’s girlfriend who saw him shoot the agents.
In truth, Myrtle Poor Bear had never met Leonard Peltier and was not even present at the shooting. She later recanted her testimony and admitted that she was threatened and coerced by the FBI into signing the affidavits. In later testimony, she stated, “They told me they were going to take my child away from me. They told me they were going to get me for conspiracy, and I was going to face 15 years in prison if I didn’t cooperate.”
She also stated that agents said “… they could kill me and get away with it. I was very scared.”
Remember, this is the FBI – not Lucky Luciano or Al Capone.
The strangest aspect of this part of the story is that the FBI actually drafted three separate affidavits, each of which contradicted the others. The most damaging proof of perjury by the agency is that Myrtle Poor Bear stated in the first affidavit that she wasn’t at the shoot out, then stated not only that she was present, but that she saw Leonard Peltier shoot the agents in a later affidavit. That a discrepancy of this magnitude could exist in a federal murder trial is unconscionable. A professional assassin wouldn’t have been extradited with this unlawful perversion of justice.
Due to the unsatisfactory outcome of the first trial in Iowa, Leonard Peltier’s trial was moved to Fargo, North Dakota in front of conservative judge Paul Benson in 1977. Myrtle Poor Bear and other key witnesses were not allowed to testify.
During the trial, the FBI changed details of their story about the vehicle they followed the night of the shoot out. The agents had clearly stated in communications with the local FBI office that they’d followed a red pickup truck onto Jumping Bull ranch. But, mysteriously, it had become a red and white van they had followed. This was attributed to anything from the officers not being familiar with trucks and vans to them using “colloquial” terms that could indicate anything from a pickup to a jeep to a van. Of course, the obvious reason for the change in testimony was the fact that Leonard Peltier owned a red and white van.
Also, a senior FBI agent had documented the red pickup truck leaving the crime scene shortly after the reported time of death of the agents. This meant that whoever the agents had followed onto the ranch had left the scene. However, since eye witnesses could prove that Leonard Peltier was still at Pine Ridge at that time, it became necessary for the prosecution to change that piece of information also. The agent testified that a typographical error was made with regard to the specific time on that document.
More evidence of inconsistencies and improper tactics by the prosecution include:
Two teenaged Native Americans testified against Leonard Peltier at the trial and later admitted to being forced by FBI agents to lie.
A ballistics test attempting to match bullet casings found in the trunk of Agent Coler’s car with the firing pin of Leonard Peltier’s AR-15 came up negative. This crucial evidence was withheld from the trial. It was found years later during an attempt at an acquittal (which, obviously, was denied).
Though the U.S. attorney stated that all evidence from the FBI files were made available, the truth is that 140,000 pages were withheld. Yes, one hundred forty thousand pages. Some might consider that illegal and unconstitutional.
During oral argument, the prosecution admitted that they didn’t know who killed the agents, but that Leonard Peltier was guilty of murder whether he actually fired the bullets that killed them or was only involved from long distance (along with forty other people). Bob Robideaux and Darrelle Butler were also involved from long distance yet were acquitted.
Judge Heaney, who authored the denial of a new trial for Mr. Peltier, has since expressed support for his release and publicly stated that the FBI used improper tactics and were equally responsible for the shoot out.
Remember, no one has ever identified Leonard Peltier as the shooter. No one.
In attempts at obtaining a new trial, the Eighth Circuit Court has ruled “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.”
To this day, additional requests for documentation on the case through the Freedom of Information Act are denied as the FBI uses delaying tactics to avoid a new trial.
So, there are many witnesses to numerous examples of illegal activities by the FBI in their vicious attempt at framing Leonard Peltier yet he has been in prison for well over three decades while war criminals not only walk free but are honored with awards and selected for positions of power in our government. It has been argued that killing federal officers is a federal offense and needs to be punished. Well killing Native Americans on Indian reservations (federal land) are also federal offenses that deserve at the very least to be investigated.
There are over sixty murder investigations from Pine Ridge alone waiting to be started…
A few of the people and organizations that consider Leonard Peltier a political prisoner and support freeing him: Amnesty International, the National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Leonard Peltier has received numerous awards from human rights organizations. He has organized fundraisers for battered women and gift drives for Pine Ridge children as well as donated paintings to support Native American recovery programs.
Almost forty years in prison for protecting innocent women and children in a war you didn’t start. And to think, there are pathetically ignorant and selfish people in this country who don’t have the intelligence to vote for a government that will protect their civil rights or the gratitude to be thankful they still have civil rights worth protecting.