Leonard Peltier’s story is virtually a textbook illustration of everything that is wrong with the criminal justice and incarceration systems in the United States. Leonard is a political prisoner currently serving his 44th year in prison for a murder he did not commit.
As Peace & Freedom Party believes in overhauling the current criminal system and elimination of current practices of mass incarceration, Leonard has previously agreed to run for political office under the PFP banner, and he is seeking the PFP nomination for US vice-president in Election 2020.
Leonard Peltier, a 74-year-old indigenous man, part Anishinabe, part Lakota and Dakota, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa (English misnomer for the Anishinabe) Nation, has served 43 years in prison for the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975 which he did not commit. He is a political prisoner who was convicted as part of the FBI’s Cointelpro action to destroy the American Indian Movement (AIM).
After the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, a corrupt tribal chairman named Dick Wilson created a period of political violence on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Wilson was trying to get the US government into mining uranium in the Badlands for its nuclear programs. As more traditional members of the Lakota nation were firmly against this destruction of the environment, Wilson hired groups of vigilantes called Guardians Of the Oglala Nation (or GOONs), who in turn initiated what became known as the Reign of Terror on the reservation.
During that time, known opponents of Wilson were stopped while driving on the reservation, pulled out of their vehicles and severely beaten. Then matters got worse and GOON squads started driving around the reservation shooting into dwellings and indiscriminately killing elders, women, and children, sometimes committing arson. John Trudeau, a noted poet and artist, lost his wife, three children and mother-in-law in one of these fires.
Over a three-year period, 67 people were murdered and the FBI refused to investigate even one of these murders, though the FBI had jurisdiction over on reservation land. Instead, the FBI was busy arming the GOON squads because the US government wanted the uranium mining project to go forward. Finally, AIM was asked to provide protection for the elders, women, and children. Leonard Peltier was one of the AIM leaders who established camps near family compounds to protect the people.
Two young FBI agents in separate unmarked cars chased what they described as a red pickup truck onto the Jumping Bull compound with a highly suspect warrant for a young Lakota man accused of stealing an expensive pair of cowboy boots (not exactly on the level of murder or rape). The agents did so despite warnings from tribal law enforcement not to enter the reservation. No one now knows how the shootout between FBI agents and the occupants in the truck started, but Leonard and other campers heard gunshots fired and ran to protect the elders and children living on the compound.
As the shooting continued, the FBI agents were wounded, radioed for backup, and then killed. Unexplained to this day is what hundreds of federal law officials were doing within the immediate vicinity of this isolated community, but within a short while they had the compound surrounded and an indigenous defender, Joseph Stuntz, was killed by a federal sniper. Joseph Stuntz’s murder was never investigated and no one was ever charged in his death. Leonard and the other AIM campers managed to escape from the encircled compound and fled the area.
Eventually, Leonard along with Bob Robideau and Darrell Butler were charged with the murder of the two FBI agents. Mr. Robideau and Mr. Butler were tried by a federal jury in Iowa and acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, given the climate of fear on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the lack of evidence linking either to the shooting of the agents.
Leonard had fled to Canada, fearing he would not receive a fair trial. He was arrested in Canada in February of 1976 and extradited to the US, on charges based in false affidavits signed by Myrtle Poor Bear; she stated that she was Mr. Peltier’s girlfriend and that she saw him shoot the agents.
The fact that she had never met Leonard and had not been present on the day of the shootout was ultimately revealed: In order to induce Myrtle Poor Bear to sign the affidavits, FBI agents threatened to kill and mutilate her 13-year-old daughter, as had been done to Ana Mae Aquash.
Mr. Peltier’s trial was moved to North Dakota, where a conservative judge refused to allow the case for self-defense and most of the evidence of the Reign of Terror on the reservation. The FBI also lied about a ballistics test, claiming that the test results had tied Leonard to the weapon used to kill the two agents; in actuality, results showed only that the weapon in question had been too badly damaged in a car fire to be able to be tested. Over 140,000 pages of FBI evidence were withheld from Mr, Peltier’s defense lawyers. Due to this misconduct and outright lying by the court and FBI, Leonard was found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
During Leonard’s ongoing appeals, the prosecuting attorney admitted that the government had no idea who had actually shot and killed the two agents, but that Leonard was guilty nevertheless because he was present at the shootout – this despite the government admission that other 40 indigenous people were present.
Federal courts have continually denied Leonard’s appeals for a new trial, even while admitting all previous misconduct and prevarication. The federal parole board has continuously denied parole to Leonard because he hasn’t admitted guilt, and his appeals for clemency have been continuously ignored. When outgoing president Bill Clinton was considering a pardon for Peltier in 2000, some 500 FBI agents illegally marched in Washington in protest. Clinton left office without signing the request after previously stating that this case deserved serious definitive consideration. According to the federal government’s own policies for calculating life sentences, Leonard should have been released over 12 years ago.
Leonard was the Peace & Freedom candidate for the president of the US in 2004 and is currently running for the PFP nomination for vice president on Gloria La Riva’s Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) presidential ticket in the 2020 election. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the work he has done to help Native American people and causes while in prison. Leonard is currently incarcerated in a federal maximum-security prison in Florida and was recently denied a request for a transfer to a prison closer to his home and family.
At the age of 74, Leonard Peltier is currently in failing health, with diabetes, high blood pressure, and other serious physical problems, though he rarely receives the medical care he needs. It’s way past time for Leonard to receive some kind of belated justice.
For more information about Leonard Peltier’s case and the Reign of Terror on the Pine Ridge Reservation, please read Peter Matthiesson’s excellent book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Mr. Matthiessen’s book was banned in the United States for 17 years because it exposed a rape case against a former governor of South Dakota; the governor sued Matthiessen for libel and lost, as Mr. Matthiessen had merely reported established fact, and the book was once again allowed to be published.
Leonard has written a powerful, moving memoir titled Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance as well. There is also the outstanding documentary Incident at Oglala produced by Robert Redford and directed by Michael Apted.
Leonard may be contacted and current updates on his case may be found through the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. Free Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal, the remaining members of the Move 9, and all political prisoners!
–written by Mary Lou Finley