In the Coleman, FL, Penitentiary, about 60 miles west/northwest of Orlando, there’s an American who’s been in U.S. prisons fighting for his freedom and the freedom of his people for almost four decades. Leonard Peltier, an Anishinabe-Lakota, was wrongfully convicted of killing two FBI agents in a shootout on the Pine Ridge, SD, Indian reservation on June 26, 1975. He and other members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) were there at the request of traditional Lakota people on that reservation who were opposing the exploitation of their mineral resources and were met with much oppression as a result. AIM supported their efforts and sent a contingent of its members, led by Peltier, to protect the people.
Reid Jenkins and his wife Barbara Joye with Peltier in 2000 at a powwow at Leavenworth Penitentiary.
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission documented 67 murders and over 300 beatings of Indian people on Pine Ridge in the three-year period surrounding the shootout, most of which were attributed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police and tribal chairman Dick Wilson’s “GOON Squad,” a private army funded by our government. Wilson’s police force and his GOON Squad were well armed with military equipment and ammunition left there after AIM’s Wounded Knee uprising in 1973. They also received arms and training from the F.B.I.
It’s no surprise that the U.S. would have supported a corrupt tribal government on that reservation and was directly involved in the oppression of Indian people there. In addition to the strip-mining of coal, which had been happening for decades, there was massive uranium exploration on Pine Ridge. This was during the 1970’s Arab oil embargo and many corporations were receiving huge federal subsidies to underwrite their search for nuclear energy sources on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Union Carbide, to name just one, was receiving $2.3 billion per year of taxpayer’s money (1970’s dollars). National Uranium Resources Evaluation, a program of the U.S. Geological Survey, used data from NASA satellites to locate rich deposits in and around the northwestern one-eighth of Pine Ridge. (That one-eighth of the reservation was signed over to the federal government on the day of the shootout by Dick Wilson.) By the mid 70’s there were more than 5,000 speculative uranium mining leases in the area. During that time President Richard Nixon said that 1000 nuclear reactors would generate electricity in the US by the year 2000. AIM was unaware at the time that many energy companies had signed up to create an “energy park” there, with dozens of coal-powered plants and 25 nuclear-powered plants that would provide electricity for most of the contiguous 48 states.
On June 25, 1975, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, took two teenage male Indians into custody and questioned them about who else was staying at the AIM encampment. They came back the next morning and a firefight erupted. One Indian and the two agents were killed. The area was soon surrounded by federal agents and law enforcement officers of many different stripes. But the Indians escaped and the largest manhunt in F.B.I. history began – for the killer of the agents (the Indian death was not investigated). Two Indian men who participated in the shootout were arrested and tried in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the court of Judge Edward McManus. Because of the climate of fear on the reservation they were found not guilty for reasons of self defense. After their acquittal, the government went looking for a judge who would be more cooperative.
Peltier stood trial in 1977 in Fargo, ND, in the court of Judge Paul Benson. Judge Benson would not allow any evidence not directly pertaining to the exact day and time of the shootout, so the “climate of fear” argument was not available to him or the jury. About four-fifths of the defense’s testimony was disallowed. The prosecution, however, was allowed to make reference to past “crimes” of Leonard Peltier, not one of which he had been either tried for or convicted of. He was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. Since then his prosecutors have admitted to fabricating and withholding evidence and coercing witnesses, and every shred of evidence that links him to any crime has been discredited. In his 1992 appeal his prosecutors admitted that they didn’t know who killed the agents or what part Peltier played in the shootout, but claimed that he had been tried on dual charges of murder and aiding and abetting (the maximum sentence is the same for both). Who was he aiding and abetting? The two Indians who were acquitted?
The Church Committee, which was investigating CIA and FBI abuses in the mid-1970’s, was considering including events on Pine Ridge in their report. After the shootout, FBI officials met with the committee and successfully argued that they could not solve the murders of the agents if they had to deal with the investigation at the same time. Also, after Peltier’s conviction, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s investigation was de-funded and could not be completed.
Leonard Peltier is plainly and simply a scapegoat, a cover-up for crimes committed by our government to protect corporate profits. He refused to plea-bargain to get a lesser sentence and has not accepted any offers that would have allowed him to walk out of prison by lying.
Leonard Peltier has some chronic health problems, all of which have occurred since he’s been in prison. In 1986 he suffered a stroke and lost 80 percent of the sight in his left eye. President Reagan, while Gorbachev was leader of the Soviet Union, allowed a team of Soviet doctors to examine Peltier. They found that his eyesight could easily have been saved with timely medical attention. He suffers from high blood pressure and has diabetes (which also causes problems with his vision) and has much pain walking these days. There have been times when he’s been denied the medication he needs. He had a new problem with shortness of breath and chest pains recently while he didn’t have his blood pressure medicine (they told him they had to cut costs). He’s been tested for prostate cancer and has not been given a clear answer as to whether or not he has it – but the symptoms are there. He was strong and healthy when he entered prison and he’s not getting adequate health care now when he needs it so badly.
Amnesty International, a long-time supporter, has recently renewed its call to action and is asking members all over the world to sign a petition to President Obama, urging him to grant clemency: http://takeaction.amnestyusa.org/siteapps/advocacy/ActionItem.aspx?c=6oJCLQPAJiJUG&b=6645049&aid=520070&msource=W0000ACTW .
Leonard Peltier’s official website: http://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info/
Reid Jenkins, a member of Metro Atlanta DSA, has coordinated support in the Atlanta area for Leonard’s fight for justice for Indian people since the early 90’s. His email is [email protected].