Native Struggles Continue While Leonard Peltier Languishes in Prison


By Reid Freeman Jenkins

Much of the news lately has been about the North Dakota Access Pipeline (NDAP). It’s the same old, same old for American Indians. Not that long ago, American Indian Movement (AIM) activists in South Dakota were fighting the U.S. government’s plans to turn the Pine Ridge Reservation into a “National Sacrifice Zone,” with a giant “energy park” to supply electricity for most of the contiguous 48 states. These plans included giant “slurry pipes” to send coal to the southern U.S., washed through those pipes with water that would need to be pumped out of the aquifers so they could dig deeper to get more coal. The pipes were to be run right over the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest one we have, which services 30% of our agricultural industry.

Needless to say, crimes were committed to try to silence the native people who didn’t like this idea, and our government needed a scapegoat. That scapegoat was Leonard Peltier, convicted of murdering two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. All of the evidence used to convict him has been discredited and now he’s serving time as an aider/abettor, even though the only other people who stood trial before him were acquitted for reasons of self defense. That energy park was never built, thanks to AIM and the Black Hills Alliance, a coalition of white people and Indians living in the area. But Leonard Peltier has sacrificed more than half of his life in prison, refusing to confess to a crime that he did not commit. But he has not given up hope.

Leonard wrote to his supporters as the Standing Rock encampment protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline began to capture national attention (Sept. 18):

It has been a long, hard road these 40 years of being caged by an inhuman system for a crime I did not commit. I could not have survived physically or mentally without your support, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart and the depths of my soul for encouraging me to endure and maintain a spiritual and legal resistance.

We are now coming to the end of that road, soon arriving at a destination which will at least in part be determined by you. Along the lines of what Martin Luther King said shortly before his death, I may not get there with you, but I only hope and pray that my life, and if necessary, my death, will lead my Native peoples closer to the Promised Land.

I refer here not to the Promised Land of the Christian bible, but to the modest promises of the treaties our ancestors secured from enemies bent on their destruction, in order to enable us to survive as distinct peoples and live in a dignified manner. Our elders knew the value of written words and laws to the white man, even as they knew the lengths the invaders would go to try to get around them.

Our ancestors did not benefit from these treaties, but they shrewdly and persistently negotiated the best terms they could get, to protect us from wars which could only end in our destruction, no matter how courageously and effectively we fought. No, the treaties were to the benefit of the Americans. This upstart nation needed the treaties to put a veneer of legitimacy on its conquest of the land and its rebellion against its own countrymen and king.

It should be remembered that Standing Rock was the site of the 1974 conference of the international indigenous movement that spread throughout the Americas and beyond, the starting point for the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration was resisted by the United States for three decades until its adoption by the UN in 2007. The US was one of just four nations to vote against ratification, with President Obama acknowledging the Declaration as an aspirational document without binding force under international law.”

In 2012, “The Leonard Peltier Walk for Human Rights” came through Atlanta. I arranged for the organizers and me to meet with my congressman, John Lewis. At that meeting, we told the congressman about a plan that Leonard had come up with himself. Based on George W. Bush’s “second chance act,” a medium security prisoner can be sent home under house arrest, where he could wait with a bracelet on his ankle for his clemency. He was a maximum security prisoner, but was qualified to become medium security. After a couple of months wait, Leonard’s status change was made, but no transfer happened. Then, a couple of years ago his status was changed back to maximum without any explanation. I met with the congressman again and got his status changed back to medium. But still no transfer. That’s where it stands now.

Leonard is a medium security prisoner in a maximum security prison. His prison goes into lockdown quite often. When that happens, prisoners are served three meals a day in their cells, one hot meal and two of bread and water. In addition to many other health problems, he is diabetic. The last time that happened, Leonard’s blood sugar level went off the charts. A doctor visited him and all he did was give him a list of foods he should not eat. There was no food that Leonard had any access to that was not on that list.

Earlier this year, Leonard was diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurism. If it hemorrhages it will result in a quick death. They have not operated on it. They say it’s 4.5 x 5 cm and it has to be 5 x 5 cm for them to operate. They told him not to strain himself. I think they could operate if they wanted to.

Leonard says he’s willing to die in prison. He’s even sent instructions out to his people about what kind of burial and service he wants. I hope he gets a breath of freedom before he dies.

For more information on Leonard Peltier click here. 

Call to Action from the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee:

We have received word that former agents of the FBI have launched a letter-writing campaign to the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) urging that the OPA recommend to President Obama that he deny Mr. Peltier’s application for clemency. OPA welcomes communications regarding clemency matters. Express your strong support of Leonard Peltier’s application for clemency in an email or letter. Make reference to Leonard Peltier #89637-132 and his application for clemency dated February 17, 2016. Urge the OPA to recommend to President Obama that he grant clemency to Leonard Peltier. Contact: Honorable Robert A. Zauzmer, Acting Pardon Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20530; Email: [email protected].

Also, call the White House Hotline at 1-202-456-1111, or send a message to

Official International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee website:

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].

This article is posted in recognition of Indigenous People’s Day. 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.