Free Leonard Peltier!

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June 1975: Two FBI agents enter Jumping Bull, Pine Ridge Reservation, to question a man over an alleged theft of a pair of boots. A fire fight breaks out which lasts 8-10 hours. Both agents are killed. Leonard Peltier, who was present at the scene, flees to Canada. The shootout sparks the biggest FBI manhunt known to date.

June 2017: Leonard Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences for first degree murder of the two agents. He is 72 years old. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the European Parliament and Amnesty International have all said they consider him to be a political prisoner, who had an unfair trial, and have called for an urgent appeal.

Divide and rule

The Native American community in the 1970s was divided between those supporting the government-backed Bureau of Indian affairs (BIA) and the ‘traditionalists’, who opposed it. Established in 1824, the BIA provided contract and grant-based assistance for matters such as education, social services and infrastructure. Its critics maintain that it was funded with the specific purpose of destroying their language and land, and that its priority was assimilation. It is a misconception of reservation life to imagine that Indians can live easily on the money from the land lease agreements and the bleak reality of reservation life is one of absolute grinding poverty, with essentials such as petrol and bread completely unaffordable. I personally witnessed some of this devastation myself when I visited a Blackfoot reservation in the Rockies, writes Leah Jai-Persad.

At the time of the Pine Ridge shoot-out, Dick Wilson was elected tribal chairman of the Oglala Lakota Sioux in the Pine Ridge reservation. Impeachment charges were brought against him in 1973, after complaints of his favouring family and friends, as well as using his private militia Guardians of the Oglala Nation (known in the community as GOON squads) to suppress political opponents such as traditionalist Indians and the American Indian Movement (AIM).

In 1973, after decades of discontent, violence in Pine Ridge escalated to overwhelming proportions. Indian traditionalist families came under sustained attack from Wilson’s GOON squad, with many killed, including children and elders.

AIM was invited on to the ranch by elderly women residents to protect them, and to help stop the violence. Prominent AIM member Leonard Peltier was among those who came to Pine Ridge in response. His message was that a better quality of life for all could be attained through cooperation, rather than through conflict: ‘Build communities. Get involved, Chop wood. That’s what a real warrior does. Not wave guns around shouting about who’s boss’, he said in the 1992 documentary Warrior.*

A power struggle ensued between the two groups and Pine Ridge Reservation became a fully-fledged war zone, with the BIA-backed GOON squads opposing the AIM’s attempts to teach traditional cultural customs, practices, teachings and philosophies, campaign through the system for equal rights, and try to bring education and employment to the community. On most reservations there was, and still is, no work and there are serious problems of violence and alcoholism. Peltier was an alcohol counsellor and had run a mechanic workshop, as well as travelling and working throughout the land as a spiritual sun dancer and pipe-carrier. He would talk to the youth as well as give ceremonies and speeches.

A passionate spokesman for such a marginalised people and a mobiliser of young minds, we start to see why both the BIA and the government would find him a nuisance and a possible threat.

Wounded Knee

The build-up to the 1975 shootout at Jumping Bull began with the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. AIM seized and occupied the town for 73 days in a grassroots protest against Wilson and the BIA. The occupation began a three-year period of political violence on Pine Ridge Reservation. Wilson’s GOON squad moved in to remove the AIM from the premises and stop their activities Over 60 traditional tribal members were murdered and more assaulted. The FBI did nothing to stop the violence and it is believed the FBI authorised the attacks as well as supplying the GOON squad with information about AIM. One former vigilante confirmed the FBI supplied him with ammunition.

After Wounded Knee, 500 people were arrested and 185 federal indictments issued. There were many political trials, in which over 90% of AIM members were eventually acquitted or their cases dropped; however the process meant that AIM activists spent years tied up in the courts, with this massively hindering their ability to organise.

The shoot-out

On 26 June 1975 FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams charged into the reservation, on the pretext of looking for a resident named Jimmy Eagle. Their armed entrance was met with both fear and resistance. Coler and Williams then called for back-up, resulting in the arrival of hundreds of armed police. Resident Joe Stuntz was fatally shot, after which those on the reservation fought back harder, thinking that they would die anyway. Amid the chaos, both agents were shot and later were shot dead. AIM members fled for the hills as they were shot at by hundreds of police and chased by helicopters.

The frame-up

After the shootout, police were chasing and looking for people who fled the scene in a red pick-up truck. Leonard Peltier and his red and white van were still on the reservation. The FBI later argued in court that the red pick-up truck and the red and white van were one and the same.

In December 1975 the FBI named Leonard Peltier as one of their ‘ten most wanted’ and in February 1976 he was arrested in Canada. He was extradited in December 1976 on the basis of an affidavit later proven to have been false. While he was in Canada resisting extradition, two other AIM members Bob Robideau and Dino Butler were found not guilty of shooting the FBI agents on the grounds of self-defence by a federal jury in Iowa. Peltier returned too late to be tried with Robideau and Butler and was tried separately in North Dakota, where he was found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

Supporters describe the trial as composed of ‘an array of bogus evidence and a ton of tampering’. A rifle had its firing pin switched, vital documents were withheld and a witness with special needs was told she would be put through a meat-grinder if she did not submit requested affidavits.

Leonard Peltier has been in prison for 41 years. Both outgoing Presidents Clinton and Obama rejected his clemency petitions. To find out more and get involved in fighting for his freedom, visit the Leonard Peltier International Defence Committee (LPDC) website www.whoisleonardpeltier.info

You can also write direct to Leonard Peltier #89637-132, USP Coleman, IPO Box 1033, Coleman, FL 33521 USA.

*Available on YouTube, along with They buried the heart of Leonard Peltier – but not In the spirit of Crazy Horse (1982), which features interviews with Peltier’s cousin Steve Robideau and Raul Salinas, both of the LPDC.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 258 June/July 2017