Leonard Peltier Case Essay, Research Paper
One of the modern Native Americans’ most prominent leaders, Leonard Peltier, was arrested in the summer of 1975 and eventually sentenced to two life terms for a crime many believe he did not commit. The conviction and imprisonment of Leonard Peltier is an injustice. His prosecution by the United States government represents yet another attempt to snuff out American Indian culture and leaders. The outspokenness of Peltier and other AIM members may be the only reason why Leonard Peltier has sat in prison for the last 24 years.
Leonard Peltier is a Native American of mixed blood, being approximately 75 percent Sioux blood. His early life could be there story of almost any Native American growing up in the 1960’s. Born in Grand Forks, ND, he was raised in poverty on “the res,” as Peltier says in his book, My Life Is My Sundance, “My Grandfather used to come home from the store with our rations, and I would always ask him why he couldn’t bring more” (24). Peltier was later removed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to a boarding school after his grandfather passed away. This unsanctioned removal was Leonard’s first taste of the intrusion of the US Government into Native American life. At the school, the BIA attempted to strip all Indian qualities, including cutting the boy’s long hair. The school was ruled by a strict superintendent, which meant frequent and excessive punishments. “The sound of a child being struck and the screaming and crying that follows still haunts me today. I can’t bear to see a child spanked” (Peltier, 26).
A few years later, a teenaged Peltier was allowed to call home and go back living with his family on the Turtle Ridge Reservation in North Dakota. He soon received his first taste of racism when a group of white boys began throwing rocks at
him. As Leonard relates in Peter Matthiessen’s In The Spirit Of Crazy Horse, “One of the older ones said, ‘He’s a dirty Indian,’ and they started throwing rocks at me. I tried not to throw any back, but after a while I couldn’t avoid being hit. So I threw a marble-sized rock and it hit one of the boys and made him bleed” (56). This story would foreshadow Leonard’s future incarceration. Turtle Ridge was one of three reservations in the country on which “the government had decided to test out its new termination policy” (Matthiessen, 63). The termination policy attempted to assimilate and “de-indianize” Native Americans by banning aspects of their culture such as the Sun Dance, and moderating the supposed self-governing tribal councils. The Indians on the Turtle Ridge Reservation reacted vocally, resulting in numerous protests and demonstrations against this revival of enfranchisement by the US Government. When the BIA finally noticed the demonstrations, social workers were dispatched to see if things were really as band as the Indians claimed. Leonard, with another young organizer, sprang into action. “I ran from house to house, telling the families to hide what food they had. When I came to the first house, and told them to hide their food, they looked at me and said ‘What food’”(Matthiessen, 64)? The demonstrations, including one about the lack of food on the reservation, whetted Leonard’s young appetite for activism on the reservation. After attending his first Sun Dance, Leonard was arrested for being under the influence. “The reservation police knew what was going on, but they wouldn’t come onto private property. When we came out, they charged us all with being drunk, even though no one had been drinking”(Peltier, 41). His experience with police corruption later turned Leonard into an outspoken opponent of corrupt police. Often, trucks with Mexican immigrants would pull up to the reservation looking for workers,
and Leonard and his father frequently joined them. From this experience, he learned about the struggles not only in his race, but also how racism, government relocation, and poverty were affecting all minorities.
In the next decade, Leonard spent a lot of his time moving around. He first moved to Seattle in 1965 where he owned a fender and car body parts shop. While in Seattle, he also established a safe house for battered women, and a counseling program for Native Americans. He later lived in Wisconsin and Denver as a carpenter and welder, and through his contacts as a community counselor became involved with the American Indian Movement.
Rex Weyler relates in Blood Of The Land, “Whatever the American Indian Movement’s origins, excesses and mistakes; that warrior spirit had restored identity and pride to thousands of defeated people and inspired attempts to resurrect the dying languages and culture” (11). Clyde Bellecourt, an Ojibwa Indian, founded the AIM. At the time of his idea, he was an inmate at Stillwater State Prison in Minnesota. Bellecourt was outraged that even though Native Americans only comprise 1.3 percent of Minnesota’s population, they are 6 percent of the convict population. “The problem was not with the Indian population, but with the judicial system and US government interference.” Bellecourt recruited and united fellow Indians while in jail, and upon his release he formed the Conservative Indian Movement (which was quickly changed because of its acronym) with fellow ex-convicts Eddie Benton Banai, George Mitchell and Dennis Banks. The AIM quickly grew, pressing for equal rights and an end to corruption. Native American arrests in Minnesota quickly dropped significantly as a result. By 1965 the AIM offered social services and legal rights programs such as providing lawyers and making sure Indians knew they did not have to plead guilty if arrested, as many did at that time (Matthiessen, 110). During Peltier’s involvement as an activist, the AIM gained national recognition by being funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity (Peltier, 76).
Peltier’s participation in the AIM lead him to become a visible leader in the 1972 Native American rights campaign, The Trail of Broken Treaties. This movement called on the US Government for the restoration of treaty making powers to Indian nations, along with nineteen other grievances. In order to attract attention to their cause, Leonard and other AIM leaders occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C (Peltier, 133). They barricaded themselves in the very building of the program they were fighting against. After many days of a peaceful occupation of the building, surrounded by riot squads the AIM leaders finally emerged; having attracted attention, but without their issues recognized. The Justice Department files would later turn up statements regarding the occupation such as, “An Indian behind a bureaucrat’s desk did not look like a protector of civil rights, he looked like a burglar”(Matthiessen, 143).
Some of the attention they gathered was from unwanted channels. Following the Trail of Broken Treaties, the FBI classified the AIM as an extremist organization and placed its leaders on the list of “key extremists”, along with terrorists and war criminals as discussed in American Indians and Their Federal Relationship, a packet published by the US Government. The AIM also began to be investigated by the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO section. The COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) was a frightening program whose sole purpose was to disrupt civil right organizations, namely the AIM, Black Panthers and Martin Luther King, Jr. (US Gov., 4). Their documents were recently made public through the Freedom of Information Act, and show shocking efforts by the US Government to undermine the AIM. One such document referring to the AIM leaders reads, “Through counterintelligence it should be possible to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them….” (Weyler, 68).
Peltier was then attracted to the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973 by what would later be called Wounded Knee II. Leaders of the AIM occupied Wounded Knee, seizing among other things a Catholic Church, in remembrance of the Wounded Knee Massacre of Indian families and corruption on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Once again the FBI surrounded the protesting AIM leaders and traditional Indians, and 72 days later the standoff ended after much media attention. Soon after Wounded Knee II ended, the FBI began large-scale mobilization in and around the Pine Ridge Reservation (Peltier, 153). Fearing for their safety, the Oglala Sioux Nation elders asked the AIM to help protect their community. The AIM obliged, and came to Pine Ridge to protest the actions of Assistant Secretary of Interior Harrison Loesch, and the corrupt tribal chairman of the Pine Ridge Reservation, Dick Wilson. Peltier and others were disgusted by the actions of Loesch, who used his position to withhold any support of the AIM, and also approved numerous gas and oil leases on Indian lands. As stated in Incident At Oglala, “State and government authorities were concerned less with Law and Order than with the obstacle to Black Hills mining leases that AIM insistence on Indian sovereignty might represent” Essentially, Loesch was selling off land to energy companies that didn’t belong to him, something Native Americans were all too familiar with.
Dick Wilson was largely the reason why the AIM targeted Pine Ridge. The tribal chairman’s tactics were the motive behind the AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee. The list of the chairman’s injustices is long, but included fixing tribal elections including his race, and hiring “goon squads” to enforce his power. These FBI-backed goon squads have been held accountable for 60 murders and over 300 beatings in Pine Ridge alone, most of whom were AIM supporters (Weyler, 177). When election time would come, Wilson would coerce voters with the help of his goons. He would contest elections that he did not win; every time, he managed to stay in power. Coupled with the help of the FBI, who saw him as anti-AIM and non-threatening, Wilson was able to keep the residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation under a blanket of fear and helplessness (Matthiessen, 296). This was the situation at Pine Ridge when elders asked the AIM to come, to support those on the reservation who were under attack from the FBI and from Dick Wilson. What followed is still controversial today.
On June 26, 1975, two unmarked cars drove onto Jumping Bull property in the Pine Ridge Reservation supposedly searching for a young Indian who stole some cowboy boots. They followed a group of men in a pickup truck, and the men pulled to the side. A gunfight erupted between the Indians and two FBI agents, and exploded into a firefight between 30 Indian men, women and children and 150 FBI agents, US Marshals and Wilson’s goons. Coincidently, the largest buildup of federal
agents on the reservation occurred six days before the attack. It left two agents: Jack Coler and Ron Williams, and one Indian male: Joe Stunz, dead. This is where the controversy begins. To this day, it is unclear which side fired first, though most witnesses state that the Indians did. The agents were only able to get off a total of five shots before becoming wounded and disabled. Then, an individual shot the agents at close range. One of the largest manhunts in FBI history followed within hours, which the US Commission on Civil Rights deemed “a full scale vendetta.” Paramilitary units scoured the reservation, ransacking homes and terrifying women and children. There was no investigation into the death of the Native American.
“In the narrow vision of the FBI there was no place in the American Dream for these ungrateful aborigines who dare to state that all national boundaries in the Western Hemisphere…were entirely meaningless since ‘Americans’ are really Europeans and The Americas were Indian country from end to end.”
The FBI later arrested four AIM members, Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, James Eagle and Leonard Peltier. According to James Messerschmidt’s The Trial Of Leonard Peltier, after posting bail Peltier fled to Canada, believing he would not receive a fair trial. Soon after, Butler and Robideau were both acquitted on grounds of self-defense. The FBI then stepped up its pursuit of Leonard, needing someone to convict. Peltier was arrested within three months in Canada by US authorities. In order to extradite Peltier back to the US, some evidence and an affidavit was needed. The FBI then proceeded to manufacture affidavits using the testimony of Myrtle Poor Bear, and American Indian. Poor Bear signed a statement saying she witnessed Peltier murder the two agents execution-style. Poor Bear, notably unreliable, later retracted her statement and went as far to say that she had never even met Peltier (Messerschmidt, 78). With the help of Poor Bear’s testimony in the affidavit that the US Government now admits was completely “false and fabricated,” Leonard was brought back to the US to stand trial. Meanwhile, the FBI dropped all charges against the third man, James Eagle, in order to focus its entire force on Peltier’s case.
The trial of Peltier was set to take place in the neutral Cedar Rapids, Iowa in front of the same judge that had ruled over Butler and Robideau’s cases. However, the case was inexplicably moved back to hostile Grand Forks, ND and put under the authority of Judge Paul Benson, notorious for his anti-Native American stance (Messerschmidt, 113). The trial began with a series of legal handcuff for Peltier. The judge’s instructions to the jurors about their personal safety made it seem as if the AIM had a contract out on each of their lives, “This is a very charged case, and I would not be surprised if outside influences may try to intimidate you…be careful” (Weyler, 131). Also, Judge Benson disallowed any evidence from the two prior acquittals and refused to hear evidence for “self defense,” the same plea that the two others were acquitted on. Peltier obviously was not being given a fair case. The prosecution then went on to show ballistics evidence in order to prove that Peltier’s gun killed the agents at close range. This contention kept Leonard from entering the same self-defense argument that had allowed the other two to go free. Recently, however, a 1975 telex from an FBI ballistics expert said that “based upon the ballistics tests,” the rifle alleged to be Peltier’s had “a different firing pin” from the gun that was used to kill the two agents at close range (Meserschmidt, 148). Later in an appeals court, an FBI witness contended that the telex was just a progress report, and that other tests showed Peltier’s gun to be “an exact match.” When the defense attempted to call Myrtle Poor Bear as a witness to show how the FBI had coerced her into signing fake affidavits, Judge Benson denied the request, stating that “…the witness could be highly prejudicial” towards the government (Matthiessen, 296). In sharp contrast to the previous two trials, Peltier was not allowed to argue in self-defense, because of the ballistic tests linking him. Without these tests, he would have been able to speak about the atmosphere of terror surrounding the reservation, as the two acquitted did. Judge Benson also refused to let the defense call key witnesses in regard to alleged FBI misconduct, such as intimidating witnesses. At the end, Peltier was unable to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, present important evidence, or argue for his self-defense. In the coming months, every key government witness would come forward and claim to have been coerced or threatened. Leonard Peltier was convicted and sentenced to more than twice his life in jail.
In 1986 the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the prosecution had withheld evidence favorable to Peltier, but then concluded that this had not affected the verdict, and upheld the conviction. The judge who ruled on that case however, has expressed much concern over Peltier’s battle, “The FBI used improper methods in Peltier’s extradition, and in otherwise trying the case,” wrote Judge Gerald Heaney in
a letter to the Chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (Peltier, 211). Heaney has also written a letter to the President on Peltier’s behalf.
Very recently, more new evidence supporting Leonard has been discovered. Apparently during an appeal, Peltier’s lawyer made a mistake by agreeing on the testimony of Norman Brown, who had actually recanted his testimony in court and claimed to have been coerced by the FBI. Also, tapes at the North Dakota attorney General’s office proved that there were other agents stationed in the area on the day of the firefight, contradicting the government’s testimony. Another document has been located in which the FBI discussed plans for “paramilitary law enforcement on Indian land” (http://www.freeleonardpeltier.com/page16.html). In a 1985 appeals court, the government prosecutor Lynn Crooks acknowledges that “We don’t know who killed them” (http://www.freeleonardpeltier.com/page16.html) and that is why Peltier has been tried both as murderer and the aider. That is also why so many people are calling for Leonard’s freedom.
Five and a half years after Leonard Peltier filed a request for executive clemency, it still remains unanswered, and untalked about by much of the American public. Right now, the request for executive clemency is sitting upon President Clinton’s desk, but has not been touched due to the President-elect confusion, so the next month will be critical. While in jail, Leonard has gained many educated supporters, ranging from rock bands to celebrities to Amnesty International. Leonard was declared an official Human Rights Defender at the Human Rights Defenders Summit in Paris, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He is also the author of a few award winning books,
including one that was used to base the Robert Redford film, Incident at Oglala. To this day, over 600 pages of documents regarding the case remain classified, for reasons of National Security.
All in all, the life of Leonard Peltier is a very intriguing and saddening journey. Although it can not be said whether or not Peltier committed the crime, it can be surmised that he was not given a fair trial, and that he and other Native Americans have suffered through numerous injustices at the hands of the US Government. In the end, will Leonard Peltier be viewed as an extremist radical, as the government saw him? Or will he be revered as one of the leaders of The American Indian Movement; an organization which brought Native Americans of the Midwest back from the brink of poverty and despair, and instilled in them a sense of pride which had been long lacking? I guess it’s up to each person to form his or her own educated opinion, except for Leonard, that is. Freedom. Yeah, right.
“I am an Indian who dared to stand up to defend his people.”
–Leonard Peltier My Life Is My Sundance
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