November 1999: Leonard Peltier Freedom Month

Free Leonard Peltier

Revolutionary Worker #1028, October 31, 1999

Leonard Peltier has spent 23 hard years in U.S. prisons--targeted, framed and sentenced by the U.S. government. His spirit is unbroken, but his health has worsened. He suffers from a painful jaw condition, from diabetes, a heart condition and from the denial of medical treatment. The Parole Commission tried to slam the door on Leonard's case: In 1993 they denied him parole and ruled that his case would not be heard again for 15 years--in 2008!

This injustice is intolerable--and the demand for his freedom is growing.

November 1999 is Leonard Peltier Freedom Month with actions every day in Washington, DC. The opening event on November 1 will bring together veteran fighters of the Wounded Knee occupation and Leonard Peltier's family with Peltier supporters.

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse

Leonard Peltier was born on Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota in 1944. His family came from the Anishinabe (Chippewa) and Lakota (Sioux) peoples. He says, "During harvest season, whole family--grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children--would migrate from Turtle Mountain to the Red River Valley to work in the potato fields."

Native people were supposed to be defeated--and disappearing. But the struggle continued. "Traditionalists" pulled back into distant rural pockets to keep their ways alive. Other Native people drifted into urban ghettos where they mingled with proletarians of other nationalities.

In the 1960s, Black people started shaking the United States with powerful rebellions. A new generation of Indian youth woke up and formed the American Indian Movement (AIM). Like the Black Panther Party, they worked day and night to bring hot, radical, anti-system politics to the masses. Urban Indian radicals linked up with the rez youth and whole communities of "traditionalist" people. Leonard Peltier became a leading activist in that radical new generation.

Leonard told the RW about the conditions that created AIM: "Poverty, discrimination. The injustices that people were receiving in the courtrooms. The violations of the Indian treaties made between two sovereign nations--the United States government and Indian nations. The bigotry that exists around Indian territories. The unemployment which brings in the high alcoholism rate and disease rate of the reservations. In them days, it was just still not illegal to kill an Indian. If you killed an Indian, you'd be very unfortunate if you got probation--most of them were released immediately."

The FBI's COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) targeted leading activists of AIM. One FBI document recommended that "local police put leaders under close scrutiny, and arrest them on every possible charge until they could no longer make bail." Peltier was attacked in a restaurant by two off-duty cops, beaten and charged with attempted murder. One cop said his job was "catching a big one for the FBI."

Wounded Knee 2 and the Need for Armed Self-Defense

On the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations in South Dakota, AIM led hundreds, in February 1973, to take over the buildings at Wounded Knee. They were blockaded by federal forces. The firefights lasted over two months and brought AIM's struggle worldwide attention.

During the 36 months after Wounded Knee, more than 60 AIM supporters died violently on or near the Pine Ridge reservation. "The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota," said William Janklow, then South Dakota deputy attorney general, "is to put a gun to American Indian Movement leaders' heads and pull the trigger." The FBI arrested 562 AIM supporters for participating in Wounded Knee. 600 people were charged with supporting the defenders.

With many of Pine Ridge's core activists underground, in jail or dead--elders asked AIM members to organize self-defense camps to protect the people. In 1975, the Northwest AIM group, including Leonard Peltier, set up a defensive camp. A 1975 FBI memo says: "There are pockets of Indian population that consist almost exclusively of American Indian Movement (AIM) and their supporters on the Reservation. It is significant that in some of these AIM centers the residents have built bunkers which would literally require military assault forces if it were necessary to overcome resistance emanating from the bunker."

The Shootout at Oglala

On July 26, combat-armed police started massing near Oglala village--"GOONs" of the local reservation government, BIA police, state troopers, U.S. Marshals, and FBI SWAT teams. The Indians, including Leonard Peltier, prepared to defend themselves. Around noon on July 26, two FBI agents drove straight for the AIM camp. It is not clear how the shooting started. The agents, Coler and Williams, got out of their car and began firing. Members of the AIM camp fired back. Coler and Williams called for reinforcements.

It was the prearranged signal for all-out federal assault. Three Indian youth shot out the tires of the first reinforcements. The whole police assault froze. Coler and Williams were caught in their own trap.

AIM rifles kept the feds at bay all afternoon--as the people of the camp, including Peltier, slipped away. After the firing stopped, the Feds stormed in. Their pointmen, Coler and Williams, lay dead. An Indian, Joe Stuntz Killsright, was also dead. Everyone else escaped.

The authorities unleashed the largest manhunt in FBI history, with combat gear, grenade launchers, helicopters, and tracking dogs. For three months, this "task force" ran amok--storming into homes and holding people at gunpoint. Grand juries were convened. The media spread FBI lies about "AIM terrorism."

During this hysteria, the authorities charged three AIM members--Leonard Peltier, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler--with killing the two FBI agents.

The Making of a Railroad

Peltier escaped to Canada, where he continued to organize. Butler and Robideau were tried and found "not guilty" in July 1976. The all-white jury was shocked to hear of the government terrorism on Pine Ridge. After this, a 1976 FBI memo called for directing "full prosecutive weight of the federal government...against Leonard Peltier." Peltier was captured and illegally smuggled back into the United States by orders of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The authorities had no evidence linking Peltier to the killing of the FBI agents. So they manufactured it. And the trial judge stopped the defense from exposing the prosecution lies.

A mentally ill Indian woman, Myrtle Poor Bear, was pressured by the authorities to make statements implicating Peltier. In fact, she had not witnessed anything.

At Peltier's trial, an FBI agent swore that he had personally seen Peltier near the two dead agents. FBI lab experts claimed a shell casing at the scene came from Leonard Peltier's AR-15 rifle. These were deliberate lies. The Court of Appeals later wrote: "[The prosecution's] theory, accepted by the jury and the judge, was that Peltier killed the two FBI agents at point blank range." Leonard Peltier was convicted of two counts of first degree murder on April 18, 1977. Judge Benson ruled that Leonard should serve two life sentences consecutively. It was a complete railroad.

The Government Case Unravels --The Railroad Continues

"As warriors of our nation we must show our people the spirit of Crazy Horse so they may rise off their knees... Raise up with me and resist the terrorist attacks of genocide against our nation!"

Leonard Peltier from prison, 1978

In 1979, the FBI tried to assassinate Peltier in prison. Secret documents surfaced, proving that the FBI manufactured the "evidence" against Peltier. A 1975 memo to the FBI director revealed that the firing pin of the AR-15 rifle connected to Peltier had not matched any shell casing supposedly found at the scene.

By the late 1980s, Prosecutor Lynn Crooks admitted that the government did not know who shot the FBI agents. Crooks said, "We did not have any direct evidence that one individual as opposed to another pulled the trigger."

On October 5, 1987 the Supreme Court refused to review the case. In 1993 the federal courts denied Peltier's appeal. They argued that even if there's no evidence of "close-up killing," Peltier was guilty of "long-range aiding and abetting." Leonard told the RW, "The government has admitted in two courts of law at the Appellate Court level that they don't know who killed the agents.... And now the government on their most recent decision is claiming that I am an `aider and abettor.' Basically, that was their theory--I was aider and abettor at 15 to 20 feet or 200 yards, about two football fields away. They don't know where I aided and abetted--but I was on the reservation."

In other words, the federal court says Peltier must spend life in prison for being present as the AIM encampment defended itself. The system want someone punished for the armed resistance at Oglala.

Leonard Peltier has become a symbol--for millions--of Native resistance and U.S. government injustice.

November 1999 is Leonard Peltier Freedom Month. Spread the word. Take a stand.


Leonard Peltier Freedom Coalition, D.C. 202-857-1469

Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, Kansas, 785-842-5774; web site:

eonard Peltier's new book Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance has recently been published.

RW Online at for background and updates on Leonard Peltier

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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