Leonard Peltier:
Symbol of Resistance

Resistance Stories of Lakota People

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1047, March 19, 2000

In the spring of 1973, hundreds of Indian people and their supporters occupied the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They demanded an end to the U.S. government-backed murder and intimidation of American Indian Movement (AIM) supporters and traditionals on the reservation. And they demanded that treaties signed by the U.S. be honored that gave the Lakota people (also known as the Sioux) the right to self-rule and to the land surrounding the Black Hills.

Federal authorities surrounded them with an army of over 300--which included the U.S. Army, FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents, U.S. Marshals and state police. The Indians refused to back down. They used weapons to defend themselves and held off the government forces for 73 days. The courage and militancy of the fighters at Wounded Knee grabbed the attention of people all over the world and helped build powerful support for the struggle of Native peoples. Wounded Knee--the site of the massacre of 300 Sioux men, women and children in 1890--became a symbol of renewed Indian struggle and resistance.

After this siege, the U.S. government unleashed an intense, murderous repression against the people of Pine Ridge. They wanted to eliminate AIM's influence and terrorize the traditional people in order to carry out their plans to steal Lakota land, which is rich in uranium, coal and oil. Traditionals were those members of the Lakota people who generally took a hostile stance toward the U.S. government-backed authorities and tried, as much as possible, to uphold the traditional ways and beliefs of their people.

When the people of Pine Ridge came under such murderous attack, the word went out that they needed support. AIM members came to the reservation from all over the U.S. Many of them were not Lakota, but members of other Indian peoples. It was as part of this AIM operation that Leonard Peltier came onto the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975.

On July 26, 1975, in an FBI raid on the AIM camp at Oglala, two FBI agents and one AIM activist were killed. In 1977 Peltier was framed-up for the murder of the agents and railroaded into prison--where he has now spent 23 hard years. He is respected around the world as a voice for Native people and an inspiring political prisoner who refuses to be broken.

The Frame-Up

After the shoot-out at Oglala, three AIM members were charged with killing the FBI agents--Leonard Peltier, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler. Peltier fled to Canada. Butler and Robideau were tried in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in July 1976. An all-white jury found them not guilty, saying they had acted in self-defense. Jury members had been shocked to hear of the FBI and GOON terrorism facing people on Pine Ridge. After this setback, an 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 judge refused to allow any testimony about the government violence against people at Pine Ridge, the FBI persecution of AIM, and the testimony and verdict from the trial of Butler and Robideau.

One Indian woman, Anna Mae Aquash, was pressured by the FBI to betray the movement. When she refused, she was found dead from a bullet wound. The FBI showed Anna Mae's severed hands to a mentally ill woman, Myrtle Poor Bear. This so badly frightened Poor Bear that she signed three different (and contradictory) statements implicating Peltier. The judge allowed one of her statements to be used to extradite Peltier from Canada, but he would not allow her to testify at Peltier's trial after she admitted she'd lied under pressure from the FBI.

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. And FBI witnesses claimed that this was the only AR-15 rifle in the shoot-out. But all these "facts" were deliberate lies.

Leonard Peltier was convicted of two counts of first degree murder on April 18, 1977 and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Judge Benson immediately ruled that Leonard should serve two life sentences consecutively. It was a complete railroad. (See "The Railroad of Leonard Peltier" in RW #949.)

Secret FBI documents were eventually forced into the open that prove that the FBI manufactured the so-called "evidence" against Leonard Peltier. A secret 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. Prosecutor Lynn Crooks has since admitted the government doesn't know who shot the agents. Crooks said, "We did not have any direct evidence that one individual as opposed to another pulled the trigger."

In other words, the government never had any evidence that Peltier shot anyone. However, after years of parole hearings, Leonard Peltier remains in prison.

On October 5, 1987 the Supreme Court refused to review the case. Then in 1993 the federal courts denied Peltier's appeal. They argued that even if there's no evidence of a "close-up killing," Peltier was guilty of "long-range aiding and abetting." In 1995 Peltier was again denied parole.

The U.S. Parole Commission wrote, "The Commission recognizes that the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that you personally participated in the executions of the two FBI agents." But they refused to grant Peltier parole because of his "evident decision not to accept criminal responsibility." In other words, Peltier must spend life in prison for just being present as the AIM encampment defended itself.

Symbol of Resistance

Leonard Peltier has continued the struggle from behind bars--with his words, his paintings and his organizing efforts. The support of millions of people all over the world has made Leonard Peltier a symbol of today's Native resistance and U.S. government injustice.

November 1999 was Leonard Peltier Freedom Month. Thousands of people of all different nationalities and Native people from many different tribes traveled to Washington, DC to demand freedom for Leonard Peltier.

Ben Carnes, a spokesperson for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC) talked about what impact Leonard Peltier has had on his life. He said he first heard about Leonard while he was in prison: "I just happened to come across an article that said `Indian Says He's Still At War with the United States' and I've always felt like we were, so I read that. That's the first time I heard Leonard's name and I kind of liked the article but I didn't think much about it. About a year and a half later I was transferred to another prison and while I was there I got into a pen-pal program. One of the persons who wrote asked me if I'd read the book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, and I said I hadn't. So she mailed me a copy. And I think it only took me like a day, a day and a half to read that book all the way through, cover to cover. I think I probably reacted like anybody else who read that book, just totally outraged. I couldn't believe this had happened, that this is still going on. I was angry about what happened to Native people in the past, then I seen that the same battles are still going on today and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be able to fight back, you know? I wanted to be able to stand up for my people.

"Leonard has become a symbol and he knows that if he can be used as a symbol to help other people then let's do that. This ain't something he does for self-serving egotistical interests. He believes in the people. He cares about the people...and he's spoken out on issues dealing with Big Mountain, Eddie Hatcher and pretty much all Native issues, just like he's doing with Mumia Abu-Jamal and the support for him."

Gina Chiala is a full-time staff person in the Kansas office of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. She explained why she moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to work for Leonard's freedom: "To me what the Justice Department and the prison system is doing to people is probably the main source of racism and oppression and genocide. I've always been really concerned about those kind of issues....Leonard Peltier is one of the most important and well known political prisoners in the United States. So I came in with other people just to try to restart and regenerate the campaign in January of '98. And I think we've done that."

A New Generation Joins the Struggle

Leonard Peltier and the struggles he was part of have inspired the new generation coming up. Many young people came to Leonard Peltier Freedom Month to show their support. There was a Youth for Justice Day on November 9 with speakers and performances by Blackfire, Shadow Wise, Natay and other groups. Natay is a Native rap group from New Mexico who took time out from their tour for the release of their latest album A Place Called Survival.

On Women for Justice Day, November 23, the Native American-Lakota Dance Troupe Deer Chaser performed traditional dances. The kids are from Pine Ridge and other Indian reservations in South Dakota and range in age from 10 to their late teens. The group's executive producer, Marvin Clifford, grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

A 10-year-old girl from Pine Ridge said she came for Leonard, "Because he fought for us. He's in prison and we're trying to get him out. A 13-year-old told me Leonard is her nephew's hero. "He's five years old and my brother tells him about Leonard, so he thinks that, you know, `I'm Leonard Peltier.' That's who he wanted to be for Halloween." A 14-year-old said: "We feel that we have a responsibility to carry on our traditions and we feel that we need to help Leonard. Leonard is a good man." Another 14-year-old dancer told me: "I feel he risked his life for us so we owe him the respect to come out here and help him out because he did all this stuff and we should start giving back."

There were many young people who spoke out for Leonard. Bianca brought a message from Amnesty International, which just last year announced that it considered Peltier a political prisoner and demanded his immediate release: "I came here today because I believe it's an important cause. I believe in justice. I'm not Native American, I'm not Hispanic, but I am human. I'm a member of this up and coming generation.... I've been very moved by this man's courage and it's really made me stop and think about what's going on in our own country because so often people who are involved with issues of human rights tend to look outside our own borders."

Mike Africa performed with the MOVE rap group Seeds of Wisdom. He told the audience: "Leonard Peltier is not only just an innocent man in prison, damn near on death row--might as well be on death row with them refusing him medical treatment. This is a Native American brother in prison. These people stole his land from him--raped his mothers, his fathers, his sisters and brothers. They killed all his family and put his people on reservations and they got him in prison talking about he murdered, and that's why he's in prison? This country don't give a damn about murder! They don't care about people being killed. All they want to do is continue to stop those people who stand up and who's strong."

Melissa Copeland from Maryland Anti-Racist Action said: "I think this movement is our place. If we're not going to take the torch that the people that are older than us have started, then there's nothing...We can't buy into the Generation X bullcrap how everybody's apathetic, kids are apathetic. You know, we are the future. We are the movement. People like Leonard Peltier, people like Mumia, people like the MOVE 9 are in prison because they confronted things that happened, they confronted things that they saw that were unjust. They went out into the streets and they said we're not going to have this. We're not going to just turn our backs on this.... What I think we need to take with us is three words--expose, confront and act."

It's Up to the People

Despite support from millions of people all over the world Leonard Peltier has not received a response to his petition for executive clemency. And when people from the Pine Ridge Reservation and the LPDC tried to meet with representatives from the Clinton administration in November they were told there is an order from the administration's lead counsel not to discuss the case. Meanwhile, the FBI took out newspaper ads full of lies that called for Clinton to deny Peltier clemency.

Despite the government's determination to see Peltier die in prison people continue the struggle to free him.

Alicia Linda attended a pot luck dinner at Maryknoll House in Philadelphia. The event was organized by the Leonard Peltier/Big Mountain Support Group for the ceremonial runners who ran from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. for the start of Leonard Peltier Month. Alicia Linda described Maryknoll as "a religious organization that also involves sisters and lay people." She said: "It's kind of mind-boggling when you think about Leonard Peltier's situation and how he got there, why he's still there in prison. He serves as an ongoing inspiration to us all to continue working for the freedom of all people. And one day he'll be out and he'll be with us. I'm sure of that. And I look forward to that day. And until that point he's with us in spirit and he continues to inspire us and we continue to work on his behalf and on the behalf of all people who are unjustly imprisoned, unjustly brought down, whether through cultural suppression, suppression of voice, whatever it is. Leonard serves as a symbol for breaking those controls, those bounds...

"We really, really have to work together and we really have to speak out and we really have to be the voice for the voiceless. And again, Leonard and all those who came before him and who will come after him, they serve as a voice for us and we need to be voices for them as well. So let's do it, people!"

Bear Lincoln, from the Round Valley Reservation in North California, was recently acquitted of two counts of murder after being framed by the authorities. (See RW #926, October 5, 1997). He was at one of the events during Leonard Peltier Freedom Month and gave his thoughts about Leonard:

"The government is just all upset because these two--they say--fine young men, FBI agents were killed. But these FBI men were murderers. They were killers. They were killing innocent people. It was a war situation. And the Native people responded with self-defense. They defended themselves and as far as I'm concerned they did no wrong. Leonard Peltier should not have spent one day in jail. He did no wrong.... This government is hypocritical. The justice system is hypocritical and wrong.

"The courts of law are no place to seek truth and justice. They've proved that over and over again. People do not get fair trials in the United States. That's a big lie put out to the public. And there's a lot of proof of that. Mumia Abu-Jamal's case, Leonard Peltier's case, my case. Even though I was acquitted they did everything they could to not give me a fair trial. They tampered with the jury four or five times and on and on. I bring my experience and knowledge that I've gained through my ordeal to help Leonard Peltier, to make the public aware that Leonard Peltier's case is not an isolated case.

"In my death penalty case, they fought hard and long not to give me a fair trial. They did everything they possibly could. But we had more power than they did. We were stronger than them because we had the truth. They didn't have the truth. Common logic is this, you have the truth on one hand, you have lies on the other hand. You put 'em next to each other, the lies can't stand next to the truth. It fades away quickly, you know, with anyone that wants to see the truth. And that's how it is in Leonard Peltier's case, in Mumia Abu-Jamal's case. The law enforcement don't want to debate, they don't want another trial because they will lose. They don't want the public to know the facts on Leonard Peltier's case and Mumia's case."

When asked what he thought it would take to free Leonard Peltier, Bear Lincoln said: "It's the people that will set him free.... These young people, they weren't even born when Leonard's ordeal happened. This is a cause for all races. It's an injustice. What they've done to Leonard they'll do to any race--poor whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, it doesn't matter who you are. They have no respect for no one. They want to destroy us is what it is. That's what's in their minds. That's what's in their hearts. They've been doing it since they landed on this continent and they've been doing this when they've landed in other countries. This genocide, it's gone on and it's time for the people to raise up and to put a stop to these people. And we need to be united, all the races together, to stand against these people and to fight 'em and to bring 'em down, to remove 'em from their power and give 'em what they justly deserve."

To find out more about Leonard's case contact the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, PO Box 583, Lawrence, KS 66044; 785-842-5774; http://www.freepeltier.org.

Previous parts of this series on Leonard Peltier Freedom Month, "Resistance Stories of Lakota People," appeared in RW #1031, 1038, 1039 and 1040.

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