WORDS BY RUTH H. HOPKINS
Peltier, an Anishinabe/Dakota man, is now believed to be the longest-serving political prisoner in the United States. He still maintains his innocence, 45 years on.
In recent months, there’s been an ever growing chorus of citizens, celebrities, activists, elected officials, and organizations calling for the release of Leonard Peltier.
Leonard Peltier, an Anishinabe/Dakota man, is 77 years old and currently serving two consecutive life sentences at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex for the murder of two FBI agents who were killed during an FBI invasion of the Jumping Bull Camp on Oglala Lakota land on June 26, 1975.
Peltier, a prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), was there to defend traditional Oglala Lakota, who during the 1970s, were being oppressed and brutalized by pro-government Tribal members and the chairman’s own private militia, Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON).
Traditional Lakota, supported by AIM, took over Wounded Knee in 1973. They were subjected to a 71-day siege by federal government forces during the occupation. In the three years that followed, about 60 AIM members were murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The shootout occurred at the height of this bloody conflict.
Initially, there were two other individuals who were put on trial for killing the FBI agents in question, but they were found not guilty. The government then extradited Leonard from Canada, based on an affidavit that was later recanted. Leonard’s trials and appeals process suffered from a multitude of errors and misconduct, including the manufacturing and suppression of evidence, bogus testimony from coerced witnesses, a juror who admitted she was biased against Peltier because he was Native on day two of the trial yet wasn’t removed from the jury, the withholding of more than 900 FBI documents related to the participation of 24 other people in the shootout, and a host of constitutional violations. The Pennsylvania Parole Commission, who denied his parole in 1993, even admitted that the prosecution in the case did not have direct evidence that Peltier personally participated in the execution of two FBI agents. According to Peltier’s attorney Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge, there’s no way any of it would hold up in a courtroom today.
“On that day, our camp was attacked by the Feds. Most of the people who escaped the FBI attack were teenagers. The media labeled us well-armed gorillas.”
Sharp obtained FBI documents through the Freedom of Information Act. He says that they show that the FBI needed someone to answer for the deaths of the FBI agents, so they pooled their resources to convict Peltier, who was the last man standing.
Peltier has been incarcerated for more than 45 years, and is now believed to be the longest-serving political prisoner in the United States. He still maintains his innocence, to his detriment.
Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, who has asked President Biden to release Leonard Peltier on multiple occasions, says that Peltier “has been punished for maintaining his innocence.” When Peltier was up for parole in 2009, they were going to release him if he admitted that he murdered the two FBI agents. He refused to do it, so in prison he remains.
Congressman Grijalva (D-AZ) is by no means the only one that’s demanded clemency for Leonard Peltier. Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Coretta Scott King, Mother Teresa, Pope Francis, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) have all made statements supporting his release.
James Reynolds, the former U.S. attorney and prosecutor who helped seal Peltier’s doom, is also a Peltier supporter. He wrote to President Obama, and later, to President Biden, pleading with them to commute Peltier’s sentence. Reynolds admits there is no proof that Leonard Peltier committed the murders.
I spoke to Jean Roach, codirector of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee who is Mnicoujou Lakota, who was there at the Jumping Bull residence on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on the day of the shootout. She was just 14 years old. “On that day, our camp was attacked by the Feds,” she says. “Most of the people who escaped the FBI attack were teenagers. The media labeled us well-armed gorillas.”
Jean continues: “We lost Joe Stuntz, who was murdered. Joe was only 24 years old.” According to the FBI’s website, Joe Killsright Stuntz, Coeur d’Alene, was shot dead by an FBI sniper during the shootout.
As descendants of survivors of the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) and the Wounded Knee Massacre, Jean and her mother, Evelyn Handboy, who was an AIM member and comrade of Leonard’s during the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation, see the government’s mistreatment of Peltier as an extension of the ongoing genocide that’s been committed against the Indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere since Columbus first landed. Jean describes Leonard’s case as “full of lies” and corrupt actions that harken back to the colonial roots of the United States. “Now is a time for change,” she said, adding that admitting and correcting the wrongs committed against Leonard Peltier could be the beginning of a fair and equal relationship between sovereign Native Nations and the federal government.
“Native Americans have not yet been included in any promise of federal justice reform, this needs to change.”
Ruth Buffalo, who is Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara and the first Native American Democratic woman elected to the North Dakota Legislature, began fighting for Leonard Peltier’s release after she signed onto a letter requesting his clemency. The National Caucus of Native American State Legislators, of which she is a part, approved a resolution urging President Biden to grant clemency for Peltier. I spoke with Rep. Buffalo about her efforts.
“Leonard did not receive a fair trial,” she said. “The fact that Leonard is still behind bars speaks volumes to many of us who have or had incarcerated loved ones. Native Americans have not yet been included in any promise of federal justice reform, this needs to change.” Ruth and others held a Rise Up for Peltier Rally in Fargo, North Dakota, on February 7, 2022, in solidarity with other rallies held regionally, nationally, and globally demanding Leonard Peltier’s release. Jean Roach participated in another rally held that same day in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Now Leonard Peltier’s life is in danger. A few weeks ago, he tested positive for Covid-19. While he was vaccinated against the virus, he did not receive a booster shot. He is also diabetic and has other medical conditions that put him at high risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and death. In a letter dated February 9, 2022, nine members of Congress implored President Biden to release Leonard Peltier based on a Department of Justice (DOJ) authorization to release elderly inmates with underlying health conditions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Given Mr. Peltier’s new Covid-19 diagnosis and to avoid further risks to his health and safety, we urge you to approve his pending petition for clemency on humanitarian grounds,” the letter states.
Rep. Buffalo also has a statement for President Biden. “[Leonard Peltier] is the United States’ longest serving political prisoner. Mr. President, please do what is right. Amid our country’s racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder, Native Americans have not yet been included in any promise of federal justice reform. Your clemency towards Mr. Peltier would change that. His expected release would sound as a promise to the first peoples of these lands that we, too, enjoy America’s promise of justice for all. Our communities have suffered enough, please prioritize equity.”
I asked Ruth what the public could do to help amplify the cause. Rep. Buffalo suggested that they call the White House at 202-456-1111, and ask President Biden to release Leonard Peltier, for the sake of justice, and due to his contraction of the deadly Covid-19 virus. She also asks that we pray for Leonard, who is in dire need of support. “Whatever punishment was meant to be meted out to Leonard has been done. It’s done,” Rep. Raul Grijalva concludes.
Leonard Peltier, a grandfather and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, may not survive another day in prison. While he’s been incarcerated, he’s lost numerous friends and family members, including his own son.
“I am prepared to die here,” Peltier says. “I would prefer it [to] be back at my home.”
For more information about the Leonard Peltier case, his current status, statements he makes, and how you can help support his clemency and release, visit The International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee website.