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In the Spirit of Crazy Horse - Political Prisoner Leonard Peltier
international | rights and freedoms | feature Friday February 03, 2012 11:00 by Indyjourno with Geri Timmons
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Dallas Thundershield, Bobby Garcia, Rocky Duenas, Standing Deer, and in The Spirit of Total Resistance
Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist was born in 1944 in North Dakota on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. He is the 11th child of 13 children and from his early years suffered racism and brutal poverty at the hands of US government and its officials.
During his childhood, the Eisenhower administration passed a resolution by congress to “terminate” all Indian reservations and “relocate” Native Americans off their land pushing them into cities. This policy was later ruled illegal by US courts. To force Native Americans to leave the reservations, the US government cut off the supply of food and commodities that were promised to the reservations through treaties to recompense them for all the stolen land. Native Americans were now offered a small amount of money to move to inner city slums.
Leonard was 14 at the time and attended meetings with his father. He recalled one Ojibwa lady, a cousin, who stood up angrily and asked in a loud, emotional, tear-filled voice:
"Where are our warriors? Why don't they stand up and fight for their starving people?" "That sent electric vibrations from my scalp all the way down my spine to the soles of my feet," Peltier says. "It was like a revelation to me—that there was actually something worthwhile you could do with your life, something more important than living your own selfish little life day by day. Yes, there was something more important than your poor miserable self: your People. You could actually stand up and fight for them... and as I would come to see in later years, all Indian people, all Indigenous People, all human beings of good heart. I vowed right then and there that I would become a warrior and that I'd always work to help my people. It's a vow I've done my best to keep."
In 1965 Leonard moved to Seattle and became involved in Native American Civil Rights. He then joined the American Indian Movement (AIM), a group founded in 1968 in Minnesota to campaign against poverty, housing, and treaty issues and police harassment.
Leonard’s first confrontation with the power of the US establishment was the occupation of Fort Lawton. On March 8th 1970, a convoy of 100 people under the banner of the United Indians of All Tribes gathered in Seattle and surrounded the Fort Lawton military base which was due to be decommissioned. They proceeded to occupy the base with the stated intent of turning it into an urban Native American cultural centre. The main organiser, Bernie Whitebear stated, “We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Fort Lawton in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.”
The occupiers had expected the base to be deserted but instead a Reserve Military Police were doing weekend drills. The nearby Fort Lewis sent armed troops along with Seattle police and began violently removing the occupiers, including children who were among them, beating them and firing tear gas into the crowd. Once removed, the occupiers were placed in the Forts stockades. Outside the gates, supporters of the occupiers gathered were they would stay for 3 weeks. There was an estimated 500 supporters outside.
On the 12th of March, a 2nd occupation took place. The occupiers were met by Military Police in full riot gear. Once again the occupiers were taken to the Forts stockades. A 3rd and final occupation took place on the 2nd of April, which was, according to Bernie Whitebear “an effort to reaffirm Indian demands that surplus designated Fort Lawton land be turned over for a multipurpose and education centre.” After the final occupation the protest camp was disbanded in anticipation of negotiations.
The occupation received large public support in Seattle. [Public support from the likes of celebrity Jane Fonda whose status helped get national and international attention.] Jesse Jackson who was at the time running for nomination to be the Democratic Presidential candidate became involved in the negotiations. The negotiations were completed in November 1971 and the documented outcome was agreed upon. 20 acres were to be leased for 99 years with options to renew it for successive 99-year leases without renegotiation. Bernie Whitebear ensured that it was a solid agreement “it’s not a treaty. The white man doesn’t keep treaties. It’s a legal, binding, agreement.” On May 13th 1977 the cultural centre opened.
‘Trail of Broken Treaties’
In 1972, 8 Native American organisations came together to organise a cross-country caravan protest to focus national attention on treaty rights, living standards, housing and to encourage the government to support a policy of self determination for Native Americans. A 20-point position paper was drawn up http://www.aimovement.org/ggc/trailofbrokentreaties.html
The caravan began on the west coast of the United States in October 1972, travelling by car, bus and van to Washington D.C. They arrived early November, a week before the Presidential elections, which they were hoping to influence. Upon arriving in Washington, many offers of accommodation by the government were withdrawn with many protestors being forced to stay in rat-infested places. On the 2nd November, the protestors gathered at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) calling for help with the accommodation problem. While negotiations were taking place, police clashed with protestors in the lobby and withdrew from the building. The protestors were left inside and barricaded themselves in. Police surrounded the building, strategically placing snipers on the rooftops looking into the building under occupation. This lasted a week, during which protestors seized a large number of BIA’s confidential files. To end the protest, the U.S. government agreed not to prosecute the occupiers, pay the travel expenses home and negotiate the demands made. The FBI in turn classified AIM as an “extremist organisation” and turned its covert counter intelligence operations (COINTELPRO) attention to ‘neutralizing’ AIM’s leaders.
Returning from the ‘Trail of Broken Treaties’, this new FBI policy was to have an immediate effect on Leonard Peltier’s life, subsequently, several weeks later, he was falsely accused of the attempted murder of a Milwaukee, Wisconsin police officer. Claims that he was set up were eventually supported by witnesses, one of whom was the officers girlfriend who stated that the officer had waved around one of Peltier's pictures, sent to the local police from FBI headquarters, announcing his intention of "catching a big one for the FBI." Leonard spent 5 months in custody before AIM managed to raise the bail money. Released in April 1973, he quickly went underground because there was no expectation that justice would be served on the word of an AIM Native American activist against testimony from two policemen.
Siege of Wounded Knee
Tensions had been building on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation due to the activities of Richard Wilson, the tribal chairman. Wilson had a private paramilitary group called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs) who intimidated and perpetrated violence against Wilson’s opponents, the traditional natives. Wilson desired to maintain his power to insure he was in control of the BIA funding and the negotiations for uranium mining contracts where the United States had a vested interest. The Traditional Native Americans were very much against this, guaranteeing they would not take one more grain from them. After a failed impeachment attempt, Wilson closed the hearing without a trial; several hundred Oglala Lakota activists marched in protest. Four days after the impeachment trial ended, on the 27th of February 1973, with the help of AIM activists the town of Wounded Knee was seized.
The traditional natives held the town for 71 days. The US army, FBI agents and US Marshals surrounded them. US agents set up a roadblock at a radius of 15 miles around Wounded Knee. When the situation at Wounded Knee was nationally publicised, the leaders declared it to be the independent Oglala Nation and appealed for negotiations with the US Secretary of State. They also sought recognition from the United Nations. During the siege, gunfire was exchanged from both sides though the occupiers were only armed with .22's, Shotguns, hunting riffles and one AK-47. US military were equipped with snipers, helicopters, .50-caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, armoured personnel carriers and automatic weapons with over 150,000 rounds of ammunition in a military response that cost over $500,000.
On March the 10th the government took down their roadblocks hoping for the Native American activists to leave. Instead hundreds of supporters arrive in Wounded Knee with food and medical supplies. The reaction from the US government progressively worsened as the siege progressed and after 30 days cut the water, electricity and food supplies. The cutting of the phone lines ensured that publicity decreased. However, Marlon Brando, recently nominated for an Oscar, for his role in the Godfather, sent Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache actress to speak on his behalf. She arrived at the awards ceremony in her traditional native dress. When his name was declared the winner, Littlefeather following Brando’s instructions, rejected the Oscar due to the savage treatment of Native Americans, particularly the events in Wounded Knee. This brought international media attention and rekindled the interest of the national media.
On May 4th after the White House promised to negotiate Fort Laramie Treaty, the occupation ended. Nixon’s administration quickly broke this promise a few days later saying, "The days of treaty making with the American Indians ended in 1871, 102 years ago". Though the US government’s days of treaty breaking still continue. During the 71 days of the siege two Native Americans were killed, 1200 were arrested and 12 people were wounded.
Pine Ridge shooting
In the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Siege, violence increased on the reservation at the hands of Wilson’s private paramilitary GOON’s. There were over 60 unsolved murders. Wilson’s opponents dying violently as the FBI provided the GOON’s with information on AIM activists; one former GOON member reported that the FBI supplied him with armour piercing ammunition. In 1975 Leonard Peltier, as a member of AIM, arrived in Pine Ridge to help the traditional natives and assist in helping reduce the violence. The murder rate between March 1, 1973, and March 1, 1976, was 170 per 100,000, which was the highest in the country at that time.
On 26th June 1975, 2 FBI agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams followed a red pick up truck while they were investigating an earlier robbery. They followed the truck onto a private ranch where over 30 AIM activists had been camping. The Jumping Bull’s were an elderly traditional couple that had indeed invited the AIM activists in hopes of garnering protection from the violence that was happening around the reservation. The agents were in an unmarked car and never identified themselves. A shootout broke out trapping a family with small children in the crossfire. When the shooting stopped the 2 FBI agents lay dead along with a Native American man Joe Stuntz. According to the FBI, the agents had been shot in the head at close range. During the shooting the property had been surrounded by 150 FBI agents, Swat Team members, BIA police and local posse members. Even though these agencies had surrounded the Jumping Bull farm, under a hail of bullets all activist successfully escaped. The ranch was eventually stormed where they discovered Joe Stuntz’s body wearing Coler’s green FBI field jacket.
After the shootout the FBI tried to manipulate the media with false reports about the agents bodies being riddled with bullets and inventing last words that the agents were supposed to have said. The FBI was later forced to retract these false reports that they were spreading. In the aftermath of the shootings Peltier fled to Canada believing he would never receive a fair trial.
Peltier was extradited from Canada on the basis of affidavit signed by a Myrtle Poor Bear who had claimed she was Peltier’s girlfriend of the time and claimed she had seen him shoot the agents. According to Poor Bear, she was taken to a hotel room and coerced into making a statement to the FBI. This affidavit was given the Canadian government and on this information they extradited Leonard back to the United States. Later it was learned that Poor Bear was mentally unstable and the FBI mentally tortured her when she was in their custody. She then admitted she didn’t know Peltier and soon withdrew the allegations claiming coercion and threats from the FBI. However while Leonard was fighting extradition two other Native American activists, Darrelle "Dino" Butler and Bob Robideau, who had been indicted on the same charges were acquitted on the basis of there being no evidence to link the two to the fatal shots; the jury deemed the exchange of gun fire from a distance an act of self-defence. During the trial a witness Mr. Draper admitted his testimony had been changed to suit the prosecutions charges due to him being threatened by FBI agents. Before Peltier’s trial had even begun FBI agents met with the presiding Judge. No minutes were made of what went on during the meeting. Judge Benson’s subsequent rulings were made nearly always in favour of the prosecution. The FBI spread false rumours about “terrorist” attacks that AIM members were planning in the area before the trial. This was a tactic they had tried before the Butler and Robideau trial. Further evidence emerged of the FBI infiltrating the defence support team, which is a clear violation of the US constitution.
The Judge refused to allow testimony from Myrtle Poor Bear whom the FBI had coerced into making a false statement. Evidence was also withheld from the defence team, including ballistics evidence which disproved the prosecutions case. Prosecution witnesses later withdrew their statements claiming FBI threatened them and coerced them into making false statements. Peltier was found guilty by a Jury that was denied all the evidence. The Judge sentenced Peltier to two life sentences. He was subsequently denied a retrial despite the court ruling “There is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defence been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government's case."
He has served over 36 years in prison. He was denied parole in July 2009. His next parole hearing has been scheduled for July 2024; he will be 79 years of age in 2024. Amnesty International has appealed for his release. This Saturday February 4th is International Day of Solidarity with Leonard Peltier. The Ireland for Peltier group has organised a demonstration outside the US Embassy calling for his release. Location: U.S. Embassy, 42 Elgin Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 2. Please come and show your support for this political prisoner. He was innocent then he is innocent now. Obama yes you can!
Caption: Sacheen Littlefeather refusing to accept the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando