(MintPress) – More than a century has passed since the fierce battles between Native Americans fighting for their land in the face of European settlement, yet the wounds and conflict live on, represented today through Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist considered America’s foremost political prisoner. In 1977, Peltier, a member of the American Indian […]
(MintPress) – More than a century has passed since the fierce battles between Native Americans fighting for their land in the face of European settlement, yet the wounds and conflict live on, represented today through Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist considered America’s foremost political prisoner.
In 1977, Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), was convicted on two counts of murder for the death of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officers — a claim he has denied for more than 20 years. His alleged crimes carry a penalty of two consecutive life sentences, of which he has begun to serve at a Pennsylvania penitentiary.
Peltier’s conviction stems from a standoff at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975 — a conflict that culminated from three years of tension among AIM and FBI officials who had occupied their reservation for “surveillance” purposes, citing the likelihood of revolt by AIM members and supporters upset over the broken treaty of 1868. The treaty guaranteed them the land of the Black Hills.
Two other men arrested on that day, Bob Robideau and Darrell Butler, were eventually acquitted under self-defense arguments, as the standoff had begun when AIM members were surrounded by more than 150 law enforcement officials.
Despite decades of pleas for pardon and retrial, Peltier remains a prisoner. Freedom of Information Act requests have debunked evidence presented in the trial, witnesses have stepped forth decanting their initial stories and thousands of FBI documents have been withheld from those seeking justice for Peltier.
His story has provoked works of literature, including the book, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” penned by Peter Matthiessen. Director Robert Redford highlight Peltier in the 1992 documentary, “Incident at Oglala.” His case has become a cause for activists around the nation, crying out against an unfair trial that has stolen decades from a man, without sufficient evidence to prove guilt.
This week, activists from throughout the nation will gather once again in support of Peltier, hosting a concert featuring prominent musicians Pete Seeger, Common and Jackson Browne at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Their collective request for clemency will be one directed at President Barack Obama. If granted, he would be the first president to stand alongside human rights organizations in recognition of a severely flawed trial.
Lawyers, human rights organizations: The charges should not stand
For decades, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Southern Christian Leadership Council, have scoffed at what they refer to as unfair trial permitted to Peltier — one absent of an eyewitness and rife with falsified evidence and dishonest testimonies, said to have been provoked by the FBI.
Others who had signed petitions for Peltier’s release have included the late Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Winona LaDuke, the Dalai Lama and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others.
Peltier was arrested while in Canada, two years after the alleged crime, based on testimony by a woman claiming to be his former girlfriend. Myrtle Poor Bear testified to the FBI that she witnessed Peltier shoot the FBI agents, yet she later claimed that she was threatened to do so. She did not testify in Peltier’s trial.
According to the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, no witnesses of Peltier’s alleged crimes exist. Three men who testified in court that they had seen Peltier near the crime scene have since recanted their accounts, claiming the FBI had threatened and intimidated them.
There was also an issue with the expert testimony linking Peltier to the weapon. According to the Committee, FBI ballistic expert Evan Hodge withheld information during the trial. Discovered after the trial through Freedom of Information requests, reports show that Hodge’s first attempt to connect Peltier to the weapon was inconsistent. It wasn’t until the second look that Hodge determined a match. The first finding, however, was withheld from court proceedings.
Among other issues listed by the Committee was the absence of context provided to the jury. At no point was the jury made aware of the FBI’s numerous arrests on the reservation, most of which did not include enough evidence to hold up in court.
The ‘Reign of Terror’ at Pine Ridge
The entire scenario surrounding the death of the two FBI agents in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is mirrored in controversy.
AIM was initially formed by a group of Native American activists whose list of grievances included the broken promise of the Ft. Laramie treaty of 1868, which originally awarded the Black Hills of Dakota to the Sioux people.
Not even a decade after the treaty had passed, the U.S. moved into the area, citing the need to mine gold in the region. The U.S. Army was dispatched to forcibly take hold of the land, leading to the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, considered a victory for the Sioux people. However, in 1877, the land was taken back by the U.S. government.
In the 1970s, that issue had remained of concern for Native Americans, Peltier included.
“Their goal was to protest injustices against their tribes, violations of the many treaties, and current abuses and repression against their people,” the Defense Committee states in its plea to Congress. “The United States government responded with a military style assault against the protesters. In the end, various officials promised hearings on local conditions and treaty violations. These hearings were never convened.”
The occupation persisted for three years and included more than 500 arrests of AIM supporters. As documented by the Defense Committee, only 15 of those arrests resulted in convictions. It’s estimated that some 60 Native Americans died throughout the three-year occupation.
A plea for pardon
Since Peltier’s arrest and imprisonment, activists throughout the nation have called on president after president to issue a pardon.
Many activists thought they were close to victory in 2000, when then-President Bill Clinton promised to take Peltier’s case into close consideration. In an interview that year with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, Clinton said he would take all sides into consideration.
“I don’t have a position I can announce yet,” Clinton told Goodman in 2000. “I think, I believe, there is a new application for him in there and when I have time, after the election is over, I’m going to review all the remaining executive clemency applications, and, you know, see what the merits dictate. I will try to do what I think the right thing to do is, based on the evidence.”
In the end, Clinton did not pardon Peltier, to the dismay of activists and Native Americans across the country who felt that a pardon would provide an element of healing within their communities.
Now, activists are looking to Obama, in the hopes that he will take into consideration the recommendations of the world’s leading human rights organizations and activists in their plea of freedom for Peltier.