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Human Rights

A Sad Anniversary for Native Americans

Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who has been imprisoned for 37 years, still awaits justice.

Last Modified: 22 Apr 2013 08:00
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Native American activist Leonard Peltier has been in prison for 37 years this month, for a crime his supporters say he did not commit. [AP]

"I think I can explain beyond serious doubt, that Leonard Peltier has committed no crime whatsoever," said former US Attourney General Ramsey Clark. "But that if he had been guilty of firing a gun that killed an FBI Agent, it was in defense of not just his people but the integrity of humanity from domination and exploitation."

A new effort is underway on the anniversary of Native American activist Leonard Peltier's conviction to urge President Barack Obama to grant clemency to a man Amnesty International considers to be a "political prisoner" in the United States.

This effort is spearheaded by the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee and joined by his supporters worldwide.

"We no longer have to convince the world of his innocence," Peltier attourney John Privitera told Al Jazeera at a press conference in New York City this past December. "All anyone has to do is read the judicial history of his conviction and incarceration and it is clear that there was a miscarriage of justice."

The judicial history of the Peltier case is fraught with racism, false evidence, coerced testimonies, controversy, and perjury. It is a stain on the judicial system of the United States and has attracted support for Peltier's freedom by such notable figures as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama.

Reign of Terror

It was the mid 1970s on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota during a period which saw the highest per capita murder rate in the country. Most murders went unsolved. Few were ever investigated.

Tribal Council Chairman Richard "Dick" Wilson was elected in 1972. Wilson, viewed as a corrupt administrator who channelled tribal funds to himself while jobs went to his allies, cracked down on the "traditional" people of Pine Ridge, those who valued their indigenous culture, language, and beliefs over more Americanized, western based value systems.

An enthusiastic supporter of signing over native land rights to mining companies, Wilson organized a private militia called 'Guardians of the Oglala Nation' or 'GOONs' to intimidate his political opponents.

At the time, the American Indian Movement (AIM) had been a growing force across the United States standing up for Native American rights, including the upholding of treaties signed by the US Government with the Lakota Nation.

On February 27, 1973, protesting the injustice and conditions on the reservation and bringing attention to the broken treaties, some 200 members of the American Indian Movement and their Oglala Lakota supporters occupied the town of Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge, the site of the 1890 massacre by the US 7th Cavalry which killed at least three hundred unarmed Indians - mostly women and children.

The occupation of Wounded Knee was met by a massive show of force by the FBI, US Marshals, and Tribal Police. Military armoured personnel carriers rumbled down the reservation's roads, and the occupation ended after a 71 day standoff which saw two Indians, Frank Clearwater and Buddy LaMont, killed by gunfire.

What followed was a period on the reservation referred to by those who lived through it as the "reign of terror."

Dick Wilson's tribal government funded GOON squads began a campaign of violence against anyone thought to be an AIM supporter or traditional Oglala Lakota. Entire neighborhoods were shot up, houses were burned, and at least sixty members of AIM or their supporters on the reservation had been found murdered.

The traditional people on the reservation invited AIM to play a more active role in helping protect them from Wilson's gangs. Leonard Peltier was one of those who came to Pine Ridge to help safeguard the community from the violence which engulfed them.

"It was a time of terror for our people, the FBI came to the land of the Oglalas and gave guns and bullets to Indian people,

Tom Poor Bear (left), Oglala Vice President, said "The only thing Leonard [Peltier] is guilty of is carrying the responsibility of our ancestors." [Jason Coppola/Al Jazeera]

to kill other Indian people," Oglala Tribal Vice President Tom Poor Bear told Al Jazeera.

Poor Bear, who has been in AIM since 1972, was in New York City recently speaking up in support of Peltier's release.

"During the reign of terror, a lot of us, like Leonard, set up camps to protect our elders, to protect our children, to protect our spiritual people," Poor Bear added. "The only thing Leonard is guilty of is carrying the responsibility of our ancestors."

It was in this atmosphere that on June 26, 1975, two under cover agents of the FBI drove onto the private property of the Jumping Bull residence where members of AIM had a nearby camp.

Soon after a shootout erupted, with women and children fleeing in the crossfire, FBI Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were killed.

The camp was soon surrounded and came under a hail of gunfire while people continued to flee.

A third death, that of Native American Joe Stuntz, shot through the head by a sniper's bullet, has yet to be investigated.

After one of the largest manhunts in FBI history, Peltier, who was at the AIM camp on that day, was arrested in February 1976 in Canada and accused of killing the agents.

Dino Butler and Robert Robideau, arrested in the United States, were also charged with the killings. However, both of them were acquitted of these charges by a federal jury in Cedar Rapids,Iowa, on the grounds of self-defense.

The jury decided that had they been among what was reported to be up to thirty or so involved in the shoot out, and had they been the ones who fired on and killed the agents, due to the fear and violence in the community at that time, those acts would have been justified.

Nevertheless, the FBI was determined to hold someone accountable for the deaths of their agents and turned their focus to Peltier.

Peltier was extradited to the United States for trial based on an affidavit signed by a young Native American woman named Myrtle Poor Bear who stated that she was Peltier's girlfriend at the time and had been a witness to the killings.

Myrtle Poor Bear, known to have been mentally unstable, later recanted, admitting that she had never met Peltier but was threatened into making the incriminating statements by the FBI.

The court in Peltier's case barred her from testifying about FBI misconduct on the grounds of her "incompetence."

The court also prohibited Peltier from using "self-defense," as Butler and Robideau did successfully in Cedar Rapids, as his own defense.

Scare Tactics

During the Peltier trial, the airwaves were filled by media reports of imminent terrorist attacks and kidnappings that were supposedly to be carried out by AIM groups. Jury members were escorted to and from the court house by SWAT teams in busses with blacked out windows.

The fear this generated paid off for the prosecution. Despite failing to produce a single eyewitness to the killings, the prosecution prevailed and on April 19, 1977, the all white jury in Fargo, North Dakota, convicted Leonard Peltier, sentencing him to two consecutive life terms.

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit years later turned up a ballistics report which revealed that the gun which the prosecution tied to Peltier during the trial did not produce the shell casings found at the scene. The report had been concealed during the trial.

Regardless, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling even though US prosecutor Lynn Crooks had admitted, "no one knows who fired the fatal shots" that killed the agents.

In fact, during the appeal, according to Peltier defense committee member Dorothy Ninham of the Oneida Nation, when confronted with the lack of evidence the court informed Peltier that he wasn't being held for the 'first degree murder' charge but for 'aiding and abetting'; a crime for which Peltier had not been extradited for, charged with, or convicted of.

The Spirit of Crazy Horse

The details of the Peltier case and the importance of its historical context were carefully presented in the best selling book, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, the Leonard Peltier Story" by Peter Matthiessen, as well as in Robert Redford's documentary, "Incident at Oglala".

This context could not be more clear to Ninham, who told to Al Jazeera, "This is not about one day on Pine Ridge and this is not about two FBI agents being murdered. This is about a whole lot more and goes back over a hundred years since we've been fighting with the government."

"They are holding Leonard for two people," Ninham, who posed numerous unanswered questions, added. "What about the 60 murders that happened on that reservation during the "reign of terror?" Who did any time for them? Who even accounted for those murders? Why wasn't a ballistics test done to see who killed Joe Stuntz? What about at Wounded Knee when they [government agents] shot into the church and killed Frank Clearwater?"

"It is just incredible the amount of injustice that has happened to him [Peltier] in his lifetime," Ninham adds. "I know Leonard. I know the kind of person he is. I've worked with him. I know that he is not capable of murder."

"We want people of all races to get involved with this", says Ninham. "We want to remind people that as long as Leonard is not free, none of us are free. I don't know how the United States can sit with this black eye and then talk about human rights in other countries when we are failing to take care of our own issues here."

From Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota, then put into an Indian boarding school as a child, Peltier, who is Anishinabe and Lakota, is thought of by most who know him as just a regular guy with a strong desire to help his people, whether it be defending treaty rights or fixing people's cars.

Peltier, the symbol, has grown since his conviction, and he is now regularly compared to great leaders like Crazy Hourse and Sitting Bull, two legendary Lakota leaders whose lives continue to inspire.

Representing an Idea

The idea Peltier now represents, according to his spiritual advisor Lenny Foster, is that of Indigenous Peoples' struggle and resistance around the world.

"He's locked up and in essence we are all locked up doing time with him", Foster told Al Jazeera.

Lenny Foster, spiritual adviser of jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier, has been prohibited by the US government from seeing Peltier [Jason Coppola/Al Jazeera]

"As long as he's treated like a political prisoner, we indigenous people are also treated this way. Not having our treaty rights and our sovereignty rights and our freedom of worship being recognised, I think Leonard is a symbol of all of that," added Foster. "For what he represents and what he symbolizes, they want to punish him."

A Dine/Navajo, Foster is a volunteer spiritual advisor for Native American inmates in state prisons and federal penitentiaries. He has been a strong advocate for traditional ceremonies for Native American prisoners, more than 2,000 of whom he has come in contact with while visiting 96 correctional facilities over 30 years in order to conduct sweat lodge ceremonies, pipe ceremonies, and cell side visits.

"I started visiting Leonard Peltier in the Leavenworth US Penitentiary, and eventually moved on to the US Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania," said Foster. "I know Leonard Peltier to be a Revered Elder, and he is a very reverent and spiritual person. He's not some gangster or some gang banger. That's what the federal bureau of prisons wants you to believe."

In seeming disregard for the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, an Act which safeguarded the right of Native Americans in the US to practice their religion, even if incarcerated, Peltier has been denied visits from Foster since being transferred to Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, a maximum security prison in Coleman, Florida in 2011.

The reason?

Because Foster is a "friend" of Peltier.

"I raised the issue with the chaplain," said Foster. "That if I were a priest, minister, or rabbi, and had known an inmate for thirty years wouldn't I be somehow friends and have a relationship? But he wouldn't budge on it. The US prison system, when you think about it, is designed to break your spirit, to break your will, to break you down and make you give up. They've tried for thirty seven years to break Leonard's spirit and they haven't done it."

With the incarceration of Leonard Peltier, the US government's battle against him has not ended. As a prisoner in the US penal system, Peltier has endured beatings and solitary confinement.

He also has diabetes, high blood pressure, has suffered a stroke and, accoriding to his lawyers, been denied sufficient medical treatment.

Exemplar of Justice?

As the United States fashions itself as a global leader in human rights advancement, Leonard Peltier's freedom cannot be overlooked.

"I want you to realize there are millions of people throughout the world who are aware of Leonard's case of injustice", Attourney Peter Grant, who is Peltier's lawyer, told Al Jazeera. "They have to be reminded of this. Every diplomat, every world leader knows it is a ball and chain on the President's ability to speak about human rights. It affects his credibility."

Peltier has been Grant's client for decades now.

"We have to reignite the fact of the injustice done to Leonard", Grant added. "We have to keep not only local pressure on the President from people here in the United States, from people on this continent, from people throughout Indian country, we have to keep human rights pressure throughout the world on this president because he has no credibility on those issues until he breaks this ball and chain on his own ankle."

At the New York press conference, Privitera read an appeal to President Barack Obama.

"Mr President, we appeal directly to you. As a legal scholar, you know that article two, section two of our constitution is one of the strong threads in the fabric of our justice system. It is a responsibility born by the executive. It embraces the power to deliver justice, to exercise mercy, and to be wise in that law given power."

"This is an historic opportunity, Mr. President, to infuse your legacy with soulfulness and wisdom", he read. "We ask only that you commute the sentence of Leonard Peltier. No further findings have to be made. Commute him after thirty seven years of imprisonment. You have clemency power to say, and we ask that you do it now, that justice has been served by time, sir. And it's time to return Leonard home to his community to work and die on Turtle Mountain."

Having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times himself while incarcerated, Peltier must hope Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama is listening.

Emphasizing the urgency, Privitera continued, "Mr President, this case cries out for mercy. It is time to reveal and exercise your power and wisdom judiciously and we plead today that you commute Leonard Peltier's sentence. Be merciful. Be wise. Use your power. Bring Leonard Peltier home."

Until that happens, Leonard Peltier and his supporters around the world continue to wait.

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