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Leonard Peltier: A Warrior Behind Bars

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Editor’s Note: When editor-in-chief Dan Skye applied to the US Prison System to visit Leonard Peltier behind bars, it was necessary for him to use his real name, which is Malcolm MacKinnon.  For that reason, Malcolm MacKinnon is the byline that appears on this feature in the December 2016 issue of HIGH TIMES.

In the final months of his presidency, Barack Obama can correct one of America’s worst miscarriages of justice by freeing Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist who has been wrongly imprisoned for almost 40 years for the murder of two FBI agents. HIGH TIMES visits Peltier in prison and reviews the outrageous history of his case.

July 4, 2016: USP Coleman I, Florida

I’m sitting in the visitors’ waiting room of the high-security federal prison in Coleman, Florida. Groups of women and their children are scattered around the room. The kids color with crayons and paper provided by the institution. The moms wait patiently, veterans of the unhappy routine of entering prison to visit the men in their lives.

I’m here to see Leonard Peltier, who is far from his North Dakota homeland. An Anishinabe-Lakota American Indian, Peltier has spent nearly 40 years behind bars. How he got here is one of the most shameful chapters in US history—and it’s not over yet.

Accompanying me are Kari Ann Peltier and Jean Roach. Kari Ann is Leonard’s niece and helps run his defense committee. Jean’s relationship to Leonard is special: She was there on the day in June 1975 that two FBI agents were killed during a horrific shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Oglala, South Dakota—the beginning of Peltier’s long, troubled journey.

 Dan Skye, Kari Ann Peltier and Jean Roach visited Peltier in prison in July.

Dan Skye, Kari Ann Peltier and Jean Roach visited Peltier in prison in July.

June 26, 1975: Oglala, South Dakota

Yesterday, June 25, was the 99th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, when General George Armstrong Custer and his cavalry were wiped out after attacking an Indian village. However, the victory marked the beginning of the end for the Plains Tribes and their freedom. The US government engaged in a scorched-earth campaign to wipe out the remaining Native resistance to the encroachment of white settlers. A year later, the great leader Crazy Horse surrendered, and the subjugation of the Lakota and the other Plains Tribes began in earnest.

In later years, June 25 would be declared a tribal holiday, but it wasn’t celebrated yesterday. A virtual state of war exists these days on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the homeland of the Oglala Lakota, an area that encompasses 3,500 square miles, with a population of about 12,000.

Perhaps it was inevitable; the scars run deep here. The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 happened on Pine Ridge. As many as 300 Indians were gunned down in the dead of winter; half of the victims were women and children.

In 1975, the past has become the present. Nationwide, tribal identity is being proudly reclaimed, and protests against the ruinous federal policies that have shattered tribal life and resulted in widespread poverty are mounting. The American Indian Movement (AIM), which took root in the late 1960s, has been the catalyst for this change, with a new generation of warriors—male and female—vowing to regain their sovereignty.

But what is a warrior? Essentially, it’s someone prepared to defend one’s own people from harm. A warrior is a protector. And today, Leonard Peltier is here on Pine Ridge.

The gunfire erupted just before noon on that late-June day in 1975. At the time, Jean was 14. She’d been camping with about 30 others on the land of Calvin Jumping Bull in Oglala, a small village on the Pine Ridge reservation. The ranch and farm included four residences where families lived, all situated on the flatlands below the bluffs where Highway 18 runs.

Calvin Jumping Bull had reached out to AIM for protection. By the early 1970s, the reservation had become a hotbed of intertribal warfare. In 1973, AIM activists had taken over the village of Wounded Knee for 71 days, drawing international media attention to the plight of Indians in the United States and exposing the corruption of tribal chairman Richard Wilson on the Pine Ridge reservation. The defiance displayed during the occupation of Wounded Knee inspired Indians across America, but in the ensuing two years, the conditions at Pine Ridge only got worse.

Wilson was determined to hang on to power. He’d been accused of favoring friends and family with jobs and intimidating political opponents. Wilson employed a private militia, the so-called GOON (Guardians of the Oglala Nation), to terrorize the opposition. “Traditionals”—those who embraced their Native identity and demanded change—were his primary detractors. They distrusted the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, which backed Wilson, and denounced federal programs.

But speaking out came with a terrible price. The traditionals were targeted by Wilson’s GOON squads. Shootings became commonplace, and the murder rate on the reservation soared to become the highest in the US. A heavy FBI presence had also descended on the reservation, determined that another Wounded Knee–style standoff would never occur again. The Feds deemed AIM to be as dangerous as the Black Panthers or the Weather Underground. AIM members were being tracked relentlessly. Pine Ridge was on edge.

The level of anxiety throughout the reservation necessitated extraordinary measures of protection. AIM had responded to that call, but the fact is that most of the people camping in tents by the creek that morning were young people in their teens. They were preparing for a local Sun Dance and handling security—and, yes, they were armed.

July 4, 2016: USP Coleman I, Florida

“I was scared, but probably not as scared as I should have been,” Jean Roach tells me. “I’d heard shooting before. So when it started, I wasn’t all that surprised—I just ran.”

Jean, Kari Ann and I move through the prison checkpoints and are escorted to the meeting area for inmates and their visitors. No pencils, pens or paper are allowed here. No recording equipment either, but I don’t mind—it makes the conversation more informal.

Leonard arrives in a line of prisoners who have visitors scheduled for today. They’re all clad in yellow jumpsuits. After the guards grant permission, he moves across the room quickly and gives me a hug. Leonard is all smiles. We’ve exchanged letters for years, but I’m unprepared for the warmth of his greeting and his level of energy.

At 72, Leonard has his share of health problems: prostate issues, diabetes, complications with his jaw from a childhood bout with tetanus. Most troubling is an abdominal aortic aneurism, a serious condition that requires surgery—if it bursts, he’ll die. Concerns over the state of his health have led to increased calls for a presidential pardon, which is why I’m here. Leonard seems genuinely pleased that HIGH TIMES is joining the push for his clemency. But I’m the one who feels honored.

During nearly four decades of imprisonment, Leonard Peltier has become a formidable activist and the world’s most famous Native American. His work on behalf of indigenous people throughout North America—including health-care delivery on reservations, emergency food drives, and the advocacy of peaceful resolutions between tribes at odds with each other—has earned him a number of awards for humanitarian work, including four nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But his achievements are overshadowed by what happened in Oglala on that summer morning 41 years ago—an event that placed him at the center of a centuries-old maelstrom spawned by the trail of Indian treaties broken by the United States and its role in cultural genocide.

“They told so many lies about the people who were there that day,” Leonard says with a laugh. “The news called it the Jumping Bull ‘compound.’ Compound! Like we were a paramilitary group.”

June 26, 1975: Oglala, South Dakota

It’s about 11 a.m. In separate cars, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, tail a red pickup truck on Highway 18 in Oglala. They believe the driver is a young man named Jimmy Eagle, who is wanted for questioning in the theft of a pair of cowboy boots.

The pickup suddenly veers off the road and speeds down the hill onto the Jumping Bull property. The agents decide to pursue it. Then the truck comes to an abrupt halt. The agents stop too, and a gun battle breaks out.

Peltier’s camp is about a quarter-mile from the Jumping Bull houses, situated along the creek. “We had no idea who they were,” Leonard recalls now regarding the FBI agents. “We heard the firing, grabbed our rifles and took off running.”

It has never been clear who shot first, but at the end of the firefight, Coler and Williams lie dead, shot at close range after being seriously wounded. The tragedy is the direct result of the climate of fear pervading Pine Ridge: The Indians believe that the occupants of the two cars have arrived to kill them. The FBI agents’ cars are unmarked, and they never identified themselves.

However, Williams was in radio contact with a local dispatch as the two agents pursued the pickup, and followed that up with a call for help once they came under fire. In no time, the Feds respond in multiple cars. A new gun battle erupts, and a young Indian, Joe Stuntz, is killed. But despite the subsequent massive mobilization of law enforcement to capture the Indians involved in the shootout, they manage to escape.

July 4, 2016: USP Coleman I, Florida

Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences for the murder of Coler and Williams. But the details of his trial—in which the government clearly manipulated evidence and coerced witnesses—demonstrate an appalling perversion of the justice system.

In the wake of the uproar over the agents’ deaths, Peltier fled to Canada. Two other Indians present at the shootout were later apprehended: Bob Robideau and Dino Butler. They stood trial in 1977, charged with aiding and abetting the murder of Coler and Williams, but were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.

Peltier was arrested in Canada in February 1976 and extradited to the US later that year. The Feds, who were stunned by their failure to secure convictions in the trial of Robideau and Butler, were dead-set on making someone from AIM pay for the murders. According to an internal memo released after the trial, the FBI and prosecutors agreed to use the “full prosecutive weight of the federal government” to nail Leonard Peltier.

The trial took place in 1977. The judge ruled that Leonard couldn’t use the self-defense arguments made by Robideau and Butler. He also ruled that testimony about Dick Wilson’s GOON squads and the violence at Pine Ridge was inadmissible. Important ballistics evidence was withheld from the defense. Additionally, the red pickup truck that the agents had chased onto the Jumping Bull property now became a “red and white van,” which conveniently matched the vehicle that Peltier drove.

There was no eyewitness testimony that Leonard shot the FBI agents. There was no eyewitness testimony that even placed him at the scene before the murders happened. The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee has been demanding a re-examination of the case for decades.

A 1999 letter to the members of Congress states angrily: “The only evidence against Mr. Peltier is the fact that he was present at the Jumping Bull ranch during the fatal shootout. There were [many] others there that day as well. Yet Mr. Peltier is the only one who was ever sentenced and imprisoned. The FBI and other officials clearly singled out Leonard Peltier as a scapegoat, and forced him to pay the collective price for the killings, which occurred despite the lack of evidence against him. Personalized vengeance of this kind in US officials cannot be tolerated.”

Over the course of his long imprisonment, Leonard’s appeals have been consistently denied, despite court findings of a “clear abuse of the investigative process by the FBI.” In later years, the prosecutors have even admitted that they can’t state with any certainty who fired the fatal shots.

(Although Peltier and others present at the shootout say they know the identity of the killer, who was in the red pickup truck that day, they steadfastly refuse to name him. The shooter has said that it was not his intention to kill the agents: Both were severely wounded in the gun battle, and when he approached the injured men, one raised his handgun in an attempt to shoot him. The shooter says he simply reacted and fired back, killing both.)

These days, Leonard’s appeals process has been exhausted. He was denied parole in 1998 and 2009, and his next scheduled parole hearing won’t happen until 2024. That means his only realistic hope for getting out of prison before he dies is a presidential pardon.

At the end of his own term in office, Bill Clinton pledged to give clemency for Leonard an “honest look-see,” but he quickly backtracked after furious protests from the FBI. Clinton did, however, pardon shady billionaire Marc Rich, who made most of his $2 billion selling oil to the apartheid regime in South Africa when it faced a UN embargo, and whose clients also included North Korea and Libya. (The New York Times called it a “shocking abuse of presidential power.”) Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, denied Leonard a pardon as well.

For years, the handling of Leonard’s case has been harshly criticized in the US and internationally. Countless world leaders have decried his treatment, and prominent humanitarian organizations have demanded justice for him. Essentially, Leonard—who was severely beaten in prison in 2009—has become a living martyr.

Naturally, his spirits are riding a seesaw. Kari Ann tries to bolster them by making plans for a new home on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota, just below the Canadian border.

In prison, Leonard has become an accomplished painter, and his artwork is highly valued. “Man, I dream of just being able to paint,” he muses. “Go to sleep when I want, get up when I want, eat when I want. Try to enjoy what’s left for me. Talk to the little children—be an elder for my people.”

“But it’s been over 40 years,” Kari Ann tells me. “Uncle worries that people might forget or get complacent. He needs the support of the people. He needs everyone’s help.”

Please visit whoisleonardpeltier.info. Sign the petition. Demand that President Obama and your federal legislators and demand clemency. Call the White House comment line: (202) 456-1111. To learn more, watch the excellent film Incident at Oglala or read Peter Matthiessen’s essential book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Leonard’s art can be seen here.

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