Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist who has been in prison for 45 years for supposedly shooting two FBI agents during a shootout on a reservation – despite the government failing to provide any evidence that it was in fact him who shot the agents.

He has always denied that it was him who shot them, even when admitting it was would’ve made him eligible for parole. There are a lot of people now clamouring for his sentence to be commuted, because being fairly elderly (78) and in poor health he meets the criteria. The US Government has thus far refused.

As a child, Peltier was forcibly removed from his family and sent to a boarding school in North Dakota – part of a strategy the US used to try to erase Indigenous culture and identity. In the 1960s and 70s, he was a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an activist group struggling against the oppression of Indigenous people. (This was also in a context where the US government was de-listing hundreds of Indigenous tribes and stripping federal protected status from numerous “reserves” to open up the land for privatisation and resource extraction – the Indigenous people themselves, they pushed to migrate to inner-city areas where they faced poverty and discrimination.) The AIM also led a series of takeovers of Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in 1970, in protest at discriminatory hiring practices that preferred white employees over Indigenous ones. In 1973 a conflict emerged at the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation, between the corrupt tribal council and Indigenous activists calling for the corrupt council to be abolished and replaced with the traditional Lakota form of government, and the reinstation of the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty. Peltier, and the AIM, was on the side of this latter group. Starting in late February 1973, the AIM along with “dissident” Oglalas (those who didn’t support their council) began a takeover of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, within the reservation; this takeover lasted 71 days. After this ended, the corrupt council retaliated with a harsh crackdown on the people they governed.

The shootout that Peltier was convicted over occurred in 1975, on this same reservation. The FBI had been preparing for a kind of “war” here, as evidenced by their own documentation. They’d been thoroughly repressive, with a US Commission on Human Rights investigation describing their behaviour as a “reign of terror”. On 25 June 1975, FBI agents came onto the reservation without identifying themselves, supposedly to carry out some arrests. A gunfight broke out between them and Indigenous activists there. Three people were killed – two FBI agents and a young Indigenous man, whose killer was never identified or prosecuted. Peltier and his group went on the run, but they were eventually caught, and prosecutors seized the opportunity to have them put away. Peltier’s codefendants were actually acquitted (by an all-white jury!) on the basis of self-defence because of the overwhelming evidence they supplied about the FBI’s oppression. But Peltier himself was tried separately, in a more hostile location with a more hostile judge (who disallowed important evidence, like ballistics evidence as well as the context of FBI intimidation, that would’ve helped Peltier’s case). He had fled to Canada, but was extradited back on the basis of false testimony given by a women who claimed to have been his girlfriend at the time of the shooting, but in fact had never met him (she later said she’d given this false testimony because the FBI had coerced and threatened her). Peltier was duly convicted of two murders, and sentenced to consecutive life sentences. On appeal, the US state changed their story from the claim that Peltier had personally shot the agents to the line that he’d “aided and abetted” the true killers (who, remember, had been acquitted on the basis of self-defence – so this position was legally nonsensical, because how do you aid and abet self-defence?). Now, as of 2021, the US government claims his conviction rests on the fact that he was physically present and had a gun.

On 20 July 1979 he briefly escaped from Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution in California.

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