November 25, 2008
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Leonard Peltier and The New Indian Wars
The Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge reservation commonly refer to the three years following the
1973 armed standoff at the village of Wounded Knee as the "Reign of Terror."
By some estimates, about 60 supporters of the American Indian Movement insurrection were murdered
or disappeared during that period, most of them at the hands of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)
tribal police and a private security force organized by tribal President Dick Wilson.
Wilson was a prototypical colonial dictator who despised traditional Lakota culture and renounced
century-old claims to tribal land and sovereignty reserved under unfulfilled treaties with the
United States government. His enforcers proudly accepted the derogatory label of goons, adopting
the term as an abbreviation for Guardians of the Oglala Nation.
The blustering Wilson answered to no one but the U.S. government, which, according to former FBI
regional director Joseph Trimbach, felt compelled on occasion to restrain its client from acting
out his bloody fantasy of crushing all resistance to his regime. The FBI was anything but a neutral party.
One of the victims of Wilson's security apparatus was 15-year-old Sandra Wounded Foot, whose body
was found in the summer of 1976, naked and bound to a barbed wire fence with two gunshot wounds
to her head. Before she was killed, she was raped and apparently tortured.
Her assailant was Paul Duane Herman, a Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officer. Herman
was charged with manslaughter and served less than four years of a 10-year federal sentence.
But most of the deaths of AIM activists and supporters were never fully investigated by the FBI
and remain unsolved to this day.
Pedro Bissonnette was among the most prominent victims. Bissonnette was a leader of the Oglala
Sioux Civil Rights Organization, which had invited AIM to the reservation to defend the Oglala
from the abuses and treachery of the Wilson regime.
There is no mystery about the cause of Bissonette's 1973 death; he was killed by a shotgun blast
to the chest fired by a BIA officer who stopped him on a fugitive warrant for his role in the
Wounded Knee occupation.
While there is considerable reason to doubt that Bissonette was armed, as claimed by the BIA, a
grand jury declined to indict officer Joe Clifford on civil rights charges.
Even more disturbing is the case of Jancita Eagle Deer and her aunt Delphine Crow Dog, also the
sister of a leading Oglala spiritual leader of AIM, Leonard Crow Dog.
As a 15-year-old student at an Indian boarding school on the Rosebud reservation, Eagle Deer had
reported that she was raped by then-tribal attorney William Janklow. Although a BIA investigator
had recommended Janklow’s prosecution, the FBI failed to act on the charge.
Seven years later, in September of 1974, when Janklow was serving as an assistant attorney general
for South Dakota, AIM activist Dennis Banks and his assistant Douglass Durham, who turned out to
be an FBI informant, tracked down Eagle Deer to testify against Janklow in Rosebud tribal court.
Although the tribal court lacked criminal jurisdiction over Janklow as a non-Indian under the
racist dictates of federal Indian law, the court upheld the validity of the charges by disbarring
Janklow from the reservation court.
On Nov. 16, 1974, Eagle Deer's aunt was beaten unconscious by BIA police and left to die in a field.
Less than six months later, Eagle Deer herself, last seen by AIM members in the company of Durham
as he fled from the emerging revelation that he was an FBI informant, was killed by a car she
had apparently tried to flag down. Eagle Deer was reportedly in a semiconscious state, possibly
from a severe beating. Neither Eagle Deer's death, nor that of Crow Dog, was investigated by the FBI.
Janklow, who went on to be elected attorney general and then governor of South Dakota as an
inveterate Indian fighter, sued noted author Peter Matthiessen for airing the allegations against
him in what remains the definitive account of the period in his book, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse."
While Janklow failed to win a single judgment in his favor in state or federal court, his lawsuit,
along with a separate suit by FBI agent David Price, blocked publication of the book for nine years
and cost the publisher more than $2 million in legal fees.
Toward the end of President Clinton's second term, the FBI sought to clear its name of inaction
on the 64 suspicious Pine Ridge deaths claimed by AIM supporters.
The agency produced a report on the deaths that, if anything, accentuates the need for a
comprehensive, independent investigation of the cases and of the role of the FBI and BIA in the
By the FBI's own accounting, at least 17 of the deaths remain unsolved or uninvestigated.
There were five murder convictions, 13 manslaughter convictions, three acquittals, and 15 cases
in which there was (allegedly) insufficient evidence of foul play or of the suspects' culpability.
In a number of the latter cases, in particular, the findings raise questions on their face.
For instance, 81-year-old Hilda Good Buffalo was found dead in her home from carbon monoxide
poisoning from a fire, with a stab wound to her neck. A federal grand jury found the crime
"nonfelonious," returning no indictment.
Several of the deaths were attributed to exposure, although some of the subjects were reportedly
beaten, a finding which may be technically accurate but far from satisfactory.
The FBI's report on the Pine Ridge murders of the 1970s was part of an ultimately successful
campaign by past and present FBI agents to prevent Clinton from issuing a pardon of Leonard Peltier.
Peltier was an AIM activist from the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota convicted of
first-degree murder for the death of two FBI agents after a shootout with AIM members on Pine
Ridge in 1975.
AIM member Joe Stuntz was also killed in the June 26, 1975 gunfight.
Peltier, one of four Natives charged in the case, escaped to Canada on the basis of what proved
to be a well-founded suspicion that he would not receive a fair trial.
After two of his codefendants, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, were acquitted in 1976 on grounds
of self-defense, the government dropped charges against the fourth defendant, Eagle, "so that
the full prosecutive weight of the Federal Government could be directed against Leonard Peltier,"
according to an FBI memo of Aug. 9, 1976.
Peltier was extradited from Canada based on testimony, subsequently retracted, by an allegedly
mentally unstable woman, Myrtle Poor Bear. Poor Bear initially claimed not to have been present
during the shootout, but she subsequently claimed to have been Peltier's girlfriend and to have
witnessed him shoot the agents at close range.
Like several other actual and potential witnesses, Poor Bear later asserted that she had been
threatened by FBI investigators. At the last minute, Poor Bear was withdrawn as a government
witness in the Robideau-Butler trial, lending credence to claims that the government knew her
testimony was false from the start.
For unexplained reasons, federal judge Alfred Nichol, who had dismissed charges against AIM
leaders in the 1974 Wounded Knee trial, withdrew from the Peltier case and it was reassigned to
Judge Paul Benson.
Benson, a former attorney general of North Dakota, transferred the case from Sioux Falls to Fargo.
Defense attorneys in the case have asserted that the government had maneuvered to find a more
sympathetic judge and that the Fargo venue was selected due to its reputation for anti-Indian prejudice.
Benson quickly showed his partiality by forbidding any discussion of the false evidence used to
secure Peltier's extradition, of the acquittal of Peltier's codefendants, of FBI efforts to
neutralize AIM through harassment and intimidation, or of the rampant violence on Pine Ridge
that would have at least provided a context for the 1975 shootout.
Unlike his codefendants, Peltier would not be allowed to present an argument based on self-defense.
In a climate of fear and intimidation, the all-white jury convicted Peltier, and Benson sentenced
him to two consecutive life terms in prison.
I contacted two jurors from the Peltier trial, but neither would discuss the case. One said she
had never talked about the trial with anyone for the last 31 years, admitting that she was
afraid to do so.
Another juror refused rather brusquely to discuss the case, which she viewed as "water under the
bridge." The latter hung up on me when I asked if she ever had any doubts about the verdict.
Peltier's conviction was controversial from the start, attracting support for his defense effort
from individuals and groups around the world.
But his defense effort gained real momentum after his Freedom of Information request revealed
in 1981 that the government had suppressed an Oct. 2, 1975 teletype stating in part that
Peltier's rifle "contains different firing pin than that in rifle used at resmurs (reservation
Religious leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Desmond Tutu, Rev. Jesse Jackson, the
Dalai Lama, and 8 Episcopal Bishops (including the bishops of North and South Dakota) joined 55
members of Congress, 26 members of the Canadian parliament, Amnesty International and many others
in calling for a new trial for Leonard Peltier.
By 1985 federal prosecutor Lynn Crooks was conceding that the government did not know who fired
the close-range shots that claimed the lives of agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams.
But there was to be no new trial.
While finding evidence of misconduct on the part of the government, the appeals court said it
was insufficient to overturn Judge Benson's ruling sustaining the guilty verdict.
"We recognize that there is evidence in this record of improper conduct on the part of some FBI
agents, but we are reluctant to impute even further improprieties to them," the 8th Circuit
Court of Appeals wrote.
The judge who wrote the opinion, Gerald Heaney, later expressed regret for a decision he said
was required by Supreme Court precedent.
In calling for Peltier's release as a gesture of reconciliation with Native peoples, Heaney
admitted the "possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and
data improperly withheld been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the
inconsistences casting strong doubts upon the government's case."
The U.S. Supreme Court has nevertheless refused to hear the case.
Today, Leonard Peltier is a 64-year-old great-grandfather who has spent more than half his life
in a federal cell.
He probably could have been paroled long ago if he had confessed to the crime, a gesture that
would not only exonerate the government but also be perceived as the psychological conquest of
a man who is a hero in the Native community, a symbol of Native resistance and American oppression.
As Peltier wrote recently to his attorney, "A full admission of guilt would not only discredit
me, but the whole Native American struggle across this continent would be compromised in a sense,
because we are of the same race and share the same struggles in our quest for true sovereignty
and freedom. This is simply not acceptable to me or my associates."
DAY OF JUSTICE NOVEMBER 28, 2008
On Friday November 28th, the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee will hold a demonstration
called "Day of Justice" at the Fargo Federal Courthouse 110 Quentin N Burdick, 655 First Avenue
North, Fargo North Dakota.
The "Day of Justice" will increase awareness about the case of Leonard Peltier and the fact that
he has been imprisoned for 33 years. Not only was he convicted based on coerced statements,
and false evidence Peltier has spent more time in prison for aiding and abetting than any
reasonable person can justify. The "Day of Justice" is a call to action for concerned citizens
to question why Peltier is serving two life sentences and has been imprisoned for more than
half of his life.
The "Day of Justice" is about how laws designed for everyone are not equally applied. The US
Bureau of Prisons is not following the law in regard to releasing Leonard Peltier on parole.
Legally Peltier should have been released after serving 20 years; at the most he should have
served 30 years, under United States Code Title 18 Sections 4205 and 4206 respectively. If justice
is blind then the "Day of Justice" asks why Leonard Peltier is still in prison today. All people
should be aware of the ability of this bureaucracy to ignore laws and hold model citizens long
after the law states a release is due. Public Law 98-473 further states prison resources are,
first and foremost, reserved for those violent and serious criminal offenders who pose the most
dangerous threat to society of which Leonard Peltier is neither violent nor dangerous.
Featured speaker for the "Day of Justice" is Russell Means, a member of the Lakota Oglala Nation.
Means has been on the forefront of organizing for the American Indian Movement since the early
1970’s. Means has acted in a number of movies produced in Hollywood, written an autobiography
and led a delegation from the Republic of Lakotah to secede from the United States in December 2007.
More information about Means can be found at his official websites of
Participants at the "Day of Justice" will hear from other speakers on the subject of Leonard
Peltier's case and how they can help seek justice for all political prisoners. Drum groups and
musicians are also invited to be part of the program which is still growing. The "Day of Justice"
will also include an event at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and possibly more locations
worldwide. The Turtle Mountain Tribal Council recently passed a resolution demanding the release
of Leonard Peltier to their custody immediately. The "Day of Justice" calls for the US Bureau
of Prisons to recognize the sovereignty of Turtle Mountain and let Leonard Peltier go home now.