Leonard Peltier, an almost forgotten name, but one that is remembered by many as the symbol of injustices suffered by the Native Peoples of America.
Below is a commentary by Chippy Dee and photos by Bud Korotzer from a cultural evening held in his honour……At weeks end scores of people gathered at the Judson Memorial Church in N.Y.C. for a concert and discussion about Leonard Peltier, a man who has spent the past 33 years in prison despite the fact that very many people believe him to be innocent. Peltier will have a parole hearing on July 28th.
The evening began with an opening prayer in the Lakota language from Tiokasin Ghosthorse and with music he played on his flute. There were musical performances from David Lippman, Grupo Raices, David Amran, who played his flute, and Rolando Victorio Mousaa who read a letter that Pete Seeger wrote to the Parole Board on Peltier’s behalf, and then sang a song that Pete asked him to sing. Lady Penumbra and Ty Conscious recited poetry that Peltier wrote. There was an audio played of an interview with Eric Seitz, a parole attorney, and several videos were viewed: Leonard Crowdog on Peltier, No Boundaries by Peter Matthiesen, and Wounded Knee by Dennis Banks. Attorney Lynne Stewart spoke very favorably of the kind of person Peltier is. She said that Mumia and Leonard are held in prison to scare the rest of us out of fighting injustice. Peltier’s current attorney, Mike Kuzma, said that efforts to get files on the case from the FBI using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) were being stonewalled either by the FBI or the courts. There are 143,000 pages of FBI documents on the case that remain undisclosed.
The events that led to Peltier’s conviction began in the early 1970s when tensions broke out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota between the then tribal chairman Dick Wilson, who was pro-assimilation, and the traditionalists. Wilson was accused of giving economic benefits to the assimilationists and leaving the others in poverty. The growing conflict prompted the traditionalists to band together with the American Indian Movement (AIM), a civil rights group committed to uniting all Native Peoples.
In 1973 local traditionalists and AIM occupied the Pine Ridge hamlet of Wounded Knee to protest the abuses they were suffering. The government responded by firing 250,000 rounds of ammunition into the area and killing 2 occupants. The occupation lasted 71 days and only ended after the government agreed to look into their complaints. This never happened and conditions on the reservation worsened. Wilson outlawed AIM and hired vigilantes who called themselves Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs) to enforce his rules.
Between 1973 & 1976 anyone associated with AIM was targeted for violence – over 60 traditionalists were murdered. Instead of stopping the violence the FBI supplied the GOONs with weaponry and intelligence on AIM.
As the situation worsened the traditionalists asked AIM to return to the reservation. Leonard Peltier was one that answered the call. He and 12 others set up a camp on the Jumping Bull ranch at Pine Ridge.
On June 26, 1975 two FBI agents in unmarked cars pursued a red pick-up truck onto the ranch supposedly looking for someone who had gotten into a fight and stolen a pair of boots. Gunshots rang out. 150 FBI swat team members responded along with Bureau of Indian Affairs police and GOONs. When it was over 1 AIM member and 2 FBI agents lay dead.
Four people were indicted for the deaths of the FBI agents. The charges against one were dropped and 2 were found innocent on the grounds of self-defense. Peltier escaped to Canada where he was apprehended in February, 1976. The FBI presented a Canadian court with an affidavit from a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear who claimed she was Peltier’s girl friend and that she had witnessed him shooting the agents. But Poor Bear had never met Peltier, nor had she been present at the time of the shooting – a fact later confirmed by the US Prosecutor and by her subsequent declaration that she had given false testimony.