Fifty miles from Disney World sits a high-security prison called Coleman USP-1. Part of a two-prison complex, the “special needs” federal penitentiary houses sex offenders, gangsters, racketeers, and former police officers who have been convicted of heinous crimes. Prisoner #89637-132 has seen them come and go. Leonard Peltier declared his innocence when he was 30-years-old, and he continues to affirm his innocence at age 71.
For more than four decades, Leonard Peltier has stated that he was in no way responsible for the deaths of FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler at Jumping Bull ranch on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota on June 26, 1975.
Peltier arrested and tried on shoddy evidence
The 1975 Pine Ridge reservation shootout that saw death on both sides occurred four years after the bloody siege at Wounded Knee, also part of the Pine Ridge reservation. During most of the 71-day occupation, which culminated in the killing of a Cherokee activist and a protester from the Oglala Sioux nation, Peltier was locked away in a jail cell in Milwaukee on charges for which he was later exonerated. He made bail in late April and was on his way to stand with American Indian Movement (AIM) brothers Russell Banks and Dennis Means when the siege came to its bloody conclusion. Banks and Means were indicted on charges related to the Wounded Knee incident, but their cases were thrown out of court due to prosecutorial misconduct.
In the aftermath of the Pine Ridge shootout, Peltier fled to Canada, where he was taken into RCMP custody in February 1976. The arrest was based on an affidavit signed by a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear. Poor Bear claimed to be Peltier’s girlfriend and told U.S. federal agents that she witnessed Peltier shooting at federal agents. Shortly after signing the affidavit, Myrtle Poor Bear recanted her story and admitted that not only had she never met Leonard Peltier, she was nowhere near the gunfight. Her bogus statement is just one of many glaring inconsistencies in the federal case that led to Peltier’s 40-year incarceration. Interested readers are welcomed to review FBI documents and court transcripts released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Myrtle Poor Bear was not allowed to testify in court. Had she done so and revealed that she was threatened by federal agents and coerced into signing the affidavit, Peltier’s trial may have gone in a completely different direction.
On April 18, 1977, a jury in North Dakota found Leonard Peltier guilty of two counts of murder. Judge Paul Benson, appointed by then-President Richard M. Nixon, sentenced Peltier to serve two consecutive life terms plus seven years. An Oglala Lakota man named Joseph Stuntz was also killed that day, presumably by an FBI sniper. Stuntz’ murder was never investigated, according to FreeLeonard.org.
Recent Leonard Peltier news
On February 6, 2016, global supporters of the aging and ailing Indian activist participated in an International Day of Solidarity. Free Leonard events occurred simultaneously in Oregon, New York, California, Brussels, Berlin, and other international cities. Red Nation co-founder Nick Estes spoke of Leonard at the Albuquerque event.
“Incarceration is a tool to silence political movements. We don’t have heroes, they’ve been demonized. Our history is erased. But the children here will remember that Leonard Peltier is one of our heroes, that he was fighting for treaty rights. We need our leaders like Leonard Peltier repatriated back to our communities.”
Indian Country Today Media Network reported that Peltier’s long-time friend, prison advocate, and spiritual advisor, Lenny Foster of the Diné nation, also spoke at a solidarity event in Albuquerque.
“Leonard belongs to us. We don’t want our brother to die in prison, like Geronimo,” he said.
In March of this year, Leonard Peltier was honored by the Frantz Fanon award committee. Comprised of academic scholars from around the world, the committee presents the annual award named for Afro-Cuban psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon for “revolutionary thinking and service to mankind.” Peltier, of course, could not personally attend the awards ceremony at the Salon Anti Colonial of Paris. Lenny Foster attended the week-long multicultural event and accepted the award on his behalf.
After the Paris award event, Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with Lenny Foster about Leonard, his art, and his harsh incarceration. Foster told ICTMN that the Chippewa-Sioux Sundancer and Pipe Carrier survives his unjust incarceration by virtue of his strong beliefs and by mentoring young imprisoned American Indians. Painting is another thing that occupies Peltier’s time behind bars.
Last summer, several of Leonard Peltier’s paintings were exhibited at the Indigenous Fine Art Market and gallery in Santa Fe.
When is enough enough?
International news network RT says that Leonard Peltier has been teased with clemency since the Reagan administration. At a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in the late 1980s, the Russian leader pointed to Leonard Peltier as a prime example of American human rights abuse. Says Peltier, President Reagan “promised to release him if Russia released a political prisoner, (they did) but Reagan reneged on the deal.” President Clinton also had a chance to release the probably wrongly convicted AIM activist but did nothing. According to UPI, George W. Bush formally refused clemency to Leonard Peltier shortly before the end of his presidential term.
Whether current president Barack Obama will stand up for the ruined rights of prisoner #89637-132 remains to be seen. Readers who have a heart to join Nelson Mandela, Pete Seeger, The Color Purple author Alice Walker, actor Danny Glover and thousands of global citizens who have sought and continue to seek freedom for the now-frail Leonard Peltier are invited to sign an Amnesty International petition that will be delivered to President Obama later this year.
In the autobiographical Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance, published in 2000 and prefaced by former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Peltier wrote the following.
“I don’t know how to save the world. I don’t have the answers or The Answer. I hold no secret knowledge as to how to fix the mistakes of generations past and present. I only know that without compassion and respect for all of Earth’s inhabitants, none of us will survive—nor will we deserve to.”
[Photo by Steven Senne/AP]