Nine days remain in American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier and his bid for a presidential commutation of his life sentence. Peltier was convicted for killing two FBI agents in a shoot-out on the Pine Ridge reservation on June 26, 1975. The incident took place two years after the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee, at the height of intra-tribal strife between the AIM supporters and a group that called itself the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONS.
Peltier’s request for clemency is one of many such petitions President Barack Obama will rule on before he leaves office on January 20. The case has been a cause celebre for decades. Amnesty International believes Peltier was wrongfully convicted, and over the years the AIM leader has counted among his supporters Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu and celebrities like Robert Redford and Robert De Niro.
But he also has strong adversaries, as was evidenced in 2001, when he came close to being freed in the final days of President Bill Clinton's second term.
At the time, Peltier's attorneys were invited to the White House for discussions; one of his lawyers reportedly was asked to draft "talking points" for the president in the event he went forward with the release. But after a demonstration at the White House by hundreds of ex-FBI agents, Clinton changed his mind. In the run-up to the Obama clemency announcements, it has seemed all but impossible for reporters to interview Leonard Peltier, who is now imprisoned in Florida. I was recently granted permission to interview him, but only after intervention by a Member of Congress, Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA).
Leonard Peltier admits that he was present during the 1975 shootout, which also took the life of Joe Stuntz, a 20-year old Coeur d’Alene Indian born on the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. He also admits firing in the direction of the two agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler—who had entered the Jumping Bull ranch in unmarked cars—but has always insisted he is innocent regarding their deaths. His co-defendants were acquitted in a separate trial on the grounds of self-defense.
The interview with Leonard Peltier, which took more than an hour, covered a wide range of subjects, beginning with his lean years growing up in the 1950s on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, when “candy was a rarity” and there was “seldom meat on the table.” He remembers listening to elders recount the mass hanging of 38 Santee Sioux, including a family member, in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862 and spoke of how his parents needed written permission to leave the reservation to follow the sugar beet harvest. He said these and other motivators led him to join AIM in 1970 and to align himself with traditionalists in the civil strife that was sweeping Pine Ridge in the years that followed.
Leonard Peltier insisted that if he knew back then that all this would cost him some 40-some years of his life that he would still have done it.
“We have just as much a right as any race of people on earth to live. So, yeah, I’d do it again. I’d be there for my people again.”
Listen to the full interview below:
Kevin McKiernan covered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for NPR from 1973-1976 and coproduced the 1990 PBS Frontline documentary The Spirit of Crazy Horse. His new film,From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock is in post-production.