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Leonard Peltier: man, soldier and symbol


Some Native observers have lately jumped on the federal bandwagon to demean the condition of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement (AIM) activist imprisoned for double life sentences in the killing of two FBI agents in South Dakota in 1975. Peltier was the only person convicted of the killings in what was from all accounts a horribly unfortunate incident that also caused the death of Joseph Stuntz, a Native man. The violent incident came in the midst of hundreds of acts of violence, a dozen or more murders of American Indians and major political mayhem on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the 1970s.

It is easy now to diminish the Peltier case. Perhaps it provides just the right positioning for any Native pundit seeking a trendy "devil's advocate" label. Or maybe it provides an easy way to ingratiate oneself with federal agencies. But it is not right. It is less fair at this time in history than even the trial that Peltier received in 1977. That prosecution process and trial was as blatant a railroad as has ever been produced by American law enforcement and allowed by the legal system. As a result, Peltier is going on some 26 years in federal prisons, with very long stretches in solitary confinement and harsh physical conditions that have impaired his health. At the mere possibility of a pardon or parole, FBI agents and their relatives march by the thousands to oppose it, so prediction is against the likelihood of the world's most famous American Indian prisoner ever going home to his family.

Peltier is hugely well-known ? at home, in Europe, Japan, Russia, Africa ? because his particular case illustrates well the issues surrounding the virtual state of war that existed between American Indian defenders supported by many Native and non-Native professional people, against some powerful institutions including several federal agencies. In general, this was an explosion by Indian communities and emerging professionals against deeply entrenched corruption and paternalism which continued to impose themselves on Indian life. It was a scream of pain and defiance and brought forth commitments from all kinds of people throughout the world ? not a few who have since gone on to help rebuild Indian country.

To contend that Peltier is simply a murderer, or to further indict or criticize him with hearsay assertions from interviews, taped or untaped, conveniently ignores the sordid history of FBI abuses at Pine Ridge. It was during that time that infamous raids were conducted against the homes of elderly Lakota and the homesteads of many traditional people whose only crime had been to hang on tenaciously to their language and spiritual culture and to seek a better way forward. Many traditional elders also supported the young men and women who had taken to the barricades against the many perceived injustices taking place in the 1970's.

While liberal romantics feasted for a decade on the heroics of AIM, particularly in its fight against the administration of Richard "Dickie" Wilson and the BIA at Pine Ridge, seasoned Indian observers are quick to point out the foibles and mishaps of AIM. Nevertheless, all agree that FBI agents on the reservation during those years behaved reprehensibly, seriously mistreating Indian people in their persecution of AIM leadership and its rank-and-file. The FBI directly backed the infamous "Goon Squads" that instigated and directed a lot of the violence. Not a few AIM people, of course, also instigated incidents of violence, but the federal agency was acting within the government's "Garden Plot" program, with a mandate that included illegal "dirty tricks" against so-called "subversive" social movements. AIM, with its penchant for brandishing weapons, soon qualified. To put down the "subversives," federal agencies supported and distributed weapons to semi-deputized groups of toughs. When push came to shove, in trial after trial, FBI heavy-handed tactics were exposed. The 1974 so-called "Wounded Knee leadership trial" of AIM leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks, flagship of the government's prosecution, ended in dismissal of all charges, with the presiding judge scathingly tongue-lashing the FBI for manufacturing of witnesses, tampering with evidence and other misdeeds.

Leonard Peltier stepped into that time. Many who knew him then recall his quiet, serious demeanor and his willingness to work for elders. Like most leaders and participants in the American Indian Movement, he came from the hard-knocks school. He pledged as a soldier at a time when events were exploding. Indian country was under severe political and economic pressure and for many hope was but a fleeting idea.

The fateful events of June 25, 1975, at the Jumping Bull Homestead, when an FBI raid turned into a firefight and cost the lives of three men, disrupted the personal histories of many people. No one can but mourn for all the victims. All involved did their duty that day ? FBI agents, AIM activists, women and children who fled to safety through ravines and arroyo creeks, medical personnel. Two other AIM activists, Robert Robideau and Dino Butler, also brought to trial on the death of the two agents, were freed on grounds that they had acted in self-defense. A great deal of evidence seriously damaging to the prosecution in Peltier's case was suppressed out of hand. Incorrect ballistics tests, recanted testimony that originated under duress, an extremely hostile judge ? all coalesced to force the case on the shoulders of the last possible suspect, Leonard Peltier.

The case is complex, and many were the victims of the time and its circumstances. Three men are dead; one is encased by steel. Four families mourn. The hearts of people and peoples, and a piece of American justice, lie shattered on the ground. It is cruel form for those who now, 26 long years later, kick this one around and look for salt to be rubbed into Peltier's wounds. Despite the mode of deconstruction popular these days, most American Indian people have a clear memory of that time. It is that common memory about this particular case, at Pine Ridge and throughout, that sees Peltier as a symbol of the injustice of that time, and, of all times, against American Indians. In that context, Peltier represents a Native resistance to conquest, even to a recent era where repeated attempts at direct repression of American Indian sovereignty could easily spawn strident advocacy and resistance. Certainly he is all that. And like the two agents, Jack Coler and Ron Williams, like Joseph Stuntz, Peltier is also a victim. He too lost, big time, while so many others from different sides, equally involved in actions and tumults and violence from those days, walk in freedom today.

We wish the best of health and strength to Leonard Peltier, his family and relatives. We wish the best of spirit and health as well to the families of the lost agents, and to the relations of Joseph Stuntz. May healing forces and peaceful reconciliation, rather than obfuscation, hostility-making and hatred, prevail to set the tone in public discussion of this case.