Not pardoned on Thanksgiving

Brian Ward argues that the ongoing imprisonment of Leonard Peltier and other political prisoners deserves far more attention than Obama's "turkey pardoning."

I'm saddened that we have to call this a Day of Mourning, but we must take every opportunity to remind this nation that, when it comes to keeping their word about treaties, about human rights, about the environment, about excess pollution, it has failed miserably on all of those concerns. Also we want to remind the major religions that speak about peace and love and brotherhood and are celebrating this thing called Thanksgiving that we, the native people of this land, realistically overall have nothing to truly be thankful about regarding the arrival of the pilgrims.
-- Leonard Peltier

Leonard PeltierLeonard Peltier

LEONARD PELTIER, American Indian Movement leader and political prisoner, wrote this statement on Thanksgiving, also known to many American Indians as the National Day of Mourning. The Day of Mourning was started by the United American Indians of New England in 1970. This year, they dedicated the day to Peltier and his freedom.

In the meantime, Obama--as every U.S. president has for the past 65 years--pardoned a turkey from being the centerpiece of some family's table. This ridiculous tradition shines light on the backwardness of the president's priorities when it comes to pardons.

Leonard Peltier deserves a presidential pardon from Obama. He was wrongfully convicted in 1977 of the murder of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, two years earlier on the Pine Ridge reservation located in South Dakota.

Awareness of Peltier's case has increased since the beginning of his prison sentence as a result of the documentary Incident at Oglala and the publication of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen. That book was so controversial in exposing the case and the illegal actions of the FBI that Bill Janklow, the former governor of South Dakota, tried to block its publication.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

SO WHAT happened at Pine Ridge on July 26, 1975? In order to understand what happened that day, we need to take a couple steps back to understand the context of the situation.

This was two years after the occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a protest that called on the government to reexamine the treaties it had made with Indian Nations and the treatment of Indians in this country. The occupation was led by Oglala Lakota elders and members of the militant group, the American Indian Movement (AIM). This was a period of struggle and radicalization around the country, with the war in Vietnam, the end of Jim Crow in the south and the women's liberation movement.

At this time, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was ruled with an iron fist by the tribal council chairman, Dick Wilson. He had the full backing of the federal government in his efforts to crush AIM and any of its supporters on Pine Ridge.

On July 26, two unmarked cars chased a red truck onto the Jumping Bull property, where many AIM members were staying. Those in the unmarked car started shooting, and Peltier and others started to shoot back in self-defense. Immediately following the shootout, FBI, SWAT team and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents, and members of Dick Wilson's personal tribal army known at the GOON squad, arrived at the scene.

In addition to the death of the two FBI agents, a Lakota man named Joe Killsright Stuntz was killed. Killsright's death is rarely mentioned when the story is told. Peltier, along with Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, were accused in the death of the two FBI agents, yet no one has ever investigated the death of Killsright.

Both Robideau and Butler were found not guilty on grounds of self-defense. During this time, Peltier fled to Canada. He was not as fortunate as Robideau and Butler. The FBI was embarrassed from Robideau and Butler's trial and needed to have someone take the fall. Peltier was extradited from Canada, based on three perjured affidavits.

In Peltier's trial, the defense was not allowed to present most of the evidence that helped Robideau and Butler to be found not guilty. This was a sign that Peltier was not going to get a fair trial. Reviewing the trial, Michele Bollinger wrote:

The litany of offenses committed by the government against Peltier is lengthy. The government lied, cheated and threw the Constitution out the window to ensure a conviction. The U.S. government used three perjured affidavits to force Peltier's extradition from Canada. To secure these, federal officials shamelessly threatened and intimidated Myrtle Poor Bear, the source of these affidavits. Poor Bear later recanted their contents entirely.

There were no witnesses presented who could identify Peltier as the killer. The judge, who met with FBI officials throughout the trial, would not allow the defense to claim "self-defense" as Butler and Robideau had been allowed. The all-white jury convicted Peltier and sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences for first-degree murder.

At an appellate hearing years later, the government attorney said, "We had a murder, we had numerous shooters, we do not know who specifically fired what killing shots...[W]e do not know, quote unquote, who shot the agents." Yet despite all this, the courts have still denied Peltier a new trial.

Peltier has been up for parole a couple times, most recently in 2009, and has continued to be denied, despite the lack of any evidence for his crime. He will be up for parole again in 2024. He has been in bad health recently and continues to be in and out of solitary confinement.

Despite all of this Peltier is still an inspiration to millions around the globe. He has published Prison Writings, was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and ran for president in 2004 on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ON THE 43rd National Day of Mourning, hundreds gathered in the town of Plymouth, Mass., to hear speakers who preach the motto of the United American Indians of New England: "We are not vanishing, we are not conquered, we are as strong as ever."

They read Peltier's statement from prison. In it, he went on to connect the Indian struggle to that of a struggle between the haves and the have-nots:

In closing, I want to encourage each and every one of you to stand up in your own way in whatever way you can for what's right, try to right what's wrong and know that in my heart and in whatever way I can help you, that I will be with you. We need each other, you need each other, and we need the help of all peoples to correct this great damage that is taking place throughout the earth. Our battle is not with a race a people or a color, our battle is with ignorance and greed that is ruling the governments of men today.

A mass movement will be needed to force the president to pardon Peltier. Peltier and other prisoners who are wrongfully convicted need to be at the center of the movement to dismantle a prison system that profits off mass incarceration.

Let's call on Obama to start a new tradition of pardoning political prisoners. Free Peltier now!