Tell Obama: He has to free Leonard Peltier

January 16, 2017

Brian Ward reports on the urgent effort to win freedom for Indigenous rights activist Leonard Peltier, one of America's longest-standing political prisoners.

SITUATED AMONG the hundreds of flags of various Indigenous nations waving at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock are those bearing Leonard Peltier's face with a simple message: "Free Peltier."

In his last week as president, Obama has an opportunity to right a historic wrong by setting Peltier free four decades after he last drew breath as a free man.

Though Obama has been commended for pardoning and commuting the sentences of hundreds of nonviolent offenders, more than the last 11 presidents combined, he has been silent on the issue of well-known political prisoners such as Peltier.

WHO IS Leonard Peltier?

Now 72 years old, he is a Native American, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe and a political prisoner. He was falsely convicted of killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the radical arm of the fight for Native American rights.

Millions of people around the world are familiar with his plight in part due to the famous documentary Incident at Oglala, directed by Michael Apted and narrated by Robert Redford--and a best-selling book, Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which various politicians and FBI officials sought to ban from publication.

Leonard Peltier's oldest son, Chauncy Peltier (left) marches alongside Navajo filmmaker Norman Patrick Brown in Washington, D.C.
Leonard Peltier's oldest son, Chauncy Peltier (left) marches alongside Navajo filmmaker Norman Patrick Brown in Washington, D.C. (Leonard Klein | SW)

In the 1970s, Pine Ridge was a dangerous place, wracked by poverty as well as bitter factional disputes about how to address the failure of the U.S. state to honor its treaties with the Oglala Sioux Nation. In 1973, members of AIM occupied Wounded Knee to demand that the U.S. fulfill its treaty obligations and insist on the ouster of Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson, often referred to as a dictator, who notoriously used a private militia to suppress opponents while handsomely rewarding friends and family.

Following this incident, the FBI targeted AIM members for repression, while providing protection and support to Wilson. They came into Pine Ridge and raided the home of an AIM member, provoking a shoot-out that resulted in the death of two FBI agents and one Native American activist.

The FBI targeted three men, Robert Robideau and Dino Butler, along with Peltier. Peltier fled to Canada while the FBI was embarrassed in court when a federal jury found Robideau and Butler not guilty.

Peltier was arrested in 1976 and extradited to the U.S. to stand trial, based on what Canada's solicitor general later stated were false documents.

During the proceedings against him, the defense wasn't allowed to present most of the evidence that helped Robideau and Butler to secure a not-guilty verdict. This was one of the early signs that Peltier would not receive a fair trial. Reviewing the trial as part of a biographical sketch of Peltier's life published in the International Socialist Review, 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.

The FBI to this day still says it has no "real" evidence against Peltier, and it was later determined by the United States Civil Rights Commission that the FBI had behaved as an occupying force on the reservation. Peltier is in jail for simply fighting against the U.S. government and its treatment of indigenous people.

The conviction of Peltier--combined with the FBI's notorious use of COINTELPRO tactics to infiltrate and "neutralize" left-wing groups, as detailed in this 2009 interview with Peltier co-defendant Robert Robideau--systematically destroyed AIM.

WITH OBAMA finalizing his decision regarding the commutations and pardons he will issue in the closing days of his presidency, there is a renewed push to bring attention to Peltier's plight.

Amnesty International has already gathered more than 100,000 signatures on its petition calling on President Obama to grant him clemency.

During the past eight years, we have witnessed the largest outpouring of Indigenous rights activism since the 1970s, starting with the Idle No More movement in Canada, the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and now the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.

Obama has said more about Indigenous rights than any other president--which isn't saying much, considering that U.S. presidents have generally sought to exterminate Native Americans or at least believed them to be "savages." Yet the real credit for this goes to the grassroots movements that have time and again compelled Obama to reject energy projects that infringe on treaty rights.

These years of resistance have brought the Peltier case back to the forefront. Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, wrote to President Obama asking for clemency for Peltier, and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman recently interviewed associates and former attorneys for Peltier.

With the campaign in full swing, a nine-foot statue of Peltier was erected at American University in Washington, D.C., in early December, with plans for it to be on display until April.

Immediately, the FBI Agents Association mobilized to force the university to remove the statue. In a statement, the university offered the following lame excuse for its retreat: "[The] decision to host the Peltier statue required a more thorough assessment of the implications of placing the piece in a prominent, public space...With the benefit of a fuller review, we have made a decision to remove the piece from this location."

There is no doubt that the FBI is concerned about the mounting pressure on Obama to correct a historic injustice.

Unless Obama grants clemency, Peltier may not live long enough to have his freedom returned to him. He is in poor health, and his next parole hearing is not scheduled until 2024.

Peltier's conviction and imprisonment are a continuation of this country's legacy of mistreatment of Indigenous people. Most people in this country view the struggles of Native Americans as something from the distant past, but the horrific violence that Native American water protectors faced at Standing Rock at the hands of the Morton County police show us that this struggle is one of the present.

Peltier released a statement from prison on the Day of Mourning (Thanksgiving) in 2012. In it, he linked the Indian struggle to the general 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.

Peltier is an inspiration to any social justice fighter, and it is our job to stand with him at his darkest hour. President Obama: Free Leonard Peltier now!

Further Reading

From the archives