Free Leonard Peltier!

Forty-five years ago on the 6th February 1976, an indigenous activist and member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indians, by the name of Leonard Peltier was arrested in Canada in connection to the shooting of two FBI agents on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, USA (1975).  

Peltier was convicted of aiding and abetting the murder and has been imprisoned since 1977 serving two life sentences. The trial was strewn with inaccuracies, mistrials of justice and downright discrimination, yet Peltier remains behind bars to this day. 

Before we get into the case, it is important to give some background on the anti-indigenous atmosphere that has evolved in the US since the first colonisers landed in 1607. Indigenous people have suffered a complete erasure of their culture and way of life through government policies designed to have that very effect. From the early days of ‘Manifest Destiny’ indigenous people have been slaughtered and their land has been stolen. Buffalo, an incredibly important animal which formed a lot of the basis for the indigenous people and their nomadic lifestyle, were massacred in huge numbers (three million were culled in 1872 alone). 

First Nations, who did not believe in the ownership of land, were pushed onto underfunded reservations which were then gradually stolen from them by white settlers. Indigenous customs and traditions have been made illegal and the US Government has forced policies intent on ‘Americanising’ and integrating First Nations into the ‘civilised’ capitalist society created by, and for, rich Caucasian men. Today, indigenous people make up only 2.4% of the US population, with over a quarter living in poverty. Issues of unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse also disproportionately affect indigenous people.

In 1968, taking inspiration from the African American Civil Rights movement reaching its peak in the early 1960s and the rise of the Black Panther Party during this time, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was set up to address systematic issues of poverty and police brutality against indigenous tribes. Leonard Peltier was an active member of this campaign group when two men (who, at the time, did not identify themselves as FBI Agents) invaded Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. 

Peltier’s trial took a little over two weeks and the all-white jury took 11 hours to deliver a guilty verdict. It was later revealed, though, that throughout the trial the FBI had coerced and intimidated key witnesses and Peltier’s constitutional right to a fair trial had been violated. The case mainly relied on a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear as a key witness, as she was Peltier’s girlfriend and witnessed the shooting – except it was later revealed she was not present at the time of the shooting, and she had never known Leonard personally. 

Several key witnesses have since recanted their stories, claiming they were made under intimidation tactics carried out by the FBI. During his trial, the FBI spread fearmongering rumours of possible ’terrorist’ attacks to be carried out by AIM, thus building tension in an already anti-indigenous atmosphere. In terms of physical evidence, FBI ballistic expert Evan Hodge stated he was unable to perform a test on the supposed murder weapon. It was later discovered that a firing pin test was indeed carried out on the supposed murder weapon, and the results were negative. The bullets which killed the agents did not come from Peltier’s gun. The jury, of course, was never made aware of this evidence during the trial. There was no forensic evidence to support the prosecution. There was no reliable witness testimony that either placed Peltier at the scene previous to the shooting or identified him as the person who shot the two FBI agents. There is no reasonable evidence that Leonard Peltier was responsible for the murder of FBI Agents Williams and Coler. 

Despite the masses of evidence displaying FBI misconduct, blatant disregard for Peltier’s constitutional rights, and obvious grounds for a mistrial; Leonard Peltier has been imprisoned for the past 45 years. At the time of his imprisonment, in 1977, the average sentence served for homicide before being released on parole was 8 years – Peltier has, to this date, served over five times that amount. The US Government even extended his term, in direct violation of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act. Furthermore, he has been denied clemency by, everybody’s favourite war criminals, George W. Bush and Barack Obama in 2009 and 2017 respectively. 

The next scheduled parole hearing is in 2024, by which time Peltier will be 79. Unless action is taken soon, it is highly likely that Leonard Peltier will die in prison, for a crime he was wrongfully convicted of. His only crime was belonging to a race of people which the US Government has sought to rid themselves of by any means necessary. The treatment of First Nations in the US has been the longest continual massacre in its history, yet it receives very little attention. Peltier is omitted from A-Level History books on ‘Native American Civil Rights’ and a lack of detail has stated that two FBI Agents had been shot on a reservation, before swiftly moving on. 

The fact that Peltier is still imprisoned shows clearly that the situation in the US is not improving. Racism, injustice, discrimination and persecution against non-whites is still incredibly prevalent and indigenous tribes are yet to face any real reparations for the complete destruction and systematic dismantling of their entire way of life. Leonard Peltier has been imprisoned for 45 years for daring to campaign against systematic poverty and the persecution of his people, which does not give the impression of the free and fair society the US likes to present itself as. Free Leonard Peltier.

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Benjamin Forrest  

Featured Image Source: Flickr