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“You never leave a brother behind”

Leonard Peltier in prison, February 1986

Leonard Peltier in prison, February 1986

Green Bay, Wisconsin, is one of the oldest cities in America. Founded in 1634, when the territory in which it lies was still known as New France and was ruled from Paris by Louis the Just, it was built on the banks of a part of Lake Michigan known at the time as ‘La Baie des Puants’ – Stinkers’ Bay. It became a post for trade between the French and the local Winnebago and Menominee Indians, and was ceded to the British in 1763 after the bloody Seven Years War.

Nowadays it is a quiet, undistinguished place of 100,000 souls, best known for its NFL team, the Green Bay Packers, and its National Railroad Museum, home to the world’s largest steam locomotive, the Union Pacific Big Boy. Just outside the city lies Austin Straubel International Airport, named after the first airman from the county to die in World War II. It does not offer any international flights. Passengers with early trips out to Minneapolis, Detroit or Chicago often stay at the Radisson Hotel opposite, which offers complimentary shuttles to the terminal.

And it is in a small, drab meeting room in this nondescript hotel on the outskirts of this unremarkable city that delegates have gathered to comb through the evidence presented at the trial of a convicted murderer almost 40 years ago, and to accuse the US government of genocide and crimes against humanity.

“I’m not at a country club”

The International Peoples Tribunal on Leonard Peltier starts gently. Many of the participants are well into their seventies and have a tendency to ramble. Over the coming three days, strident liberationist polemics will be interspersed with stories about grandchildren and reminiscences about how “Right where you’re sitting here, this big Radisson Inn, not too long ago this was just a field.”

Bill Means, a tribal elder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), introduces the tribunal’s judges -— two attorneys, two professors and a human rights activist. There are a series of welcome speeches, including one from Dorothy Ninham, the event’s organiser. “What we recognise is that there’s so much work we have to do,” she says. “We’re trying really hard to bring Leonard home.”

And then someone hands Means a smartphone. He holds it to his microphone. A tinny voice emerges. It is US Prisoner #89637-132, Leonard Peltier.

Peltier is calling from the United States Penitentiary, Coleman in Florida. It takes him a while to register that he has been put on speakerphone, and when he does he sounds a little peevish. Apparently no-one has told him he’s due to be addressing the whole room, and when Means offers to call back later he admonishes him. “Remember I’m in prison and I can’t just pick up a phone whenever I want,” he says. “I’m not at a country club.”

“In 2010 Vivienne Westwood dedicated an underwear collection to him: adverts for the line showed male models sprawled on tigerskin rugs above the tagline ‘Leonard Peltier is Innocent’”

He certainly isn’t. Peltier is in a high security facility where he is currently in the 38th year of a double life sentence plus seven years for the first degree murder of two FBI agents in 1975. He is due for release in 2040, when he will be 96 years old. His next potential parole hearing is in 2024. He has always vehemently protested his innocence, sometimes with humour. In his 1999 book ‘My Life is my Sun Dance’, he says, “I tell myself: Be thankful you didn’t get three lifetime sentences, Leonard. After all, you could have not killed three people instead of not killing two! They’d really have thrown the book at you then!”

Peltier’s cause has found support from a large and eclectic group of people and organisations. At the International Peltier Forum’s website, there’s a collection of letters from celebrities petitioning the US president to reopen his case. For perhaps the first and only time, Mikhail Gorbachev, Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu stand shoulder to shoulder with Pamela Anderson, Sharon Osbourne and Coolio. In an equally unlikely alliance, Gerry Adams unites in solidarity with Phil Collins and Dita Von Teese.

Robert Redford made a film – ‘Incident at Oglala’ – about Peltier, Rage Against the Machine wrote the song ‘Freedom’ about his case and U2 composed ‘Native Son’ (later turned into ‘Vertigo’) about him. In 2010, Vivienne Westwood dedicated an underwear collection to him: adverts for the line showed male models sprawled on tigerskin rugs above the tagline ‘Leonard Peltier is Innocent’.

Actor Robert Redford discusses his 1992 film, ‘Incident at Oglala’, about Leonard Peltier’s case

Amnesty International is “seriously concerned about the fairness of proceedings leading to [Peltier’s] conviction and believes that political factors at the time… may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.” The Dalai Lama, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights have all weighed in on Peltier’s behalf. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize six years in a row.

Before his death, Nelson Mandela called for Peltier’s release – and comparisons have often been made between the two men. In ‘My Life is my Sun Dance’ Peltier hopefully draws the parallel himself. “Like Nelson Mandela, you never know when you will suddenly and unexpectedly be called upon. He, too, knows what it’s like to sit here in prison, year after year, decade after decade. I try to keep myself ready if ever I’m needed.”

Back in the Radisson’s function room, the smartphone-microphone combination is causing intermittent bursts of ear-piercing feedback. But Peltier has overcome his initial crabbiness. He ask how everybody’s doing and they cheer. Means tells him that over the next three days the Tribunal will “not only document the history of your case but plan the strategy for the campaign in the future.”

Peltier exhorts the group to action. “Let’s not make the procedure take too long,” he says. “I’ve just turned 69 and I’m not in the best of health. The future for me ain’t got too much to offer… There’s still a lot of problems happening in Indian country that need to be resolved. The battle, the fight is still going on. Those of you that have been taking it easy and living the life of Riley, it’s time for you guys to get up and start fighting for your people before they get control of what we’ve won in the last 30 years.”

“I just want to remind you all that AIM’s policy years ago was you never leave a brother behind. Unfortunately with some [people] that’s precisely what they did. We need to do something before you guys pass on. You guys are older than me!” The grey-haired audience chuckles nervously.

Native Americans occupy Alcatraz in November 1969

Radio Free Alcatraz

It all began with Alcatraz. At 10am on the morning of 9th November 1969, a group of 75 young Native Americans met at Pier 39 in San Francisco and read out a statement outlining their intention to occupy the tiny island, home to a lighthouse and a mouldering maximum security prison which had closed six years earlier. They arranged transport aboard a sailboat, the Monte Cristo, whose owner refused to dock at the island but agreed to circle it. As the boat approached Alcatraz five of the passengers, determined to make land, jumped into the freezing water and swam to shore. They were met by Glenn Dodson, the island’s caretaker, and his dog. Dodson told them to leave. They refused and set about daubing a ‘Red Power’ slogan on a wall at the dock.

The occupiers left the next morning but returned eleven days later in greater numbers, beginning what was to be a 19 month-long occupation of Alcatraz. They announced that they were claiming the island by right of discovery and, in a touch of chutzpah, they made a formal offer to the US government to “purchase Alcatraz for $24 in glass beads and cloth.”

The occupation became huge international news. Money came flooding in from Native Americans across the country and supporters risked arrest to break Coast Guard blockades and bring food to the occupiers, on one occasion even attempting to fly in supplies by hot air balloon. A school and clinic were opened and broadcasts began from ‘Radio Free Alcatraz’, telling stories of life on the island. Hundreds of young Native Americans came to spend a few days or weeks at a time at Alcatraz, re-engaging with their culture and planning future protests.

The former prison mess hall on Alcatraz is used to store supplies provided by supporters of the Native American occupation of the island in 1969

The Nixon administration, however, was not prepared to have US territory squatted by a ragtag bunch of Native Americans. On 28th May 1970, having failed to agree a settlement with the occupiers, the government shut off power and telephone lines to Alcatraz and the Coast Guard removed the water barge that supplied the island. Cooped up and cut off, the group nonetheless stuck to their demand that the government should hand over the title deed to the island. Despite their bravado they could not hold out forever, and on 11th June 1971, they were escorted off the island by US marshals and armed FBI agents without putting up a fight.

“The occupiers  made a formal offer to the US government to ‘purchase Alcatraz for $24 in glass beads and cloth”

But the fuse had been lit. It was the occupation of Alcatraz that radicalised Leonard Peltier – he started taking part in demonstrations in 1970 and joined the AIM chapter in Denver shortly afterwards. He was not alone: his whole generation of Native Americans were electrified by the takeover of the Rock. They had grown up under US policies of ‘terminating’ tribes by forcing them off their reservations and of assimilating young Native Americans by placing them into government-run schools where they were prohibited from speaking their own languages, wearing their native clothes or practising their religion. Peltier himself describes with horror in his autobiography how ‘‘One day in the fall of 1953, a big black government car came and took us kids away to the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota… First thing after we got there, they cut off our long hair, stripped us naked, then doused us with powdered DDT. I thought I was going to die.” Alcatraz showed that Indians did not have to take such treatment lying down. They could unite, make demands and fight back against the state.

A series of high profile actions followed in quick succession. In October 1972, a procession of Native American protesters set off from the west coast, bound for Washington DC. This ‘Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan’ picked up support along the way, and arrived in the capital the week before the presidential election. When the administration refused to meet with the group to accept its Twenty Point Position paper, 500 AIM activists in war paint and armed with spears, clubs and knives occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs, draped a banner saying ‘Native American Embassy’ across the front, and erected a teepee on the lawn. They occupied the building for ten days – rather taking the sheen off Nixon’s landslide reelection – and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage. They also destroyed land deeds and stole records which they claimed proved thousands of Native American women had been involuntarily sterilised by the Indian Health Service, a fact confirmed in 1976 by the  US General Accounting Office.

Then, on 27th February 1973, 300 AIM members led by Dennis Banks and Russell Means occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the site of an 1890 massacre of Native Americans by men of the US 7th Cavalry. They declared it to be free territory and issued demands, including a hearing in Congress on broken treaties. Over the course of the occupation, the FBI, BIA police and the army fired half a million rounds into their midst, leaving two AIM members dead.

At one point the government delivered a printed ultimatum to leave to the occupiers, who burned it in front of TV cameras. The siege gained huge attention: in an amusing sideplot, on 27th March Marlon Brando sent Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his Oscar for ‘The Godfather’ due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry… and also recent happenings at Wounded Knee,” much to the visible embarrassment of Academy Award host Roger Moore.

The occupation lasted for 71 days. It showed that the American Indian Movement was becoming a force to be reckoned with, and it seemed to be gaining a higher and more controversial profile by the day. And then came the “Incident at Pine Ridge”, the event which was to send Leonard Peltier spiralling into a 38 year-long incarceration.

Members of AIM occupy the site of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee


AIM leaders Russell Means (left) and Dennis Banks at Wounded Knee

Death at Pine Ridge

The three years following the occupation of Wounded Knee was known as the ‘Reign of Terror’ on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Historians Bruce Johansen and Roberto Maestas estimated that the annual murder rate on the reservation between 1973 and 1976 was 170 per 100,000. In the same period, Detroit, the ‘murder capital of the US’, had a rate of 20.2 per 100,000.

The violence was generated by the stand-off between Dickie Wilson, the Pine Ridge Tribal Chair, and traditionalist Native Americans supported by AIM. Wilson had criticised AIM’s activities, including the occupation of the BIA, and was seen by traditionalists as a government puppet who made deals for personal gain. In 1972 Wilson had created his own militia, called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation – GOONs for short – which he used to police the reservation. There were deaths on both sides as a newly invigorated AIM asserted itself against what it saw as betrayal and oppression by its own people.

It was in this febrile climate that a red pick-up truck sped onto the Pine Ridge Reservation on 26th June 1975, followed by two unmarked cars. The pick-up was allegedly driven by a Native American called Jimmy Eagle, and the pursuers were FBI agents who, it was later claimed, were chasing Jimmy for the theft of some
cowboy boots.

When they arrived at the Jumping Bull compound, near the village of Oglala, the agents started shooting. Native Americans including Peltier were inside and returned fire. SWAT teams, GOONs and BIA police swiftly arrived and a stand-off ensued in which FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were shot dead at close range and AIM member Joe Killsright Stuntz was killed.

“Peltier was tracked down in a cabin in Hinton, Alberta, extradited and put on trial”

Peltier and the other AIM members managed to escape from the compound, triggering a huge FBI manhunt. Two of them – Dino Butler and Robert Robideau – were swiftly arrested, while Peltier fled to Canada. Butler and Robideau were put on trial in Cedar Rapids in Iowa, but were found not guilty of murder on the grounds of self defence. Peltier was put on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. He was tracked down in a cabin in Hinton, Alberta, was extradited and put on trial in March 1977.

Peltier is placed on the FBI’s ten most-wanted list in 1975

Lenny Foster, Diné AIM, with Cuny Dog, Lakota from Pine Ridge, at International Peoples Tribunal on Leonard Peltier

Bill Means with judges at the Tribunal

At the trial he argued that, although he took part in an exchange of fire at Oglala along with many other Native Americans, there was nothing to tie him specifically to the deaths of Coler and Williams and that the FBI, in their desire for vengeance, had forced false testimonies from witnesses and hidden vital evidence. He claimed that the judge, Paul Benson, had refused to give him a fair hearing and that the bias of the system was clear in the fact that no-one had been put on trial for the murder of Joe Killsright Stuntz or of Anna Mae Aqash, a 30-year-old AIM member murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation in February 1976.

Peltier was found guilty on 18th April 1977. Reappearing before the court on 1st June 1977 he gave a powerful, articulate defense of his innocence and launched into a passionate attack on Benson and the system he represented. “You are about to perform an act which will close one more chapter in the history of the failure of the United States Courts and the failure of the people of the United States to do justice in the case of a Native American,” he said. “After centuries of murder of millions of my people, brothers and sisters, by the white race of America could I have been wise in thinking that you would break that tradition and commit an act of justice? Obviously not, because I should have realised that what I detected was only a very thin layer of dignity and surely [not a] fine character.”

Sentencing took place in a chaotic, charged atmosphere. Peltier lost his cool and interrupted proceedings,  shouting “Who is going to pay for Anna Mae’s death? It sure stinks”, “I was railroaded!” and “What about the Gestapo tactics being used on the Pine Ridge Residents?” Members of the audience barracked the judge as he attempted to sum up. Benson ploughed on regardless, passing two life sentences on the convicted man.

“Who killed those agents? The FBI killed them!” 

In the meeting room of the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center, the International Peoples Tribunal on Leonard Peltier winds its way through three days of testimony to its inevitable conclusion. The audience hears from veterans of Wounded Knee and from AIM members who were present on the day the FBI agents were shot – including Dino Butler, who stood trial for their murder and was exonerated. The speeches touch on the extraordinary violence and poisonous atmosphere on Pine Ridge, on hateful upbringings in government boarding schools, on treaties broken, massacres committed and bounties placed on Native American scalps by 19th century administrations, on sterilisations ordered in the 1970s and on modern day attempts to exploit the mineral wealth of reservation lands.

The final pronouncement, livestreamed on the internet on 4th October, is that justice depends on the immediate release of Leonard Peltier, the admission of guilt by the FBI with regard to their crimes against Native Americans and an end to incursions on Native American land.

It’s unclear what will become of Prisoner #89637-132. It seems unlikely, after so many years and failed appeals that new and definitive evidence of his innocence or guilt will emerge, or that a retrial will be called.

President Clinton was reportedly on the brink of granting him a pardon in 2000 but was deterred when 500 FBI agents marched outside the White House. One agent, John Sennett, went on Good Morning America at the time to say that “Leonard Peltier is the last person in this country who is a worthy candidate for presidential clemency… He has been remorseless… We just feel he should remain in prison for the rest of this life.”

The next opportunity will come when President Obama leaves office in 2016, but he has given no indication of interest in the case. Peltier is beset by health problems including diabetes, chronic arthritis and a jaw warped from a series of unsuccessful operations. His band of AIM supporters are starting to fall by the wayside

And yet they are driven by such righteous conviction that when you speak to them it seems possible they will succeed in getting Peltier home. He is not just, as they see it, the victim of a gross, politically driven miscarriage of justice. He is representative of a deeper, older wrong, which has been perpetrated on Native Americans for 500 years: the imposition of control  by a stronger, more aggressive culture. “The case of Leonard Peltier goes beyond his oppression,” read one statement by the Tribunal. “Leonard Peltier has become an icon for the oppression and injustices practiced by the United States historically and persistently upon Indigenous Peoples.”

Dennis Banks, an AIM leader at the occupation of Wounded Knee, summed up the sentiment of defiance in the room at the end of the three-day meeting. “We’re long distance people. We’re not here for a 100 yard dash. We’re not here for half a marathon.We’re here for a lifetime marathon of defending our people. Who we are is who Leonard Peltier is. Who killed those agents? The FBI killed them! They set the stage all these years… We are the subject of the longest undeclared war in the history of the United States government. We are at war every day.”

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