An Interview with Leonard Peltier
From a Federal Prison, Peltier Maintains His Innocence, Makes His Case, and Speaks on Behalf of His People
By Pat Hill
Ninety nine years to the day after the last shots were fired at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, another infamous fight between Sioux Indians and white Americans took place on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Pine Ridge is where many of the Oglala Sioux warriors and their families who were at the Little Bighorn in 1876 eventually went to live. On June 26, 1975, the reservation was the site of an armed confrontation between American Indian Movement (AIM) activists and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The confrontation became known as the Pine Ridge Shootout, where two FBI agents and an AIM activist were killed.
The FBI focused its investigation on prominent AIM members known to be present during the incident. Indictments were issued against four Oglala Sioux men: Leonard Peltier, Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, with charges against a fourth man, Jimmy Eagle (not an AIM member), later dropped.
Butler and Robideau were tried for murder, before Peltier, and acquitted in July of 1976. By 1977, Peltier claims, he was the only remaining individual the FBI could blame for the deaths of the two agents, and in April of 1977 he was found guilty for their murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison.
Recently, the Montana Pioneer had an opportunity to interview Leonard Peltier, who turns 64 years old this month and remains in prison for two murders he insists he did not commit:
Montana Pioneer: Why do you think you were the “fall guy” in the 1975 incident?
Peltier: For one, the other two defendants were acquitted for reasons of self-defense and that exposed the FBI's wrong-doing publicly. The case of (AIM activist) Joe Stuntz, who was killed at that time, would also have been adjudicated as self-defense, and he was literally murdered by their sniper, and I was the only one left standing with which to try to redeem their losses in the court system, so they then went judge-shopping. They got a judge who would not allow the same testimony to be presented; they then did everything they could to intimi-date the jury by overzealous display of security. They threatened and coerced witnesses who later recanted their statements. And their ballistics expert said they had a match on a gun they attributed to me, which incidentally was not my weapon at all; however, after the freedom of information act (FOIA) we got a copy of that memo from the expert to his superiors saying he did not get a match; in essence the whole thing was a fabricated situation. The reason we knew to search the FOIA files was because we knew the truth and what he said was a lie. Another reason that I was chosen aside from all of that was because they needed someone to use as an example to others that might potentially stand up to the FBI and their underlings that abused their power on the reservation.
There was one other situation that they fabricated—that was an attempted murder warrant out of Milwaukee later dismissed as a fabrication. Every piece of evidence they used to convict me has been proven false in court. Yet I have not received another trial. The FBI with their heavy influence on the judiciary system has successfully blocked me on every turn.
Montana Pioneer: What was your involvement with the American Indian Movement?
Peltier: First of all, let me preface my answer with a clarification; AIM in essence is a movement rather than just an organization. It is a manifestation of the desperation of our people. During that time period all of our tribes were suffering extremely from poverty and neglect. And the reason I say neglect is because the U.S. Government was neglecting its true responsibilities they agreed to in exchange for our land and resources. What I and others attempted to do, and in essence we did, was bring attention to our sovereign rights, the rights we had retained when the treaties were made. I was like so many others passion-ately involved in trying to bring those truths to the world's attention. We did our very best to peacefully do that. The city, state, and federal governments did their very best to quell our efforts. They were used to using heavy-handed tactics to silence us. On the Pine Ridge Nation alone, approximately 60 of our members and supporters were murdered.
It is difficult for me to talk about some of these things without reliving the extreme emotions and loss one always feels for the untimely deaths of acquaintances, family and friends, all because they stood up against the unlawful tyranny of non-Indian America. The America that never cared or felt guilty about portraying us as undignified people on their television screen, or in some old history book that never stated truthfully the facts of our invasion or the cruelty we had to endure for generations.
Montana Pioneer: Why do you think the Federal Government seems to fear your release?
Peltier: I do not believe they fear me at all, they know the truth. They know I am not a dangerous person, they hold me as a hostage to discourage other people from possibly standing up to their valued system. In their minds, right or wrong the public is expected to lay down for them. You see examples of this, at the Ruby Ridge massacre and the Waco massacre, where they killed all those children and group members. You also see examples of this in Afghanistan and Iraq, where whole villages of men, women, and children were killed by indiscrim-inate American bombs, under the assertion that they were eliminating possible insurgents. This American government has become very adept at attaching labels to people who defend themselves, so that the general population in America will condone their behavior. You can see examples of this, such as where Bush lied to the public, and as a result 72 percent of America was in favor of the Iraqi invasion. Yet now the truth has presented itself and they are trying to save face by appealing to the public's national-istic persona, talking about winning and honor and everything as a reason to continue that illegal immoral occupation. I use these countries as examples merely because if you look deeply into the politics of it, it is not so different from what happened to our people. If we had had the same worldwide coverage, it possibly might not have happened (I say possibly because America is the main superpower in the world today). If you look at Iraq and Afghanistan's situations, they are quickly becoming much like our reservations. They will have puppet governments funded and controlled by a U.S. Government that siphoned off their resources. You don't have to be an English major to read the writing on the wall; I am in here as a warning to others, just like those men who are in Guantanamo are a warning to others—if you stand up to us you face these same consequences.
They don't care if I am guilty or innocent. I serve their purpose in here. Other than what I have mentioned, what fear could they possibly have from a 64-year-old man with dimming eyesight, arthritis, diabetes, and other health issues that render me hardly a threat to anyone. What I am is a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather, and an artist. I am a man who loves his people and wants to go home.
Montana Pioneer: How would you describe your years in confinement?
Peltier: I would like to say prison life at its very best and worst infinitely sucks. Further, I'd like to say from time to time I have been targeted because of my political activities. The government and its prosecutors are continually trying to block my efforts to win my freedom and expose their judicial wrong doings; they systematically try to block me from obtaining FBI files which I know would exonerate me. I don't know the exact conditions of everybody else, but I do know that I have been denied adequate and proper health care and I suffer greatly from that. I am sure upon reading this statement there will be FBI agents smiling with satisfaction; however, my continued incarceration has served some good purposes. My defense committee has served as a training ground for other organizers in their defense of freedom and justice.
Montana Pioneer: In your opinion, will you ever be released? What will it take? What will you do if released?
Peltier: I want to start with the third part of this question, because that is the easiest to answer. I am tired, I want to go home. I want to continue my art work, I want to plant a garden, I want to walk in the forest, I want to walk in the fields, I just want to lie down on the grass and feel the sun against my skin. I want to be able to hold my family close to me and not have someone tell me time's up.
I could go on and on about what I would do if I get out, but these are the basics other than I would get some immediate health care.
At this writing I can't even shut my lower jaw because of inadequate health care. I can't chew my food, I have trouble walking…the list goes on. But more than anything I want to go home. If you follow the laws at the time of my conviction I should have been released already.
As to whether I will ever get out, it will obviously take some large measures of public opinion because the judiciary system of America is totally interlaced with bureaucratic influences that perpetuate FBI control over judges, prosecutors and court proceedings.
At this point, I think only a massive public outcry would result in my receiving any measure of justice. We have over the years proven again and again that every piece of evidence used to convict me has been false. The FBI with its unlimited resources has done everything it possibly can to keep me in prison. My supporters and family have limited resources, very limited resources; but the FBI has the unlimited resources of the most powerful government in the world today. It's amazing that they haven't successfully had me assassinated since I have been in here. There have been plots uncovered in the past that I know of to have me killed.
Montana Pioneer: In your opinion, have conditions improved for Native Americans since your confinement began?
Peltier: If you look at the statistics regarding Native Americans, you will see that most of the tribes since the 70s have improved their economic situation in some form. And this has been brought about by their aggressive assertion of their sovereign treaty rights. There are tribes, I should say nations, which prior to the AIM movement had only ten or fifteen employees, and now have upwards of 2000. There are educational programs that didn't exist before, there are housing programs, health programs, senior citizen programs, cultural programs and the list goes on. It's all because some people stood up and said sovereignty is our right by treaty and the constitution says treaty law is the supreme law of the land. And, with what sovereignty we have retained, we choose to decide for ourselves our needs in accordance with our values, exerting our rights of empowerment under those articles of the treaties.
I, however, fear that at some future point there will possibly be concerted backlash against us because of our successes in business and other ventures. I fear this because I see a concerted effort by writers across the countries to sway public opinions by past AIM organizers. I have come to believe that some of these writers are funded by other entities within the government. In the past, when we were initially organizing to bring about changes, our elders had little or no political experience. However, today, most of those American Indian Movement organ-izers are the elders. They are quite adept at bringing attention to the public about any attacks upon our people. So, I see, or at least it appears to me, that there is some concerted effort to discredit them, and categorize the American Indian Movement as some adverse entity, as opposed to it being a manifestation of the desperations of a whole race of people.
Ultimately, I would like to say yes, conditions have improved, but there is still vast room for more improvement; we are still the poorest of the poor. And we are still statistically considered to be extremely disrupted culturally, and have extreme health needs in many areas, as well as high suicide rates and infant mortality rates.
Also, I would like to say, historically, from the very beginning, our people have time and again expressed the need for people to live in harmony with the creator, the mother earth, fellow man, and respect our brother's vision. In the past and the present, we have been respon-sible for the greatest gains; cultivated foods and medicines; democratic government, and many other areas of concern. Yet it took a team of scientists and Al Gore to alert the world to global warming? It is a written fact that our people had warned of all these consequences of wrongful environmental behavior since our very first contact with the non-Indians. There was a time when our elders used to say to us, “You can't function with one foot in the white man's canoe and one foot in the Indian's canoe.” With these extreme environmental concerns taking place on the earth, mankind is all in the same boat. Or better be.
Montana Pioneer: What can Native Americans do to further improve their lives?
Peltier: That is a tough question because there are so many things that we could do but education would be our primary need in this regard. And in obtaining this education we need to also educate ourselves and others to the truths that we have possessed from the beginning that allow men to live in harmony with one another.
Montana Pioneer: What can Native Americans do to retain their culture and pride, yet still participate fully in the greater American economy?
Peltier: There is probably a high percentage of Native Americans as well as non-Indians who feel that participating in this greater American economy that you mentioned is and has become a recipe for disaster in the long term, because the response to social and environmental problems has been responded to with a drug mentality, which is to say, anything for the quick fix. And it has trained the public to always believe they are one purchase away from happiness. This type of thinking isn't in anyone's best interest for making a stronger economy.
Montana Pioneer: What programs/issues/movements do you see as integral at this time for Natives?
Peltier: The Government honoring our treaties and sovereignty is first and foremost. These issues are still the top priority which Obama, if elected, has promised us. For us, we should implement the most impor-tant programs right now: they are programs to teach the children a positive sense of dignity, self-worth, and the importance of sustaining their culture, history, language and honor as a people.
Our people still need support. Support us through writing your government officials. We are still on the verge of extinction, with continued injustices brought against us.
This United States Government needs to acknowledge and respect our sovereignty, treaties, traditional Native American values, and our human rights as a people, which under the law as written we deserve, and which should be protected.