Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he should be freed. Amnesty International calls him a political prisoner. The FBI says he’s a cold blooded murderer. Today an hour with jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who is in a race against time as he seeks to obtain executive clemency from President Bill Clinton in his last month of office.
On February 27, 1973, members of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, together with a number of local Native Americans began their seventy-two day occupation of Wounded Knee. They were protesting injustices against their tribes, violations of treaties, and current abuses and repression against their people. The United States government responded with a military style assault against the protesters.
Throughout the next three years, long referred to by local Native Americans as the “Reign of Terror,” the FBI carried out intensive local surveillance, as well as the repeated arrests, harassment and legal proceedings against AIM leaders and supporters. The FBI also closely collaborated with and supported the local tribal chairperson, Dick Wilson, and his selected vigilantes, the “Guardians of the Oglala nation, also known by the acronym ”GOONS.” During this period, some sixty-four local Native Americans were killed. Three hundred were harassed or beaten. No one was prosecuted.
In May of 1975 the FBI began a sizable build up of its agents, mostly SWAT members, on the reservation. SWAT teams from numerous divisions were designated for special assignment at Pine Ridge. A June 1975 FBI memo referred to the potential need for military assault forces to deal with AIM members.
On June 26, 1975 two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ron Williams, entered the Jumping Bull Ranch in South Dakota. The FBI says they were seeking to arrest a young Native American man they believed they had seen riding in a red pick up truck. A large number of AIM supporters were camping on the property at the time. The more than thirty men, women and children on the property were surrounded by more than 150 FBI agents, SWAT team members, BIA police and local posse members, and barely escaped through a hail of bullets. When the gun fight ended, a Native American named Joe Stuntz lay dead. His killing was never investigated.
The two FBI agents Coler and Williams were also dead. They had been wounded in the gun fight and then shot point blank through the head by a still unidentified assailant.
Leonard Peltier and two fellow AIM members Dino Butler and Bob Robideau were charged with first degree murder. Butler and Robideau stood trial separately from Peltier, who had fled to Canada, saying he didn’t believe he would receive a fair trial in the United States. The two men were found not guilty by reason of self defense.
Shortly after, Leonard Peltier was extradited from Canada based on an affidavit signed by Myrtle Poor Bear, a local Native American woman known to have serious mental problems. She claimed to have been Peltier’s girl friend at the time and to have witnessed the murders. But according to Peltier and others at the scene, Myrtle Poor Bear didn’t know Peltier, nor was she present at the time of the shooting. She later confessed she had given the false statement after being pressured and threatened by FBI agents Myrtle Poor Bear attempted to testify about the FBI intimidation at Leonard Peltier’s trial. But the judge barred her testimony on the grounds of mental incompetence.
When Leonard Peltier came to trial, the witnesses that placed Peltier, Robideau and Butler near the crime scene later said they were intimidated by the FBI. There is no forensic evidence as to the exact type of rifle used to commit the murders. Several different weapons present in the area during the shootout could have caused the fatal injuries. There was more than one AR-15 in the area at the time of the shoot out. The AR-15 rifle claimed to be Peltier’s was found to be incompatible with the bullet casing near the agents’ car. Although other bullets were fired at the crime scene, no other casings or evidence about them were offered by the Prosecutor’s office.
Nonetheless, Leonard Peltier was convicted of the murders and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. At Peltier’s trial the prosecutor wrapped up his case by saying “.... we proved that he went down to the bodies and executed those two young men at point blank range ....” But at the appellate hearing, the government attorney conceded “We had a murder, we had numerous shooters, we do not know who specifically fired what killing shots…we do not know, quote unquote, who shot the agents.”
- President Bill Clinton, in an interview with Democracy Now!
- Ramsey Clark, former US Attorney General, Attorney for Leonard Peltier.
- Leonard Peltier, in a Democracy Now! interview from prison conducted on June 9th. The Native American leader has spent the last 24 years of his life in prison, mainly at the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth. He was convicted of the June 26,1975 murders of two FBI agents on the Jumping Bull Ranch in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He continues to maintain his innocence.