By Derrick Broze
On the 40th anniversary of the gunfight at the Pine Ridge Reservation, imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier is calling on President Obama to grant him clemency before the end of his presidency.
On June 26, 1975, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) were involved in a gun fight with agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. When the exchange of gunfire was finished three men were dead – Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams of the FBI and Joe Stuntz, a member of AIM.
On February 6, 1976, AIM member Leonard Peltier would be arrested and extradited from Canada after being accused of being the one who fired the shots that killed Coler and Williams. Peltier was born on September 12, 1944 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He is a Turtle Mountain Chippewa on his father’s side, and a Dakota Sioux on his mother’s. Peltier spent his childhood on the Turtle Mountain reservation near Belcourt, North Dakota before moving to Seattle, Washington. In the 1970s he would get involved in Native activism and join the American Indian Movement.
For the last 50 years, AIM has led the charge in the “Red Power” movement that calls attention to the injustices and oppression taking place against Native communities. AIM established itself as a force to be reckoned with through a series of protests and occupations during the late 1960s and 1970s. These actions included the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island, the 1972 “Trail of Broken Treaties” and occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, the 1973 Wounded Knee Incident, the occupation of Mount Rushmore, the Longest Walk, and the gunfight on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Although Peltier was convicted of first degree murder in 1977, and subsequently sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, his role in the murders has been the subject of controversy since the very beginning. Special Agents Coler and Williams originally came to the Pine Ridge Reservation in search of a man named Jimmy Eagle who was wanted for questioning in an assault and robbery case. The two agents were driving separate unmarked vehicles while following a red pick-up truck which matched a description of Jimmy Eagle. Williams and Coler would later report that they were under fire from occupants of the truck and unable to return fire. The men radioed that they would likely be killed if reinforcements did not arrive.
Once the gunfight ended, the FBI began investigating and looking for someone to pin the murders on. Leonard Peltier was at the reservation but has always maintained that he was innocent. To be certain, over the years Peltier has given different alibis to different people. Peltier was reported to be driving a vehicle that was red and white and was wanted for questioning. After being added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives he went to live in Alberta, Canada.
On February 6, 1976, he was arrested and extradited from Canada. His arrest was conducted based on signed affidavits from Myrtle Poor Bear, a local woman from the Pine Ridge Reservation. In the affidavits Poor Bear claimed to have been dating Peltier at the time and also claimed to have witnessed the murders. In 2000, 25 years later, Myrtle Poor Bear admitted she had been forced to make the confessions.
“I was forced into this, and I feel very awful. I just wish that Leonard Peltier will get out of prison,” Myrtle Poor Bear confessed in 2000.
Now, on the 40th anniversary of the murders, Leonard Peltier has released a letter calling for support and asking President Obama to grant him clemency and release him from prison. He also spoke of his declining health and the need to act quick to get him proper treatment (see below for the full letter).
“My health issues still have not been thoroughly addressed, and I still have not gotten the results of the MRI done over a month ago for the abdominal aortic aneurysm,” Peltier writes. “As the last remaining months of President Obama’s term pass by, my anxiety increases. I believe that this President is my last hope for freedom, and I will surely die here if I am not released by January 20, 2017.”
In May 2016, Jasmine Heiss, senior campaigner for Amnesty International USA’s Individuals at Risk Campaign, asked “Is it time to free Native American activist Leonard Peltier?”.
“The long and complicated case history reveals a pattern of misconduct by the FBI, including the coercion of an alleged eyewitness, suppression of potentially exculpatory evidence and deep concerns about the agency’s political motivation for so zealously pursuing the case,” Heiss wrote. “The U.S. Parole Commission has acknowledged to Peltier the “lack of any direct evidence that you personally participated in the executions of two FBI agents.”
In Amnesty International’s 2010 annual report, Peltier’s case was also placed under the “Unfair Trials” category.
As of 2016, Leonard Peltier is incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary, Coleman in Florida. His next scheduled parole hearing will be in July 2024. Barring appeals, parole or presidential pardon, his projected release date is October 11, 2040.
Find out how you can help achieve Peltier’s freedom here whoisleonardpeltier.info
Letter from Leonard Peltier:
Sisters, brothers, friends and supporters:
June 26th marks 41 years since the long summer day when three young men were killed at the home of the Jumping Bull family, near Oglala, during a firefight in which I and dozens of others participated. While I did not shoot (and therefore did not kill) FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, I nevertheless have great remorse for the loss of their young lives, the loss of my friend Joe Stuntz, and for the grieving of their loved ones. I would guess that, like me, many of my brothers and sisters who were there that day wish that somehow they could have done something to change what happened and avoid the tragic outcome of the shootout.
This is not something I have thought about casually and then moved on. It’s something I think about every day. As I look back, I remember the expressions of both fear and courage on the faces of my brothers and sisters as we were being attacked. We thought we were going to be killed! We defended our elders and children as they scattered for protection and to escape. Native people have experienced such assaults for centuries, and the historical trauma of the generations was carried by the people that day — and in the communities that suffered further trauma in the days that followed the shootout, as the authorities searched for those of us who had escaped the Jumping Bull property.
As the First Peoples of Turtle Island, we live with daily reminders of the centuries of efforts to terminate our nations, eliminate our cultures, and destroy our relatives and families. To this day, everywhere we go there are reminders — souvenirs and monuments of the near extermination of a glorious population of Indigenous Peoples. Native Peoples as mascots, the disproportionately high incarceration of our relatives, the appropriation of our culture, the never-ending efforts to take even more of Native Peoples’ land, and the poisoning of that land all serve as reminders of our history as survivors of a massive genocide. We live with this trauma every day. We breathe, eat and drink it. We pass it on to our children. And we struggle to overcome it.
Like so many Native children, I was ripped away from my family at the age of 9 or so and taken away to get the “Indian” out of me at a boarding school. At that time, Native Peoples were not able to speak our own languages for fear of being beaten or worse. Our men’s long hair, which is an important part of our spiritual life, was forcibly cut off in an effort to shame us. Our traditional names were replaced by new European-American names. These efforts to force our assimilation continue today. Not long ago, I remember, a Menominee girl was punished and banned from playing on the school’s basketball team because she taught a classmate how to say “hello” and “I love you” in her Native language. We hear stories all the time about athletes and graduates who face opposition to wearing their hair long or having a feather in their cap.
With this little bit of my personal history in mind, I think it is understandable that I would then, as a young person in the 1960’s and 70’s, be active in the Indigenous struggle to affirm our human, civil, and treaty rights. Our movement was a spiritual one to regain our ceremonies and traditions and to exercise our sovereignty as native or tribal nations. For over 100 years some of our most important ceremonies could not be held. We could not sing our songs or dance to our drum. When my contemporaries and I were activists, there were no known sun dances. Any ceremony that took place had to be hidden for fear of reprisals. One of our roles as activists for the welfare of our Peoples was to create space and protection for Native peoples who were trying to reconnect to our ancient cultures and spiritual life. This was dangerous and deadly. It meant putting our lives on the line because people who participated in these ceremonies, and people who stood up for our elders and our traditional way of life, were brutally beaten, killed or disappeared. Paramilitary groups and death squads ruled some reservations and each day was a battle. If an uninvited, unknown or unrecognized vehicle pulled up to your house, the first reaction was that you were being visited by someone who meant to do you harm in some way. This was learned behavior on the reservations. This was excruciatingly true in the 1970’s.
Hey, I don’t want to be all doom and gloom here. I see over the decades that in some important ways, life has improved for our Peoples. President Obama’s extraordinary efforts to forge a strong relationship with our Tribal Nations is good cause for a new sense of optimism that our sovereignty is more secure. By exercising our sovereignty, life for our people might improve. We might begin to heal and start the long journey to move past the trauma of the last 500 years. But what will we do if the next Administration rolls back those gains made over the past 8 years?
I often receive questions in letters from supporters about my health. Yes, this last year has been particularly stressful for me and my family. My health issues still have not been thoroughly addressed, and I still have not gotten the results of the MRI done over a month ago for the abdominal aortic aneurysm.
As the last remaining months of President Obama’s term pass by, my anxiety increases. I believe that this President is my last hope for freedom, and I will surely die here if I am not released by January 20, 2017. So I ask you all again, as this is the most crucial time in the campaign to gain my freedom, please continue to organize public support for my release, and always follow the lead of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.
Thank you for all you have done and continue to do on my behalf.
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse…