By Mordecai Specktor
Free Leonard Peltier
In 1978, I began corresponding with Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement (AIM) activist serving two consecutive life sentences for aiding and abetting the killing of two FBI agents. His case comes out of the June 26, 1975, shootout at the Jumping Bull ranch, near Oglala on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (So. Dakota).
Peltier, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe (No. Dakota), was one of the AIM members who came to Pine Ridge at the behest of traditional Lakota people suffering during a reign of terror perpetrated by the tribal government led by Dick Wilson and his goon squads, which were backed by the FBI. Amid the right-wing outcry over the recent FBI search of former Pres. Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, the history of the FBI’s counter-insurgency operation, from 1973-1976, on South Dakota Indian reservations is never mentioned.
Following the 1973 AIM occupation of the village of Wounded Knee, violence flared at Pine Ridge. There were numerous unsolved murders. In the aftermath of the shootout at Oglala, in which two FBI agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler, and Joe Stuntz, an Indian man, were killed, the FBI launched the largest manhunt in its history. After the acquittal of Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, in a federal court trial in Cedar Rapid, Iowa, U.S. government prosecutors focused on Peltier.
In 1976, he was arrested by RCMP agents in Alberta, Canada, and extradited to the U.S. with an affidavit obtained by coercing a mentally unstable Native woman named Myrtle Poor Bear. She did not know Leonard Peltier.
After exchanging a number of letters with Peltier, I succeeded in gaining a press interview with him in 1980, when he was locked up in the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, a forbidding place known then as the “new Alcatraz.” I also interviewed him in 1985, at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. On both visits, I was accompanied by the late Dick Bancroft, who photographed seminal AIM events.
There have been numerous legal appeals and petitions for presidential clemency over the years. Nothing has worked and Peltier, 78, is now in his 47th year of incarceration, and he’s in poor health. His case has become a cause célèbre in Indian Country, and has been championed by numerous entertainers, the Dalai Lama, Amnesty International, etc. The FBI and the FBI Agents Association, a group of current and former FBI agents, are committed to seeing Peltier die in prison. In 1993, I wrote a cover story about the Peltier case for the Twin Cities Reader, the defunct alternative weekly. I had talked previously with Nicholas O’Hara, then the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office, which oversees Minnesota and the Dakotas. O’Hara refused to talk to me for the Reader article. He even refused to sit for the freelance photographer sent to his office by the newspaper; the Reader ended up hiring an artist to create an illustration from a press photo of O’Hara.
Anyway, on Sept. 1, AIM sent off about 20 people from South Minneapolis on a walk to Washington, D.C. The 1,100-mile walk is an attempt to gain justice for Peltier. It’s time that the U.S. government releases Leonard; he should live out his remaining years with his family and friends.
“A piece of every single one of us is sitting in that cell with Leonard Peltier,” Rachel Thunder, lead organizer of the walk to Washington, told supporters at a rally in Cedar Avenue Field Park, as reported in the Star Tribune. “Until he is free, none of us is free.”
Elections 2022: Mary Peltola wins
Following the 2020 presidential election, which was won by Joe Biden and branded as “rigged and stolen” by the previous occupant of the White House, it’s going to be difficult to hold free and fair elections in this country. The 2022 midterm elections are around the corner, and we can expect that Republican losers, from the faction in thrall to Trump, will be bad sports, again.
In the meantime, we can celebrate the historic special congressional election in Alaska on Aug. 31 that was won by Mary Peltola, a former state legislator who is Yup’ik. She will be the first Native woman from Alaska elected to Congress.
And sweetening Peltola’s victory is the fact that she defeated Sarah Palin, who some might remember as the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008. Palin was viewed as a “game changer,” but Republican bigwigs soon realized that she was an idiot and an egomaniac. Barack Obama and Joe Biden won the 2008 presidential election.