The Leonard Peltier Case And The Movement Behind It

The Leonard Peltier Case And The Movement Behind It

Autumn Baker, Staff Writer

Every year for over four-and-a-half decades the innocence of one man has constantly been argued by native peoples and advocates for justice. Leonard Peltier is a man who was present during a shootout between tribes members and the FBI at the Pine Ridge Native reservation in South Dakota in 1975. Two FBI agents chased a red truck onto the reservation which they were prohibited from entering unless they had a warrant, when suddenly shots rang out. It’s not proven who shot first, but regardless, a gunfight ensued on the reservation, and the agents were killed. One tribal member, Joe Stuntz, was also killed, but no one has ever been held accountable for his death.

Leonard Peltier was one of many tribal members present on the reservation at the time of the shootout June 26, 1975, and like many there, upon hearing shots ring out, he took up arms to protect himself and his people. It was not proven that any bullets fired from his gun hit either of the agents. In fact, forensic evidence was withheld by prosecuting attorneys that would have exonerated him.A wooden sign that reads "ENTERING PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION"

So who really killed the agents? The FBI believed someone must be held accountable, and any native American would do. To them that meant it had to be Peltier. The only thing true is he did have a weapon that was the same type of weapon that was fired at the agents, and he was on the reservation at the time of the shooting. Of course, this type of reasoning would never hold up in a court of law today. There may have been many strong arguments made on both sides back then, but there were admittedly racist jurists, and several witnesses who had been threatened into making false statements.

While I, as a writer, would like to stay neutral and bring unbiased news, there was clearly a lot of misuse and mishandling of evidence, as well as evidence withheld on the FBI’s part, all aimed at blaming Leonard Peltier for crimes he did not commit. In addition, there was a long history of racism and intimidation in which natives housed on the reservation were known to have been harassed, bullied, and targeted by government operatives. Personally, I believe that implies ulterior motives, but that’s just me.

There were ultimately three men arrested. Two of them were acquitted on self defense claims, but one, Leonard Peltier, was convicted. His charge? Aiding and abetting. But if the other two were acquitted, who was he aiding and abetting? The case is convoluted at best, and has been considered a serious breech of criminal justice ever since. Today, even the U.S. prosecutor who put him behind bars, James Reynolds, is marching with AIM (American Indian Movement) in solidarity with their demand for clemency for Leonard Peltier.

The bottom line is this. He has long served time in prison, nearly 50 years, for a crime that was not proven he committed, and he’s getting old. An international community of world leaders and growing local groups are demanding he be released. He is clearly no threat to our society. By contrast, he is a revered leader to his people and an international icon for social justice. I wholeheartedly believe that Leonard Peltier should be granted clemency and released. He should not longer be held behind bars for reasons our government knows are wrong, unjust, and inhumane.

Leonard Peltier

This semester, students in English III The Racial and Social Justice of Ethnic Studies, had the chance to investigate this historical case for themselves. They had weeks to research the history, discuss all the issues, and develop their own ideas. Their unanimous findings were in favor of clemency for Peltier. They participated in a zoom call with an advocate for Peltier’s release at CityArts in New York, Tsipi Ben-Haim, and followed up with an organized letter-writing campaign and postcard/petition, and their teacher, Ms. Frese, mailed their communications to the White House. As of this publication, Federal Judge Kevin Sharp, Leonard Peltier’s attorney, awaits a scheduled meeting with the President in which the demands for clemency will be decided.

Meanwhile, Leonard Peltier dreams of freedom from behind bars and hopes to paint again while awaiting new word. Letters from his advocates, images of his many oil paintings, and a statement from Leonard himself, have been published in a book that can be purchased here: Proceeds from the sale of this book all go to support Leonard Pelter’s needs.

Gilbert High School’s civic engagement classes will also be making this story part of the upcoming Serve-a-thon project planned in early January. For now, students are sharing this story with their friends and families, and keeping a close eye on any new news.