Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance
By Leonard Peltier
Edited by Harvey Arden
Paperback: 243 pages
(St. Martin’s Griffin, June 2000)
The story of American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier (Gwarth-ee-lass, “He Leads the People”) cries for justice — not just for Peltier, but for Original Peoples everywhere. Peltier was arrested in Canada on 6 February 1976, extradited, charged and sentenced for the killing of two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents at Oglala Oyanke (Pine Ridge “Reservation”) in South Dakota. He still remains imprisoned on the concocted evidence.
Oglala Oyanke is the home to the Lakota (Sioux) Nation, which, pointing to a string of broken treaties, declared its independence from the US in December 2007. On 26 June 1975, FBI agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler were searching for a Pine Ridge man, Jimmy Eagle, wanted for the theft of a pair of cowboy boots. They entered a homestead on Oglala Oyanke and began a firefight. In the documentary film Incident at Okala, AIM spokesman John Trudell claimed, of the agents: “They were there to make trouble.” The agents killed AIM activist Joe Stuntz and were themselves killed.
AIM members Darrell Butler and Robert Robideau were arrested. Citing self-defense, they were found not guilty by a jury of the two murders. This did not apply to Peltier.
Former United States attorney general Ramsey Clarke spoke of a grave miscarriage of justice in the case of Peltier:
I think I can explain beyond serious doubt that Leonard Peltier has committed no crime whatsoever. Even if he had been guilty of firing a gun that killed two FBI agents — and it is certain that he did not — it would still have been in self-defense and in the defense not just of his people but of the right of all individuals and peoples to be free from domination and exploitation.
The violence has a long ago historical basis with the westward expansionism and territorial theft by colonialists. Indigenous blood flowed at the Wounded Knee Massacre, where women and children were slaughtered by the US military in 1890.
In modern times, anger erupted on 27 February 1973 with a violent 71-day siege of the Pine Ridge reservation by government paramilitaries (self-styled GOONS — alleged to be responsible for “assassinations of over 60 AIM members and sympathizers“), FBI agents, and the National Guard against the AIM protectors of the Lakota people. It became trivialized as the Wounded Knee Incident. Violence continued to beset Pine Ridge after the siege ended.
Following the shooting of the two FBI men, US justice [sic] demanded vengeance. Thus began the manhunt for Peltier.
Eventually, Peltier was apprehended in Canada and extradited based on falsified affidavits presented to Canadian officials. In 1977, Peltier was sentenced to imprisonment for two life terms.
Peltier wrote about his ordeal, his philosophy, and being an “Indian” in his autobiography, Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance.
Peltier denounced the legal circus that swirled around him:
[T]he prosecution, without a qualm, tossed in endless lies and fabricated evidence and phony witnesses, and the judge allowed all of it. This was the American judicial system at its very worst, scoffing at — even spitting on — the very principles of truth and fairness and justice on which it is supposedly founded.
Peltier recognizes this so-called justice to be systematic.
Think of all the cops and judges and guards and lawyers who’d be out of work if they didn’t have Indians to oppress! We keep the system going. We help give the American system of injustice the criminals it needs.
Appeals to US presidents to use their power to commute judicial sentences have been rejected in the case of Peltier. US appeals judge Gerald Heaney who denied a new trial, now admits that the FBI used improper tactics to convict Peltier and that the FBI was equally responsible for the shoot-out.
Peltier wrote that his “last best hope of freedom” was a pardon from then president Bill Clinton. Clinton reportedly promised he would give Peltier an answer one way or the other — a promise he, allegedly, reneged on. Surprisingly, this question does not dog Bill or Hillary Clinton during Hillary’s election campaign.
Editor Harvey Arden asks, “So why is this story of Judicial Racism hidden from the public eye?”
Arden notes a plethora of dignitaries have called for Peltier’s release, among them the late pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Amnesty International, International Indian Treaty Council, the UN high commissioner on Human Rights, archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Mikhail Gorbachev, Gloria Steinem, Wilma Mankiller, Robert Redford, and the European Parliament.
Peltier, who is a victim of so much adversity, wrote:
If my imprisonment does nothing more than educate an unknowing and uncaring public about the terrible conditions Native Americans and all indigenous people around the world continue to endure, then my suffering has had — and continues to have — a purpose. My people’s struggle to survive inspires my own struggle to survive. Each of us must be a survivor.
Peltier will turn 64 this September. His case cries out for justice finally to be served. Yet what justice can there be when over 30 years of one’s life have been frittered away?
His official release date is 2041. Leonard Peltier must be freed now!
* See Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC)