Leonard Peltier: Silence Screams

The Message

Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity.

But silence is impossible.

Silence screams.

Silence is a message,

just as doing nothing is an act.

Let who you are ring out and resonate

in every word and deed.

Yes, become who you are.

There’s no sidestepping your own being

or your own responsibility.

What you do is who you are.

You are your own comeuppance.

You become your own message.

You are the message.

In the spirit of Crazy Horse,

Leonard Peltier

31 years behind bars!

Leonard Peltier will be 63 years old on September 12, 2007. It’s an international day for demanding the immediate, unconditional freedom of this Native American artist, writer, and activist–one of the most widely recognized political prisoners in the world.

Leonard has spent more than 31 years in some of the cruelest prisons in the United States, unjustly condemned to a double life sentence for the shooting death of two FBI agents in 1975. His situation is now aggravated by health problems.

From his cell in the federal prison at Lewisberg, Pennsylvania, he keeps right on struggling for the rights of indigenous people. He’s contributed to the establishment of libraries, schools, scholarships, and battered women’s shelters among many other projects. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and again in 2007.

“My crime’s being an Indian. What’s yours?”

In his autobiography My Life Is My Sun Dance, Leonard explains that his bloodline is mainly Ojibway and Dakota Sioux and that he was adopted by the Lakota Sioux and raised on their reservations “in the land known to you as America… but I don’t consider myself an American.”

“I know what I am. I am an Indian–an Indian who dared to stand up to defend his people. I am an innocent man who never murdered anyone nor wanted to. And, yes, I am a Sun Dancer. That, too, is my identity. If I am to suffer as a symbol of my people, then I suffer proudly. I will never yield.”

Leonard tells us that when he was nine years old a big black government car drove up to his house to take him and the other kids away to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school in Wahpeton, Dakota del Norte. When they got there, they cut off their long hair, stripped them, and doused them with DDT powder.

“I thought I was going to die… that place… was more like a reformatory than a school… I consider my years at Wahpenton my first imprisonment, and it was for the same crime as all the others: being an Indian.”

He goes on to say that “We had to speak English. We were beaten if we were caught speaking our own language. Still, we did… I guess that’s where I became a “hardened criminal,” as the FBI calls me. And you could say that the first infraction in my criminal career was speaking my own language. There’s an act of violence for you… The second was practicing our traditional religion.”

When Leonard Peltier was a teen-ager, President Eisenhower launched a program to eliminate the reservations and move the people off, giving them a small payment. Leonard remembers that the words “termination” and “dislocation” became the most feared words in the people’s vocabulary. The process of fighting against dislocation was his first experience as an activist.

During the 60s, Leonard worked as a farm worker and, later, in an auto body shop in Seattle. At that time he got his first taste of community organizing. At the beginning of the 70s, he joined up with the American Indian Movement (AIM), initially inspired by the Black Panthers.

In 1972, he participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties, a march/caravan from Alcatraz in California to Washington D.C. and also in the occupation of the BIA in the nation’s capital. He became a target of the FBI program to “neutralize” AIM leaders and was set up and jailed at the end of the year.

1973: The occupation of Wounded Knee

One of AIM’s boldest actions was the occupation of the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the same place where the United States Army carried out its cowardly, infamous massacre of 300 Lakota people in 1890.

At the beginning of the 70s, AIM was getting together with the Lakota Indians who were true to their ancient traditions and wanted to hold on to their culture and their lands.

The BIA, worried about AIM’s growing influence in the area, imposed Dick Wilson as tribal chairman on the reservation, running roughshod over the will of the traditional elders and chiefs.

The puppet Wilson hated the AIM militants and allied himself with the FBI to destroy the movement that the agency saw as a threat to the American way of life. His paramilitary group known as the “GOONS” (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) had committed a long chain of abuses against the people.

On the night of February 27, around 300 Lakota and 25 AIM members occupied the town of Wounded Knee, joined by several Chicanos, Black, and white supporters. They opposed the murders of Native “Americans” on the reservation, the extreme poverty that the people lived in, and the corrupt tribal government. They demanded that the government respect the ancient treaties signed with native peoples to protect their territory and autonomy.

The next day, General Alexander Haig ordered an invasion. According to Ward Churchill and Jim Vanderwall, in their book Agents of Repression, “In the first instance since the Civil War that the U.S. Army had been dispatched in a domestic operation, the Pentagon invaded Wounded Knee with 17 armored personnel carriers, 130,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 41,000 rounds of M-1 ammunition, 24,000 flares, 12 M-79 grenade launchers, 600 cases of C-S gas, 100 rounds of M-40 explosives, helicopters, phantom jets, and personnel, all under the direction of General Alexander Haig.”

The operation also relied on 500 heavily armed policemen, federal marshals, and BIA and FBI agents. They surrounded Wounded Knee and set up barricades all along the road.

The occupation lasted 71 days and ended only after the government promised to investigate the complaints, something that never happened.

The next three years were known as the “reign of terror” on Pine Ridge. More than 300 people associated with AIM were violently attacked and many of their homes were burned. During these years more than 60 Native American people were killed by paramilitaries armed and trained by the FBI. There was also an increase of FBI SWAT team agents on the reservation.

It’s now known, as a result of a suit based on the Freedom of Information Act, that AIM activities on and off the reservation were under FBI surveillance and that the FBI was preparing the paramilitary operations on Pine Ridge a month before the shootout at Oglala.

Oglala: The fatal shootout

In a situation that was getting worse all the time, the Council of Elders at the Jumping Bull ranch near the town of Oglala asked AIM to come back to the reservation to protect them. Leonard Peltier, along with many other AIM members and non-members, responded to the call and set up camp on the ranch.

On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ron Williamsen, followed a red pick-up truck onto the Jumping Bull ranch. They were supposedly looking for young Jimmy Eagle, who was said to have stolen a pair of cowboy boots.

A shootout began between the FBI agents and the people in the pick-up, trapping a family in the crossfire. Several mothers fled the area with their children while other people fired in self-defense. More than 150 FBI SWAT team members, BIA police, and GOONS surrounded approximately 30 AIM men, women, and children and opened fire. Leonard Peltier helped a group of young people to escape from the rain of bullets.

When the shootout ended, AIM member Joseph Killsright Stuntz was found dead, shot in the head. His death has never been investigated.

Coler and Williamsen were wounded during the shootout and then killed at point blank range. The two agents had in their possession a map with the Jumping Bull ranch marked on it.

According to FBI documents, more than forty Native Americans participated in the shootout, but only four were charged with killing the two agents: three AIM leaders–Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, and Leonard Peltier–and Jimmy Eagle.

Butler and Robideau were the first to be arrested, and at their trial they stated that they had fired in self-defense. The jury believed the act was justified due to the atmosphere of terror that prevailed at Pine Ridge at the time. They were both found innocent.

The FBI was furious about the verdict and dropped the charges against Jimmy Eagle, according to their memos, “…in order to direct the full weight of the prosecution on Peltier.

Meanwhile, Leonard Peltier went to Canada, believing that he would never have a fair trial. On February 6, he was arrested and then extradited to the United States due to the statement of a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear, who said she had been his girlfriend and had seen him fire at the agents. As a matter of fact, she had never known him and was not present at the time of the shootout. In a later statement, she said that she had been coerced into giving false testimony as a result of being terrorized by FBI agents.

Two life sentences!?

The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee has cited a number of examples of the injustice of the trial:

-The case wasn’t brought before the judge who had presided over the trial of Robideau and Butler, but instead before another judge with a reputation for making decisions favorable to the prosecution.

-Myrtle Poor Bear and other important witnesses were forbidden to testify about FBI misconduct.

-Testimony about the “reign of terror” on the Pine Ridge Reservation was severely limited.

-Important evidence, such as conflicting ballistic reports, was deemed inadmissible.

-The red pick-up that had been followed onto the ranch was suddenly described as Peltier’s “red and white van.”

-The jury was isolated and surrounded by federal marshals, making jurors believe that AIM was a security threat to them.

-Three young Native Americans were forced to give false testimony against Peltier after having been arrested and terrorized by FBI agents.

-The prosecutor couldn’t produce a single witness who could identify Peltier as the shooter.

-The government said that a cartridge found near the bodies was fired from the presumed murder weapon, and alleged that this was the only pistol of its kind used during the shootout and that it belonged to Peltier.

As a result of the Freedom of Information Act suit, FBI documents turned over to the defense showed that:

1. More than one weapon of the type attributed to Peltier had been present at the scene. 2. The FBI intentionally hid the ballistics report showing that the cartridge could not have come from the presumed murder weapon.

3. There was no doubt whatsoever that the agents followed a red pick-up onto the territory, and not the red and white van driven by Peltier.

4. Strong evidence against several other suspects existed and was withheld.

None of this evidence was presented to the jury that found Leonard Peltier guilty. He was given two consecutive life sentences.

Two consecutive life sentences?! How do they plan to implement that? Doesn’t the sentence reflect a deep fear of the spirit of Crazy Horse?

Bill Clinton: at the service of the FBI

The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee explains that a new trial was sought after several of these abuses came to light. During one hearing, the federal prosecutor admitted that “…we can’t prove who shot the agents”. The court realized that Peltier could have been found innocent if the evidence hadn’t been unduly withheld by the FBI, but a new trial was denied on the basis of technical errors.

The Committee says:

In 1993, Peltier requested Executive Clemency from President Bill Clinton. An intensive campaign was launched and supported by Native and human rights organizations, members of Congress, community and church groups, labor organizations, luminaries, and celebrities. Even Judge Heaney, who authored the court decision [denying a new trial], expressed firm support for Peltier’s release. The Peltier case had become a national issue.

On November 7, 2000, during a live radio interview, Clinton stated that he would seriously consider Peltier’s request for clemency and make a decision before leaving office on January 20, 2001.

In response, the FBI launched a major disinformation campaign in both the media and among key government officials. Over 500 FBI agents marched in front of the White House to oppose clemency. On January 20, the list of clemencies granted by Clinton was released to the media. Without explanation, Peltier’s name had been excluded.

The efforts of the defense team are now focused on obtaining more than 6,000 documents that are still being retained by the FBI and on urging Congress to investigate FBI misconduct on Pine Ridge and the “reign of terror” that existed between 1973 and 1976.

In a recent letter Leonard said: “If my case stands as it is, no common person has real freedom. Only the illusion until you have something the oppressors want…

In the spirit of Crazy Horse, who never gave up.”

Let’s not let it stand as it is.

This September 12, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee has announced cultural events in different parts of the world. In Philadelphia there will be a demonstration to demand freedom for Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the MOVE 9, and the Cuban 5, convened by the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal (ICFFMAJ), Philadelphia Jericho, Philadelphia Anarchist Black Cross, the African Peoples Solidarity Committee, and the Uhuru Solidarity Movement.

What will you do?

Write a letter to Leonard:

Leonard Peltier # 89637-132
USP Lewisburg
PO BOX 1000
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania 17837

To sign an online petition or obtain information about letter writing campaigns, consult the page of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.


Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, case summaries

Leonard Peltier, My Life is My Sun Dance

Ward Churchill and Jim Vanderwall, Agents of Repression

Carolina Saldaña is an activist in Mexico. Read other articles by Carolina, or visit Carolina's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Timber said on September 12th, 2007 at 9:31am #

    I’m just waiting for some white pacifist liberal to post an allegation here that Peltier is an agent provacateur who undermined his movement’s “credibility” by refusing to work within the system….

    I highly recommend the film “Incident at Oglala” for an overview of Leonard’s case, and the book “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” for an in-depth analysis.

  2. Hans Bennett said on September 20th, 2007 at 9:03am #

    A Message from Leonard Peltier

    To: Leonard Peltier Supporters
    From: Leonard Peltier and Leonard Peltier Defense Committee
    The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee kindly requests that you please forward this annoucement in its entirety, please do not modify, edit, remove or add to this annoucement. Please refer to Note Section, after Leonard Peltiers’ message for Leonard’s address and additional information.


    Toni Zeidan-Co-director LPDC

    A Message from Leonard Peltier:

    Greetings My Relatives,

    You know I was just thinking there should be a degree one could receive for having expertise on doing prison time. I think I would be called Professor Peltier, PhD. with 30 years tenure. A friend of mine said once, PhD where he
    is from stands for post hole digger. I think I would at this time, embrace being a post hole digger, although I don’t relish the thought of fencing anything in after being fenced in myself for 30 + years.

    On being imprisoned, I want to touch on that subject a bit. There are some who have voiced their opinion in one way or another, that I should give up after all these years of trying to win my freedom. Aside from the oppressors who put me here, some of them are people who were at times, part of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee; others, on the fringes. My answer, to put it in a simple, colloquial phrase, that anyone can understand, .it ain’t gonna happen! There are many reasons, both physical and mental, spiritual
    and social. The number one reason is that there aren’t any women in here. That should cover the social. Eh!

    Another reason, is that the struggle is not just about me. It’s about life on earth, the struggle to survive, the onslaught of destructive technology, wealth mongering, by those who see the common man as nothing more than expendable beings to further their personal quest for power and affluence. I am here because, as a common man, along with other common men, I chose to try to stop the exploitation of my people. I know the Creator sent other common men at other times and other places and to other races to do the same. I am honored to be among common men. I know they tried to cause us to separate from alliances by color, religion, and geographic locale but our struggle is the same. It’s against people taking more than they need. In my culture it is taught that you should not take more than you need. In
    Christianity, Buddhism, and Zen, as well as most other spiritual teachings, it is taught that gluttony is a sin. Violation of this teaching is the reason for global warming, and the reason for world wars, including the war in Iraq at this time.

    Because of people who always seek to take more than they need, my people have suffered greatly. They are the poorest of the poor yet most still cling to the original teachings. They have fought for several generations for the exploitation of our land, illegal occupation of our land, unjust treatment in the U.S. judicial system, and most of all, government lies and liars that have led the American people to believe all this exploitation and violation of treaties is in their best interest. I watch TV from time to time, and I notice there are those who try to make the wars like a war betweenreligions. I tell you my relatives, it is only a ruse to get young men to die for those who crave wealth and power over the common man.

    If the many denominations of religions would stand together as one against the violation that jeopardizes life itself, it would make a major difference throughout the world. Today, more than any other time in history, you are either part of the problem or part of the solution. I may, by now, have written more than you care to read. But, from where I sit myself, it’s the best I can do. The Defense Committee that bears my name struggles to help enlighten people of events and needs of people in jeopardy. I don’t use the
    word struggle lightly. Aside from trying to raise money for attorneys and office expenses, etc., we raise money for food and clothing for needy people on reservations in urban areas. In my world, the poor are common. I am honored to be one of them, to represent them from time to time, though it be from afar. We as Native People look to the Creator’s greatest manifestation for teachings, Mother Earth and her system of nature, along with personal visions, from time to time. In that, we see grass though encased in concrete, pushing its way through the cracks. We see the trees and water break down the structures of man that imprison them. We see everywhere, all life trying to follow the original instruction given by the Creator.

    If I were a blade of grass, I would grow out of here. If I were water, I would flow away from here. If I were a ray of light, I would bounce off these walls and be gone. However, I am not and unless I, at some future time, receive my freedom that was unjustly taken in the same manner as was the freedom of so many Native People before me. I can only leave here through my paintings, written words, and some other forms of communication that are sometimes available. I am in my 60’s now. If I end up spending all my days here, and my last breath rides on the wind, and the moisture of my body flows to the sea, and the elements of my being make the grass grow and the trees flourish, make no mistake they can kill my body but they can’t kill me. I am a common man.

    The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee will continue working on my behalf and towards my freedom unless you the supporters tell me to close down the Defense Committee. Having said all this, I wish to ask you, if you can in
    any way help us, meaning the Defense Committee, send any donation to :

    Leonard Peltier Defense Committee
    3800 N. Mesa A2
    El Paso, Texas 79902

    Please do so, it is a common cause. If my case stands as it is, no common person has real freedom. Only the illusion until you have something the oppressors want. Back to being a post hole digger.. I’d rather be a free post hole digger than Professor Leonard Peltier, PhD.

    May the Creator bless you with all you need.

    In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, who never gave up
    All my relations,

    Leonard Peltier

  3. TG said on October 19th, 2007 at 3:13am #

    A.I.M. is MURDER

    Leonard Peltier said, “The ‘MF’ was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.”

    The agents were murdered execution style with coup de grace bullets to the head, as they lay wounded near their vehicle. Peltier is now serving two life sentences for the murders.


    Tim Giago: AIM responsible for Anna Mae’s death
    Tuesday, September 4, 2007
    Filed Under: Opinion

    Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a Mi’kmaq Indian from Canada, was brutally murdered in 1975. Her murder can only be described as a conspiracy and a cover-up by the American Indian Movement.
    One man, Arlo Looking Cloud, an Oglala Lakota, and a member of AIM, is serving life in prison for her murder while his accomplice, the man he accused of pulling the trigger, John “Boy” Graham, a native of the Yukon in Canada, is awaiting extradition to the United States to stand trial.
    Looking Cloud and Graham, in the parlance of the Mafia, were foot soldiers. They did not make the decisions of life and death but they were merely the tools that carried out the orders of their superiors. After 32 years have passed, who gave the order to kill Ms. Aquash? Who are these conspirators? What did they know and when did they know it?
    Anna Mae was murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. …
    The FBI does not come away with totally clean hands in its dealings with Native Americans. Too often its agents entered Indian reservations with little or no knowledge of the Native culture, traditions or customs and oftentimes increased tensions between differing factions unnecessarily, if not deliberately.

    Too many movies and too many books have glorified AIM and told only one side of the story. It would be a terrible miscarriage of justice if only the foot soldiers are prosecuted and not those that gave the order to murder Anna Mae or those that knew about it and failed to prevent it or to report it.