Leonard Peltier and the Indian struggle for freedom
This article is based on a presentation delivered Saturday, June 20, at Socialism 2009 in Chicago.
I AM here today to talk about federal prisoner number 89637-132— man named Leonard Peltier, an innocent man who has spent more than thirty-three years in prison for a crime he did not commit. In 1977, he was sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the deaths of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, who were killed in a gunfight on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in June 1975. Peltier’s case is one of the greatest travesties of justice of modern U.S. judicial history—alongside Sacco and Vanzetti, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Leonard Peltier is one of American society’s longest serving political prisoners. His prosecution and conviction were driven solely by his participation in the American Indian Movement, also known as AIM. Leonard Peltier has been a victim—time and time again—of the racism that is embedded in the U.S. criminal justice system.
But Leonard Peltier is not simply a victim. He is a fighter, writer, activist, grandfather, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and was the presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party in 2004. Leonard, his friends, family, and comrades have fought for real justice to be done. In the years since his conviction, millions upon millions of people around the world have come to learn of his case, agree that he is innocent, and demand his freedom. This is in part due to the famous documentary, Incident at Oglala, directed by Michael Apted and narrated by Robert Redford, and the national bestselling book that everyone from the FBI to former South Dakota governor Bill Janklow tried to block from publication—Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.
This struggle has had its ups and downs. Former President Bill Clinton—a Democrat who expanded the prison system and the death penalty—refused to grant clemency to Peltier after hundreds of FBI agents marched against it in front of the White House, saving all his pardons for his wealthy benefactors like Mark Rich. This was a painful blow to many who built momentum around Peltier’s case in the 1990s—but it was a clear reflection of the Clinton presidency, which expanded the death penalty, ushered in an era of mandatory minimum sentences and zero-tolerance policies, and ended with over 2 million people incarcerated.
Following Clinton, the eight long, painful years of attacks on civil liberties by the Bush administration through the Patriot Act has rightfully led to the emergence of new cases, like the case of Dr. Sami Al-Arian, coming to the forefront. It also meant that cases like Peltier’s were pushed to the margins of political consciousness, to some degree even among activists.
But it is critical now to rebuild momentum in the case of Leonard Peltier, to put his name back at the center of the fight for justice in this country, and to radicalize new activists around his case. It is necessary to make the case to the huge numbers of people who have pursued justice for years that the last chapter of this struggle is far from having been written. Leonard Peltier is now sixty-four years old; he has diabetes and other health problems. He was attacked and brutally beaten earlier this year. He must be freed. This struggle is not over; in fact a renewed and re-energized fight can be waged and won.
Leonard had his first full parole hearing this summer, on July 28. Hundreds of supporters of Leonard Peltier demonstrated outside as the hearing was taking place. [As the ISR goes to press, the outcome of the hearing is still undecided.] With the new Obama administration appointments to the U.S. Parole Commission, the Leonard Peltier Defense-Offense Committee (LPDOC), which includes his sister, Betty Peltier-Solano, remains optimistic about the possibility of winning Leonard’s freedom. But given the history and the dynamics of this case, one thing is clear—victory is not going to be handed to us. The U.S. government went to extreme lengths to convict Peltier and to keep him in prison all these years. His conviction and incarceration are not just revenge for the deaths of two FBI agents, but a warning issued by the U.S. government to all who were part of and looked to the struggles of the 1960s for inspiration, especially the militant American Indian Movement and the antiwar, national liberation, and Black Power struggles that inspired and shaped it. To free Peltier is to vindicate what radicals have argued for years—that the real criminal of this era was the U.S. government, through its murderous FBI counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO.
Going forward, it’s key to understand why Leonard Peltier was wrongfully imprisoned and why AIM was met with such brutal repression. Our goal should be to use the lessons of this tragic incident to galvanize the fight to free Leonard Peltier and all political prisoners as part of a greater offensive against the criminal justice system.
The Incident at Oglala
On June 26, 1975, what became known as the “Incident at Oglala” occurred when two unmarked cars chased a red truck onto the Jumping Bull property on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Across the field from the road where the chase occurred was the compound where the Jumping Bull family lived and where AIM members and families had set up camp. When the agents—who hadn’t identified themselves—then began firing on the ranch, Peltier and others, who were defending the compound, fired back, not knowing who the men were or what they wanted.
Within minutes, more than 150 FBI SWAT team members, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police, and the Oglala Sioux tribal government’s armed squads known as GOONs had surrounded the ranch. The quick response has led many to believe that the incident was a deliberate provocation by the FBI. Both FBI agents and one Lakota man, Joe Killsright Stuntz, were killed. No one has ever been convicted of Joe Stuntz’s death. In fact, only one major newspaper at the time of the incident even mentioned it. The largest FBI manhunt in history followed.
Leonard Peltier had two co-defendants, Bob Robideau1 and Dino Butler, who were tried and found not guilty after a vigorous defense effort by the radical lawyer William Kunstler. Their trial was a huge embarrassment to the federal prosecutor, not to mention the FBI. They decided to go after Peltier, who had escaped to Canada, with a vengeance. The U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to a fair trial. But this is far from what Leonard Peltier got. In this trial, the defense was not allowed to present most of the evidence that prompted the jury in the first trial to acquit Butler and Robideau, and the prosecution presented fabricated evidence and coerced testimony against Peltier.
The litany of offenses committed by the government against Peltier is lengthy. The government lied, cheated, and threw the Constitution out the window to ensure a conviction. The U.S. government used three perjured affidavits to force Peltier’s extradition from Canada. To secure these, federal officials shamelessly threatened and intimidated Myrtle Poor Bear, the source of these affidavits. Poor Bear later recanted their contents entirely. The jury at Peltier’s February 1976 trial in Fargo, North Dakota, was all-white; the government used racism and fear-mongering to deliberately make the jury feel vulnerable to attack—sequestering them unnecessarily, for example. The judge, who actually had meetings with the FBI during the trial, constantly and aggressively ruled against the defense’s objections, and refused to allow Peltier’s attorneys to argue “self-defense” as his defense.
During the trial, the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Lynn Crooks, did not produce any witnesses who could identify Peltier as the one who killed the agents. The prosecution presented false evidence regarding the murder weapon; they held that there was only one AR-15 and it belonged to Peltier. Yet there were many AR-15 rifles found at the site. The government also withheld evidence—critical ballistic reports that showed the gun they said Peltier had been using could not be matched to the bullet casing they found near the agents who had been killed.
None of this is disputed by the U.S. government. At the appellate hearing in the 1980s, the government attorney conceded, “We had a murder, we had numerous shooters, we do not know who specifically fired what killing shots.... [W]e do not know, quote unquote, who shot the agents.” Though the Eighth Circuit Court at this time found that the jury in Peltier’s trial might have acquitted him had the FBI not withheld certain evidence, they refused to grant him a new trial.
This is just a barebones overview of the main injustices that colored Leonard’s trial. The United States of America did not fail Leonard Peltier beginning with his unfair trial in 1976. His entire life story was shaped by the treacherous treatment of indigenous people in this country at the hands of the U.S. government. He was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1944, the child of Anishinabe and Lakota parents, with roots in the powerful Sioux nation that once dominated the Great Plains.
The Civil War and the defeat of slavery in the South opened up a period of rapid industrial capitalist expansion in the United States, which was accompanied by a wave of railroad construction and the consolidation of U.S. control over the western territories it had acquired through war and conquest. The defeat by the U.S. government of the Plains Indians, and especially the Sioux, was absolutely decisive in this process.
Yet it certainly was no easy fight. As professor Ward Churchill says, Vietnam isn’t the first war the U.S. lost; instead, it was the famous Oglala Sioux Chief Red Cloud’s war in the late 1860s. As Dee Brown, the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, writes: “For the first time in its history the U.S. Government had negotiated a peace which conceded everything demanded by the enemy and which extracted nothing in return.” The Ft. Laramie Treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation as the “the Lakota homeland—centering on the sacred Black Hills—was reserved for their exclusive use and occupancy in perpetuity.” The Ft. Laramie Treaty was an established part of U.S. law—ratified by Congress on February 16, 1869. The reservation covered the entire area of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River.
But the Black Hills were rich in minerals, gold, and timber, and the white robber barons wanted it. Prospectors began violating the treaty almost right away. General George Armstrong Custer’s Black Hills Expedition in 1874 opened the region to a massive gold rush. Custer’s adjutant and brother-in-law, Lieutenant James Calhoun, wrote in his diary that Custer “has expressed a desire on many occasions to explore the Black Hills, believing that it would open a rich vein of wealth calculated to increase the commercial prosperity of this country.”
There was money to be made—quickly. According to Matthiessen, in 1877 “George Hearst’s Homestake Gold mine was established at Lead, in the northern hills; within two years, Homestake appeared on the NYSE [New York Stock Exchange], and within ten, an investment of $10,000 was worth $6 million—a million dollars more, that is, than had been offered by the commissioners [to the Lakota people] for all of the Black Hills.”
The Lakota were not interested in making any deals and did not conceive of these sacred hills as something that could be bought or sold. Colonel John E. Smith noted that this was “the only portion [of their reservation] worth anything to them” and concluded that, “nothing short of their annihilation will get it from them.”
This so-called “thriftless race of savages” (as the Lakota were referred to during one congressional session), under the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, managed to kill George Armstrong Custer and defeat the Seventh Cavalry in the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn in July 1876. But they were unable to stop the advance of American capitalism. Both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were eventually murdered. By the late 1800s, the U.S. had thoroughly broken the Ft. Laramie Treaty and the entire area was flooded by missionaries and mining companies. According to Indian historian Vine Deloria, “Indian landholdings were reduced from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million in 1934. Of this 48 million acres, nearly 20 million were useless for farming.”
The official policy became to “civilize” Indian peoples and end their existence as separate entities by “assimilating” them into white society. The American ruling class was honest about their aims, as the Report of the Commissioner on Indian Affairs, 1889, makes clear: “The Indian must conform to the white man’s ways, peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must. This civilization might not be the best possible, but it is the best the Indians can get. They cannot escape and must either conform to it or be crushed by it.”
The Dawes Act of 1887 legally destroyed communal ownership of land, allowing the U.S. government to break up tribal lands into private parcels, and criminalized Indian culture and religion. Indian children were herded into brutal quasi-military boarding schools that cut their hair and strictly forbade the use of their own languages. Teddy Roosevelt—whose face was blasted into a stolen mountain now known as Mount Rushmore—celebrated the Dawes Act as “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” The act set aside a limited amount of land to be divided up among individual tribal members as private plots, freeing up the rest to be declared as “surplus.” In the first thirteen years of the Dawes Act, the United States took more than 28 million more acres of “surplus” Native land.
The final blow to the Lakota Sioux was the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, where 300 Lakota, mostly women and children, were slaughtered by the Seventh Cavalry and unceremoniously buried in a mass grave. By then the various bands of the Lakota were left with five small reservations as we know them today, including Pine Ridge, administered by the much-hated Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). These reservations became pockets of deep despair and poverty.
The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, known as the “Indian New Deal,” overturned the land privatization provisions of the Dawes Act, establishing some degree of tribal self-governance and religious freedom, and providing some meager federal funds for Indian nations to try and rebuild their land base. However, the act did nothing to restore the millions of acres of lost Indian lands, and it made Native American men eligible for the military draft. Thereafter the U.S. government did business with the tribal councils; the representatives on these councils, and their policies, were based on majority vote, even if turnout was only 15 percent, as it was in one Hopi election. Moreover, all tribal decisions were subject to the approval of the secretary of the interior.
The post-Second World War period opened up a renewed era of Indian land theft. Following Washington’s emergence from the war as the world’s most powerful industrial empire, U.S. corporations eyed greedily the remaining tribal lands under which lay rich deposits of coal, oil, and uranium. By the 1960s companies like Peabody Coal, Union Carbide, Chevron, Philips Uranium, and countless others had made their way onto reservations. Some were invited on by tribal councils—using bribery and pressure—to the resentment of many. But many more got there via the “termination” and “relocation” policies developed and carried out in the mid-to late-1950s.
The trend was set by Dillon S. Myer, the man who had been in charge of the Japanese internment camps during the Second World War. As head of the BIA from 1950 to 1952, Myer interfered in tribal council elections, sold Indian land without tribal consent, and supported efforts by whites to appropriate more Indian land.
Termination was a process by which the Eisenhower administration, reverting back to the policy of assimilation, terminated its relationships (including its treaty obligations) with the tribes and handed them over to local states. Between 1954 and 1960, fifteen tribes were terminated, affecting more than 40,000 Indians, who lost their tribal status. These Indians became victims of trickery, bribery, and coercion that deprived them further of what little land they had left.
The key to making termination successful (from the government’s point of view) was “de-settling” the reservations—relocating Indians. Beginning in 1952, the government, preying on people’s desperation on reservations, lied and pressured people to move to urban areas where they were promised jobs and housing. In order to promote these relocation programs, the U.S. government refused building permits for hospitals and schools in tribal areas, and slashed food and commodity aid to the tribes. The relocation policy created a concentration of Indians in impoverished urban neighborhoods subject to the miseries of police brutality and poverty. Many were forced by poverty to sell the allotments they had received under the Dawes Act.
But by the mid-1960s, relocation had other unintended consequences. It brought people together from different tribes, which led to a renewed interest in culture and encouraged pan-Indian consciousness. And it placed young Native Americans in the very cities, communities, and in some cases, campuses in the midst of the radical upsurge that was the 1960s.
Each of these factors shaped Leonard Peltier’s life. As a child he lived with grandparents on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota in a tiny house without water and electricity. They had barely enough to eat, working the potato fields for low pay.
In 1953, like tens of thousands of other Native American children, a big black government car came and took Leonard and other children off to the BIA boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where he was tormented, disciplined, had his hair shorn, and was sprayed with DDT.
“I consider my years at Wahpeton my first imprisonment,” writes Leonard,
and it was for the same crime as all the others: being an Indian. We had to speak English. We were beaten if we were caught speaking our own language. Still, we did. We’d sneak behind the buildings, the way kids today sneak out to smoke behind the school, and we’d talk Indian to each other. I guess that’s where I first became a “hardened criminal” as the FBI calls me. And you could say that my first infraction in my criminal career was speaking my own language. There’s an act of violence for you!
After surviving the BIA boarding school, Leonard was not even fifteen when he was arrested by BIA police as he and his friends were leaving the grounds of a Sun Dance, and then again a few months later for siphoning some diesel fuel from an army truck to heat his grandmother’s freezing house.
It was no surprise, then, that in 1959 Leonard “relocated” to Portland to join his mother, where he worked in construction and other jobs. He even co-owned an auto body shop in Seattle, which failed as they began doing jobs for friends for free. As he recalled, “before long we got so deep into debt that we had to close the shop. My one attempt at capitalism was over, scuttled by that old Indian weakness: sharing with others. It’s a practice that means we’re rich as a people, but poor as individuals.”
Leonard increasingly became tuned into struggles emerging around him, such as the fishing rights struggles in Washington State. “Even though I was young, I felt I could no longer ignore the Native struggle so long as one Indian was being mistreated. Like so many others who were shaken out of their submission and lethargy and indifference during the 1960s, I joined the fight for civil and human and Indian rights.”
Roots of AIM
The civil rights and Black Power movements provided the backdrop to a rise of Indian militancy that grew out of and developed parallel to them.
The conditions were ripe for this kind of struggle. The movements for independence and decolonization in Africa and Asia, as well as the national liberation struggle in Vietnam, set the stage for Native Americans to challenge the policies of the U.S. government. In his book Custer Died for Your Sins, the celebrated Sioux author Vine Deloria noted that “President Lyndon Johnson talked about America’s ‘commitments’ and President Nixon talked about Russia’s failure to respect treaties. Indian people laugh themselves sick when they hear these statements.” After all, to quote Howard Zinn, “The U.S. government had signed more than 400 treaties with Indians and violated every single one.”
Native American political organizing in the very early 1960s consisted of moderate organizations like the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) that grew less accommodating throughout the sixties—not unlike the NAACP. In 1961, a group of radicalizing students, led by Clyde Warrior, who had worked on a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) voter education project in the summer, split from NCAI and formed the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC). NIYC condemned the BIA as a white colonialist institution and began discussing “Red power” in the pages of its newspaper, ABC (Americans Before Columbus.)
Throughout the 1960s a wave of smaller struggles unfolded mostly in Indian areas of major cities, and on campuses such as San Francisco State. LaNada Boyer, the first American Indian student at Berkeley, led a fight for an American Indian studies department. There were other key battles as well, namely the “fish-ins” that occurred in Washington State by local tribes demanding their traditional rights to fish for salmon and steelhead as guaranteed by treaties signed in the 1850s. Clearly there was an opening for actions on a much larger scale and that could take up bigger questions of Indian sovereignty and dignity.
The immediate spark that created the American Indian Movement began with the occupation of Alcatraz Island. In November 1969, seventy-eight people, most of them members of the group Indians of All Tribes (IAT), occupied Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The IAT demanded title to Alcatraz and, in the interests of being fair, offered to “purchase Alcatraz for 24 dollars in glass beads and cloth…our offer of $1.24 per acre is greater than the 47 per acre the white men are now paying the California Indians for their land [through the ICC].” The Alcatraz occupation lasted for nineteen months and more than 5,600 American Indians joined the occupation—some for all eighteen months and some for just part of a day. The action was received with an outpouring of support, both political and material, and made headline news for months, though eventually the occupants were removed from the Island. A number of Indian activists, some who were later to become well known in the movement, led and participated in the occupation—for example, Richard Oakes, LaNada Boyer, Grace Thorpe, and John Trudell, and Russell Means.
The occupation, though it did not achieve its goals to establish an Indian museum and cultural center on the island, was important in that it brought the issues and concerns of American Indians to national attention. But the IAT was not able to project itself onto the national stage that its own actions had prepared.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) stepped into that role. It was founded in Minneapolis in 1968 by a group of urban Anishinabes, including Clyde Bellecourt, Mary Jane Wilson, Eddie Benton, and Dennis Banks. Clyde and Eddie actually met at the Minnesota Federal Penitentiary and organized Native Americans living in Minneapolis and St. Paul. At first, AIM organized around jobs, housing, and against police harassment. In the late 1960s, the annual household income of an American Indian family was $1,500—one-fourth the national average. Native American life expectancy was forty-four—twenty-one years below the national average. AIM took off quickly, with chapters sprouting up across the country as they organized a series of critical, bold, and polarizing actions—until it was met with vicious government repression that culminated in Peltier’s conviction and imprisonment.
Leonard Peltier first became an activist while living in Seattle, participating in the 1970 takeover of Fort Lawton, an abandoned military installation. The action was directly inspired by the Alcatraz events. Some months later Peltier joined the AIM chapter in Denver.
AIM itself drew inspiration, ideas, and tactics from the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense—this was very conscious in the minds of its leading members like Dennis Banks and Russell Means—and was comprised of Native Americans in urban areas (Minneapolis, Seattle, Cleveland, and the Bay Area) but with very strong ties to reservations. AIM had a working class core to it, though often people on the margins of the working class, such as unemployed workers, and many Vietnam War veterans. They were often armed. They had to be. South Dakota was known as the “Mississippi of the North” in part because of the extreme poverty—on the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation the life expectancy was just forty-six years. (To this day, there is 60–80 percent unemployment and 69 percent live below the official poverty line on Pine Ridge.) But it was also called the “Mississippi of the North” because of the racist violence they faced.
Just like the victims of the Jim Crow South such as Emmitt Till, Pine Ridge had its victims of racist violence, especially in the deeply bigoted border towns that preyed on the Indian communities. One such incident—the racist murder of a Sioux in a white town near Pine Ridge—prompted AIM’s first involvement in activism in the area.
In January 1972, fifty-one-year-old Raymond Yellow Thunder was brutally beaten by four white racists, taunted and humiliated, stripped down and shoved in the trunk of a car while being driven around for hours, pushed naked into an American Legion Dance Hall in Gordon, Nebraska, and then thrown out into the cold night. Afterward he went missing, only to be found dead in his car a week later.
Yellow Thunder’s distraught family searched for him for a week, and at first weren’t allowed to see his body. They sought assistance everywhere they could, including from police, BIA, and the tribal government, in hopes that there would be an investigation into Yellow Thunder’s death, but they found none. Severt Young Bear, a nephew of Raymond’s, contacted AIM.
This was AIM’s first major action on a reservation. They mobilized 1,400 people, mostly Lakota of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations—with eighty tribes represented overall—and occupied Gordon, Nebraska, shutting it down for three days. One million dollars in Oglala Sioux tribal money was transferred out of Gordon’s banks. In response, the state of Nebraska, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior all agreed to investigate Yellow Thunder’s death.
In January 1973, a white service station attendant known locally as “Mad Dog” stabbed and killed Wesley Bad Heart Bull. After the perpetrator was charged with involuntary manslaughter, Wesley’s mother, Sarah Bad Heart Bull, turned to AIM for help. Two hundred AIM supporters showed up at a courthouse in Custer, South Dakota, for a meeting with officials. Protestors found the place swarming with police. When officials cancelled the meeting, all hell broke loose. “As Bad Heart Bull attempted to get past the crowd and into the courthouse,” explains Russell Means, “police officers pushed her down the steps, using a nightstick on her throat.” The incident was the signal for police to start swinging. In the melee two police cars were overturned and burned.
Dennis Banks and Russell Means were brought up on riot charges. Sarah Bad Heart Bull got a three-to-five-year sentence for rioting and served five months. Her son’s murderer, in ironic contrast, received a mere two months’ probation and served no time. After the riot, the U.S. attorney general assigned sixty-five federal marshals to Pine Ridge. Why such a heavy federal presence? According to Peter Matthiessen, “state and government authorities were concerned less with law and order than with the obstacle to Black Hills mining leases that AIM insistence on Indian sovereignty might represent.”
However, these battles deepened AIM’s connections to reservations, essentially building themselves a base of active members. Additionally, they clearly demonstrated that there was power through struggle and that people could win. They also set the stage for AIM’s higher profile actions that put them in direct confrontation with the federal government.
These were followed by other spectacular AIM actions. In what was known as the Trail of Broken Treaties, a caravan of hundreds of Native Americans came to Washington to protest grievances. After being provoked and threatened by government officials and police, they occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. Later there came the historic Occupation of Wounded Knee.
Trail of Broken Treaties
AIM organized the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan in November 1972. Participants traveled from all over the country. The caravan stopped in cities and reservations along the way, and held political meetings and rallies. In St. Paul, the caravan converged and participants drafted a twenty-point proposal of social, economic, and political demands to present at the White House. But the portents were not good. An interior department memo—which the caravan’s participants had gotten wind of before they arrived—instructed BIA officials to offer no assistance to the caravan.
By end of the first day in Washington, 400 Native Americans had arrived, including Leonard Peltier. They had been in touch with Vice President Agnew’s office and had been assured they would be met seriously and respectfully. But the caravaners faced problems immediately. The Park Service refused to allow the Indians to perform a religious ceremony at the grave of Iwo Jima veteran Ira Hayes in Arlington Cemetery. The BIA had just spent $50,000 hosting tribal chairmen, yet refused to offer any financial support, even when the Trail’s housing fell through. Angered and without adequate accommodations, the Trail participants decided to descend on the BIA building. Participants were told that they could stay in the BIA auditorium until proper accommodations could be found for them. Before arrangements were finalized, however, police in riot gear arrived and ordered the Indians to leave. After a fierce five-minute battle, the police found themselves outside the building, the entrance barricaded by the Indians, who by then numbered 1,000. According to historians Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, “The Indians unfurled a banner reading NATIVE AMERICAN EMBASSY across the BIA building. A tepee rose on the front lawn of the liberated territory.”
“If Alcatraz seemed fraught with potential disaster,” writes Smith and Warrior, “this sudden rebellion in Washington, D.C. had catastrophic possibilities that bordered on the surreal. Five days before the presidential election, Indian revolutionaries held a government building six blocks from the White House, vowing to die rather than surrender. The casualties, if it came to that, would likely include the Trail’s scores of children and old people.”
Outside the building, there was much solidarity. Many stopped by to leave food and supplies. Some Indian BIA employees showed up to participate. Celebrities like Dr. Spock and Black leaders like Stokely Carmichael came to offer their support. “A circle of black, white and Chicano supporters had linked arms, forming a human barricade.” But the more conservative National Tribal Chairman’s Organization denounced the occupation.
The occupation began with great unity and energy. Toward the end, however, the hungry, frustrated, and exhausted occupiers exploded in a final rage of destruction against the BIA and its building, causing more than $2 million in damages. Agent provocateurs fanned the flames of destruction.
Finally, instead of attacking, as they had repeatedly threatened to do, the government was forced to negotiate. AIM leaders including Clyde Bellecourt, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Hank Adams and some elders met with Nixon administration officials. The agreement to end the occupation included three main points that would all soon be broken: no legal action against the occupiers; reform the U.S. government’s relationship with Indian people to be more responsive to Indian needs; and analyze and respond to the twenty-point proposal within thirty days.
The negotiations secured compensation for travel ($66,000) and a police escort out of town. But they also took with them a little more—namely, a couple tons of BIA files that verified everything from cases of government misconduct, conflict of interest within the BIA—like the assistant secretary of the interior who went to work for Peabody Coal a few years later—the identity FBI informants, including agents involved in the caravan, and documents verifying the forced sterilization of Native American women. It was described as the biggest document heist in history.
A House subcommittee said that the AIM action was “the most severe damage inflicted upon Washington, D.C. since the British burned the city in the War of 1812.” But the federal government had a substantial number of agents among the protesters who had encouraged the destruction. It thus became apparent why the government was so willing to agree not to prosecute the Indians, in the words of Vine Deloria, it would have been “extremely difficult for the government to have proven an intent by the real Indian activists to destroy the building.”
Out of this struggle the FBI and BIA escalated their war on AIM and Native Americans, turning its notorious counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO, on AIM, and as well, in the 1972 Oglala Sioux tribal elections, throwing its weight behind strongman Dick Wilson for tribal president, hoping that a “strong Indian retaliation” against AIM and its supporters could quell the growing Indian militancy.
Dick Wilson, a former bootlegger, was elected Oglala Sioux tribal council president in 1972. Wilson was deeply unpopular because of his mistreatment of the elderly and traditional people on the reservation, his undemocratic methods, and the rampant nepotism and corruption that infested his administration. He was infamous for embezzling Housing and Urban Development money and misusing funds, and for neglecting everything else on the reservation. Wilson used federal funds to start what some have called a paramilitary, and what became a virtual death squad. The cocky, crew-cutted Wilson only named his armed gang Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON) after angry Pine Ridge residents had been calling them the “goon squad” for awhile.
The GOONs went after anyone who spoke out against Wilson, using violence, harassment, and intimidation to uphold his dictatorship. At first, resistance to Wilson was organized through the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) which organized impeachment petitions (one of which had more signatures on it than the number of people who had voted for him) and filed for impeachment hearings multiple times, mobilizing hundreds of people for those hearings. These became a farce, however, when Wilson decided to preside over them himself.
It was at this point that a meeting of 200 members of the OSCRO and traditional elders, including the traditionalist chief Frank Fools Crow, decided to invite AIM to help them in their struggle. The speeches of women such as Ellen Moves Camp and Gladys Bissonette were decisive in the meeting. After delivering a speech in Lakota, she turned to the AIM leaders present at the meeting and appealed to them to bring their members to Pine Ridge. “For many years we have not fought any kind of war,” she said, “and we have forgotten how to fight.” AIM knew what they were getting into; there had been countless threats issued by Wilson in press releases that they were going to shoot and kill AIM members who came to Pine Ridge.
It was the decision at this meeting that led to the stunning seventy-one-day occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. On February 27, 1973, a caravan of about 300 armed Oglala Sioux and AIM activists entered the town of Wounded Knee and declared it liberated territory. They took over the trading post, the church, blocked all the roads, and took several white hostages. The leading participants included Leonard Crow Dog, Carter Camp, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Russell Means, and Dennis Banks. “This was a rebirth of our dignity and our self pride,” Russell Means said of the occupation. Dennis Banks said, “The message that went out is that a band of Indians could take on the U.S. government. Tecumseh had his day, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse. We had ours.” Their demands were simple and included a call to investigate corruption in the reservation tribal government, and a demand that Congress hold hearings on broken treaties.
The response by the U.S. government was overwhelming: within hours, 200 FBI agents, federal marshals, and BIA police surrounded and blockaded the town, using two armored personnel carriers and a couple of fighter jets in their operation—later to be augmented by fifteen more armored personnel carriers, authorized by the U.S. Army. U.S. military personnel, disguising their presence by wearing civilian clothes, played a central role in the siege. South Dakota’s two Senators, George McGovern and James Abourezk, came to negotiate getting the hostages released, only to discover that the hostages, sympathetic to the Indians, were free to come and go as they pleased. One eighty-two-year-old hostage told reporters that they had decided to stay in order to protect AIM activists, whom he feared the troops would kill if the hostages left.
The government immediately rejected the occupiers’ demands, sending in mid-level officials who delivered an ultimatum for them to leave. AIM burned it in front of a bunch of TV cameras. By this point Wounded Knee was on the nightly news, and polls showed that 90 percent of Americans followed it very closely. A delegation led by Leonard Fools Crow went to the United Nations. Marlon Brando, who had participated in one of the fish-ins in the Pacific Northwest, refused to accept his Oscar for best actor in The Godfather, sending Apache actress Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the Oscar on his behalf.
With the Watergate scandal in progress, the federal government didn’t want to look any worse, especially on the same site as the 1890 massacre. On March 8 it pulled back the roadblocks and hoped the occupation would peter out. Instead, hundreds of supporters and a great deal of supplies poured in and the occupiers declared themselves the Independent Oglala Nation. Some of the local Sioux departed to be replaced by Indians from other nations, as well as by white leftists, veterans, Chicano activists, and a small number of Asian and Black participants. Several thousand people joined in the occupation, either for a day or for many more.
The blockade was reestablished on an even stronger footing and Wounded Knee came under severe attack. The occupation met with repression from the FBI and U.S. marshals, and from Dick Wilson and his GOONs, who were furious that the feds didn’t unleash an all-out assault from the start. In fact, they shot at both camps to try to start firefight.
It didn’t take long for the feds to catch up, though. As Former FBI Chief Joseph Trimbach bragged in the years that followed: “The director said, tell Trimbach he can have anything he wants! Which was pretty neat, because it was like having a blank check. I had agents go up to Rapid City and buy every rifle they could find.” (Earlier this year, Trimbach and his son, who have made careers for themselves by vilifying AIM, made a very public showing of sending a letter to Obama smearing Peltier and his supporters.)
The military response was overwhelming. Half a million rounds were fired into Wounded Knee, including some from a .50-caliber machine gun that fired two-inch diameter shells; fighter jets loomed overhead; and armored personnel carriers roamed the perimeter. The government cut power and water and forced the media out at gunpoint. In spite of the horrible conditions—food shortages and a late winter storm—people held their ground.
The occupation received support from Native Americans across the country, and from other Indian nations who were inspired by their example. A delegation of chiefs from the Six Nations of the Iroquois confederacy arrived on March 19 to convey their support. A statement by the Grand Council of the Iroquois asked the U.S. government, “You are concerned for the destruction of property at the BIA building and at Wounded Knee. Where is your concern for the destruction of our people, for human lives?”
The U.S. government was worried that Wounded Knee would become an example others would follow. A high-ranking BIA official expressed alarm over his view that Wounded Knee had “crystallized a revolutionary movement in the United States.” Federal forces escalated their tactics, attempting to destabilized the occupation from the inside and attack it also from the outside. Two men, Frank Clearwater and Buddy Lamont, a Vietnam veteran, were shot and killed during separate firefights in which federal agents poured thousands of rounds into Wounded Knee. Frank Clearwater had just arrived in Wounded Knee with his wife to offer their support. He was hit by a stray bullet that pierced the local church where he had been resting; Buddy Lamont, an Oglala Sioux and Vietnam veteran well-liked on Pine Ridge, was struck down by a sniper. His great grandparents had been with Crazy Horse at the Little Bighorn battle, and his grandmother was one of the few to survive the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre.
With no electricity, no water, dwindling food supplies, and then a devastating fire that burned down the trading post—together with the coordinated arrests of several AIM leaders who were touring the country raising support—the occupation had reached its point of exhaustion by the end of April. After seventy-one days, on May 8, AIM agreed—at Fools Crow’s request—to end it. The militants were disarmed and 120 were arrested. The night before, scores of people snuck out and evaded arrest, leaving toy guns for the feds to find.
Gladys Bissonette, who had been in the occupation throughout, said on its last day:
This was one of the greatest things that every happened in my life. And although today is our last day here, I still feel like I’ll always be here because this is part of my home…. I hope that the Indians, at least throughout the Pine Ridge Reservation, unite and stand up together, hold hands, and never forget Wounded Knee. We didn’t have anything here, we didn’t have nothing to eat. But we had one thing—that was unity and friendship amongst 64 different tribes…. I have never seen anything like this.
In the end, 1,200 people nationwide were arrested for Wounded Knee, and 500 traditionals were indicted. Almost all the defendants indicted for their direct involvement in the occupation were acquitted, and Leonard Crow Dog was the only one who served any prison time—a few months.
Reign of terror
Leonard Peltier was not at Wounded Knee. But he would fall victim to its aftermath—as would hundreds of others.
The FBI launched an attack on AIM as part of its COINTELPRO program, which had begun in the mid-1960s under J. Edgar Hoover and was used to destroy the Black Panther Party—the murder of BPP leader Fred Hampton, among many—while Dick Wilson and the BIA established an extreme reign of terror on Pine Ridge.
“The FBI set out to eliminate ‘radical’ political opposition inside the U.S. When traditional modes of repression (exposure, blatant harassment, and prosecution for political crimes) failed to counter the growing insurgency,” commented one journalist, “and even helped to fuel it, the Bureau took the law into its own hands and secretly used fraud and force to sabotage constitutionally-protected political activity.”
The FBI employed many dirty tricks against its targets including wiretapping, assassination, “bad-jacketing” (spreading rumors that certain activists were informants in order to discredit them), and the use of agents provocateurs—all in coordination with state and local officials, police forces, and district attorneys. Future South Dakota governor Bill Janklow declared at the time: “The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to the AIM leaders’ heads and pull the trigger.” Many compare those years on Pine Ridge to a paramilitary invasion.
Dick Wilson and his GOONs went on a rampage of beatings and assassinations of AIM members, supporters, and the traditionals on Pine Ridge. Within three years, at least sixty-nine AIM members and supporters were violently murdered on or near the Pine Ridge Reservation, while hundreds more were physically assaulted.
Write Bruce Johansen and Roberto Maestas, “Using only the documented political deaths, the yearly murder rate on Pine Ridge Reservation between March 1, 1973, and March 1, 1976, was 170 per 100,000. By comparison, Detroit, the reputed ‘murder capital of the United States,’ had a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 in 1974.… In a nation of 200 million persons, a murder rate comparable with that of Pine Ridge between 1973 and 1976 would have left 340,000 persons dead for political reasons in one year; 1.32 million in three.…The political murder rate at Pine Ridge between March 1, 1973 and March 1, 1976 was almost equivalent to that in Chile during the three years after a military coup supported by the United States deposed and killed President Salvador Allende.”
Among the victims were Pedro Bissonette, Philip Black Elk, Priscilla White Plume, Byron DeSersa, and Anna Mae Aquash. Most of the cases have never been solved, or even pursued—because the FBI and the BIA have blood on their hands in every single one of them and any decent investigation would point back to them.
Anna Mae Aquash, who was murdered in February 1976, was bad-jacketed by the FBI before her death. A BIA doctor, who also failed to notice that she had been shot in the head, removed her hands in a possible attempt to conceal her identity. It remains unclear if she was murdered by GOONs, the FBI, or AIM members who were convinced by FBI rumors that she was an informant. Many on the reservation believed that she was targeted by the FBI in retaliation for the deaths of the two FBI agents for which Peltier was prosecuted. Two former AIM members were eventually prosecuted for her murder. But there is so much deliberate disinformation and confusion surrounding the case, it is likely that the full truth will never be known.
It was the FBI-and-GOON driven reign of terror that led to—some would say provoked—the Incident at Oglala. Amid this terror and fear, traditional leaders on Pine Ridge once again called on AIM for protection, especially for older traditional people. That is why Peltier and dozens of others were camping on the Jumping Bull property on that fateful day in June 1975.
“The FBI had more than 50 agents swarming over the Pine Ridge Reservation (prior to 1973 they only had 2 or 3 agents in the area, if that),” wrote Peltier. “Seems like the more FBIs we had around, the more murders we had.”
AIM members across the country faced constant harassment and frame-ups that drained the organization’s resources and, eventually, broke its leadership. There were AIM-led actions through the end of the 1970s; a core of activists protested the Robideau and Butler trials as well as Peltier’s; there was a protest outside the FBI building in 1979. But the Peltier conviction in 1977 was a severe blow from which AIM never recovered.
What explains the virulence of the offensive against AIM? Economic motives were clearly at work. Around the time of the Wounded Knee occupation, Wilson signed over a portion of the reservation known to be rich in uranium and molybdenum to the U.S. Forest Service. Early 1970s government estimates of potential profits from uranium mining in the Black Hills was in the range of a half billion dollars.
But the rationale extends beyond narrow economic reasons. The U.S. government was striving to smash the left, to break the back of political struggle, and the influence of revolutionary politics in particular. Indian militancy emerged on the scene just as many other struggles in this era begin to reach a political impasse; many struggles did not regain their footing after 1972, which is when AIM was ascending.
AIM was incredibly popular and well connected with the main radical currents in U.S. society that were influenced by national liberation struggles around the world. Furthermore, AIM symbolized armed struggle and militancy against oppression. The government feared that AIM could be a key factor in reviving struggle—one reason they became so desperate to end the occupation at Wounded Knee was so that it ended before campuses let out for the summer.
By 1973, the ruling class in this country was actively engaged in the process of breaking the back of revolutionary struggles here and abroad. The U.S. backed Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile that year, for example.
Violent repression and divisive COINTELPRO tactics broke up and demoralized AIM, while the general decline of other social movements in this period sealed its fate. AIM continued to organize through end of the 1970s and maintains a presence in some areas of the U.S. today, but never recovered from the reign of terror and Peltier’s conviction in particular.
What the movement won
Despite this severe repression and the short time frame for AIM’s influence, the Native American struggles won a great deal.
AIM essentially fought against the annihilation of Indian culture—and won. Traditions like the sacred Sun Dance could have been lost forever. The movement dealt a huge blow to racism, and changed people’s consciousness in ways that we still see today. American Indian studies programs have thrived on campuses and the history curriculum taught in schools, while still highly problematic, is fundamentally different than what it was forty years ago. It is now commonly accepted that genocide was committed against Native Americans. And while we still have sports teams that use Indian mascots and the U.S. certainly hasn’t gotten rid of Columbus Day, these things are commonly met with ridicule, disdain, and opposition. When people hear that a predominantly Native American community college in Colorado named their basketball team the “Fighting Whiteys,” many cheer.
Important material gains were won. The policy of termination was ended. Nearly a dozen new policies and programs—in education, financing, and health—were instituted. Mount Adams was returned to the Yakama Nation in Washington State, and 48,000 acres of the Sacred Blue Lake lands were returned to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. The Pacific Northwest Indians eventually won the right to 50 percent of harvestable fish.
The reforms won in the 1960s and 1970s made a number of material improvements in people’s lives. The percentage of families on the Pine Ridge Reservation living below the poverty line fell 10 percent by the end of the 1970s and per capita income went up 7 percent. In fact, poverty overall fell for Native Americans more so than any other group. Unfortunately, these changes didn’t last. During the Reagan years the number of Indians living in poverty went up 23 percent.
Given the severity of the poverty on reservations today, a massive investment in Native American communities is beyond urgent. Native Americans live in unspeakably horrid conditions in many places, especially the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations. A chilling—and telling —2007 Al-Jazeera broadcast showed footage of two Lakota people pushing their gasless car down a desolate road—they were taking their TV to the pawn shop for cash so they could eat. “A day in the life of a Lakota” remarked one.
Reservation life is characterized by 80 percent unemployment and a median income of $2,600 to $3,500 a year. The life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti.
Major illnesses strike Native Americans more severely than many other groups—diabetes and tuberculosis rates are eight times that of the rest of the population, cervical cancer rates are five times higher, rates of heart disease are twice as high. Suicide, depression, and alcoholism plague and paralyze entire communities. Most houses are substandard, with inadequate heat, water and sanitation, and on average each house is shared by a dozen people.
As Peltier rightly argues, “No one can bring the dead back. But we can do something for the living. Economic reparations to Native Americans are absolutely essential for a just future, as is the return of sacred sites and significant pieces of ancestral territory, as well as a fair share of natural resources on lands taken in violation of treaties.”
The U.S. government has continually stalled in the face of a 1996 Native American Rights Fund class-action lawsuit against the United States on behalf of 500,000 plaintiffs over the mismanagement of billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber, and other royalties overseen by the Department of the Interior for Indian trustees since 1887. Countless reports have proven widespread fraud and mismanagement of these funds. Even the department’s own commissioned 2002 report concluded that somewhere between $10 billion and $40 billion is owed to the plaintiffs. Yet Washington has refused to account for the lost funds owed but not paid to tribes and individuals—even after Congress ordered it in 1994—on the grounds that such an investigation would cost too much.
It’s safe to say that the U.S. government as well as countless U.S. corporations owe an enormous debt to American Indians, far beyond these billions in royalties. Activists need to ensure that they start by returning freedom to Leonard Peltier, and that they keep on paying.
The fight for Leonard Peltier’s release from prison is about taking the first step toward rectifying the crimes done to Native Americans, but its also about challenging the U.S. gulag that incarcerates not just political prisoners like Leonard and Mumia Abu-Jamal, but also one in every hundred adults—disproportionately people of color, working-class, and poor people who have been victims of draconian “tough-on-crime” laws.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton played decisive roles on this front—and Peltier has languished in prison for over thirty-three years. But with the possibility of Peltier’s parole in front of us, the time is now to rebuild the struggle against the criminal justice system and put Leonard Peltier’s case back at the heart of it.
In the words of Peltier: “The destruction of our people must stop! We are not statistics. We are people from whom you took this land by force and blood and lies.… You practice crimes against humanity at the same time that you piously speak to the rest of the world of human rights! America, when will you live up to your own principles?”