Leonard Peltier is America’s Nelson Mandela

Peace Advocate July 2022

Leonard Peltier. Photo: Jeffry Scott
Leonard Peltier. Photo: Jeffry Scott

by David Detmold

Imprisoned American Indian Movement (AIM) elder Leonard Peltier is 77 years old, suffering from severe diabetes, hypertension, an aortic aneurysm, and is blind in one eye. He has been imprisoned for more than 46 years, unjustly convicted of aiding and abetting in the murder of two FBI agents during a firefight at the Jumping Bull Ranch in Oglala, South Dakota. Many members of Congress have joined Amnesty International, Nobel Peace Prize laureates including the Dalai Lama, and Pope Francis in calling for his immediate release from prison on humanitarian grounds.

He has been called America’s foremost political prisoner.

But Leonard Peltier is more than that. As a defender of the Indigenous People of this land, he is America’s Nelson Mandela.

For those not familiar with his case, Peltier was the only person convicted following the shootout on June 26, 1975, which ultimately involved more than 150 FBI agents, SWAT team members, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, and local vigilantes who had surrounded the Jumping Bull Ranch on Pine Ridge Reservation.

The traditional Jumping Bull family had invited AIM members to camp there and protect them during a period in the early 1970s known as the Reign of Terror on Pine Ridge, when that reservation was statistically the murder capital of America. During the years immediately following the two month AIM occupation of Wounded Knee, SD in 1973, at least 64 local Native people were killed under dubious circumstances, and despite the widespread presence of FBI agents on the reservation during those years, most of their murders remain unsolved to this day.

On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, driving unmarked cars, wearing plain clothes, without announcing their presence, drove onto the Jumping Bull Ranch, where approximately 30 AIM members and their families were camped. A shootout occurred immediately during which an AIM member named Joe Stuntz was shot and killed, along with FBI agents Williams and Coler.

Peltier, who was present at the Jumping Bull ranch during the shootout, with other AIM members succeeded in guiding the women and children in the encampment past an intense law enforcement cordon, through the back country and to safety without further loss of life.

Peltier escaped to Canada, but he was extradited in 1976 on a perjured warrant to stand trial in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Two other AIM members, Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, who were also present at the shootout at the Jumping Bull Ranch, were tried separately for the deaths of Williams and Coler, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They were acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

No one was ever prosecuted for the killing of Joe Stuntz, who was shot through the head by a sniper’s bullet.

Among all the participants at the shootout, Leonard Peltier was the only one to be punished. His conviction was based on eye witness testimony later found to have been perjured. On April 18, 1977, Leonard Peltier was found guilty of “aiding and abetting” the murders of Williams and Coler and sentenced to life in prison.

As U.S. attorney James Reynolds, whose office prosecuted the case against Peltier, wrote recently in a letter to President Joe Biden, appealing for clemency for Leonard, “We were not able to prove that Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation,” on June 26,, 1975.

But as Leonard Peltier has said, “Someone had to pay for the crime.”

And pay he has.

Unable to see his family, rarely able to see the sun or even exercise in the yard where he might see an occasional bird fly past, his only view of nature, Peltier has maintained his innocence all these years. He has remained steadfast in his refusal to bow to the authorities. He continues to hold out hope for his release.

Amnesty International says, “President Biden must grant Leonard Peltier clemency on humanitarian grounds and as a matter of justice.”

Now it is up to you, each of you who read this letter, to add your voices to that call.

Please write to President Joe Biden, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20500, or President@WhiteHouse.Gov urging immediate clemency for Leonard Peltier.  You can also easily send a message to multiple key officials at masspeace.us/freeleonardpeltier. For more information on his case, go to: https://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info.

As Leonard said, in a letter read aloud to the National Day of Mourning at the statue of Ousamequin in Plymouth, on November 25, 2021, 2021, “I wish all of you good health and happiness this year. You are in my prayers. I am grateful to all of you who have supported me, or will support me going forward. I still hold out hope that I can make it home to Turtle Mountain while I can still walk out under my own power.”

Leonard Peltier is America’s Nelson Mandela. We must free him now.

Some good news about Indigenous Peoples Day in Massachusetts – AND WE NEED YOUR HELP! 

Our statewide Indigenous Peoples Day bills were just favorably voted out of the MA Joint Committee on State Admin. & Regulatory Oversight. Thank you for your support in making that happen!

While that is a great first step, we need your help immediately to try to get this legislation passed before the end of July , when the MA legislative session ends for the year. We have created an automated online email here: https://bit.ly/IPDMAJuly2022 that will send a message to legislators that you want them to bring this legislation out for a favorable vote so that Massachusetts will officially celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. You can use the language that is in the automated email or write your own message – but please do this today and share with your networks! We don’t have much time. Thank you!

If you have any questions, please contact us at info@MAIndigenousAgenda.org or info@IndigenousPeoplesDayMA.org.

David Detmold is a member of MAPA’s Indigenous Solidarity Subgroup.  He lives in Montague.