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Peltier: 40 Years of Waiting for Freedom

'free LEONARD PELTIER' Trumbullplex (Anarchist housing collective) Detroit, Michigan, March 2009 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution
This story reveals how hard it can be to disentangle movements from our own flawed interpersonal relationships. The rejection of Anna Mae Aquash's daughters by the movement she died for is particularly painful. How do we deal with the results of their quest for justice that introduces a damaging counter-narrative of a famous man?

On February 6th an International Day of Action has been called to mark American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier’s 40th year of imprisonment. A ticker can be seen on his legal defense committee’s website counting down the last days of President Obama’s term in office. They are calling upon the President to provide clemency to Peltier, initiate a congressional investigation of the FBI’s misconduct in Indian Country and against AIM, and in Peltier’s case specifically, the release of tens of thousands of case documents.

However, many questions have arisen in the past 10 years many questions regarding Peltier’s role as a security enforcer for AIM by the family of Anna Mae Aquash, a young leader in AIM from the Micmac Nation whose body was discovered nearly 40 years ago on February 24, 1976 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

In 1975, Peltier, a member of the Anishinabe (Ojibway) tribe and then AIM security chief and bodyguard to AIM leader Dennis Banks (also Anishinabe), took part in a shootout that resulted in the death of two Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams. The agents had come to the Jumping Bull Compound looking for Jimmy Eagle who had been accused of stealing boots, not a crime that the FBI has jurisdiction over on the reservation.

FBI Wanted Poster for Leonard Peltier
Peltier fled to Canada and his cousin Bob Robideau and Dino Butler who were also present at the shootout were tried without him. Robideau and Butler were found not guilty on grounds of self-defense.

After Peltier was finally extradited under an affidavit (falsely, it was later recanted) and returned to the United States to stand trial, he endured a more difficult trial than his cousin and Butler had faced, and was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment. He has lost repeated appeals, the latest in 2006 despite being represented pro bono by former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Amnesty International in their overview of Peltier’s case states that they ”believe that political factors may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.” They quote Judge Gerald Heaney, who presided over Peltier’s 1986 appeal hearing, who in a letter to the late Senator Daniel Inouye, former Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, wrote that he believed, “the FBI used improper tactics in securing Peltier’s extraction from Canada and in otherwise investigating and trying the Peltier case…Although our Court decided that these actions were not grounds for reversals, they are, in my view, factors that merit consideration in any petition for leniency filed.”

A who’s who of celebrities who have stood by Peltier in his fight for clemency. These include Harry Belafonte, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown and most famously, Robert Redford who narrated and executive produced the acclaimed 1992 documentary film “Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story.”

WHO IS LEONARD PELTIER from Giuliana Dieni on Vimeo.

Redford focuses not on whether Peltier is guilty, but makes a very convincing case that he did not receive a fair trial. Particularly compelling is the examination of the ballistics testimony. The film also provides a lot of background on the poverty and violence that were plaguing the Oglala Lakota people on Pine Ridge and of the tension between traditional, grassroots tribal members and the establishment leadership of Dick Wilson and his “Guardians of the Oglala Nation” (GOONs) which led to AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 to take a stand for the Oglala people against a repressive regime.

Anna Mae with Nogeeshik Aquash at Wounded Knee in 1973
Recent revelations from an unexpected source, the trial of fellow AIM leader, Anna Mae Aquash’s murders have painted a different picture of Peltier’s role in the organization. In testimony, four different AIM members, including his cousin Robideau and Butler say that it was Peltier who interrogated Aquash and participated in “snitch jacketing” her as an FBI informant that led to her death.

Aquash was accused in June of 1975 in Farmington, New Mexico at the AIM National Convention of being an FBI informer. She was subsequently questioned by Bob Robideau, Dino Butler and Leonard Peltier. In an interview with journalist Minnie Two Shoes, AIM member Iris Thundercloud claims Peltier stuck a pistol in Aquash's mouth during the interrogation.

Darlene (Kamook) Nichols (then common-law wife of AIM leader Dennis Banks) testified in the 2004 trial of Arlo Looking Cloud for the death of Anna Mae Aquash that it was generally known  in AIM circles that Peltier had pointed a gun at Aquash’s head when he was interrogating her about being an FBI informant. In interviews with journalists Paul DeMain and Minnie Two Shoes, Nichols and her sister, Bernie Lafferty, both made further claims that while traveling with Peltier in Marlon Brando’s motor home in 1975, he told them that he did kill the FBI agents. These were later corroborated by other AIM members independently.

Aquash and Kamook Nichols handcuffed in 1975 by federal marshal
Paul DeMain, publisher and managing editor of News From Indian Country and journalist Minnie Two Shoes answered the call from Vernon Bellecourt, AIM co-founder in 1994 to look into Aquash’s unsolved murder. What the two Native American journalists found, howeverpublished in a series of penetrating investigative pieces over the next 10 yearsset them at odds with Bellecourt and led to the conviction of Aquash’s murderer, John Graham, and an accomplice Looking Cloud. The investigation also forced DeMain, who is Anishinabe like Peltier, to end his support for fellow tribal member’s release from prison and calls for clemency.

“I was in support of him (Peltier) for 25 years, I don’t support his release now. There have been too many lies and too much finger-pointing. They even tried to frame Kamook as being an FBI agent. There is no remorse for the loss of human life. We should respect even our enemies as another human being.”

Peltier came out in support of Graham initially, saying he could not support the incarceration of another Native American man. His cousin, Robideau, who was head of his defense committee pressured Peltier to issue a statement distancing himself from Graham. This led to a falling out between the two men. Peltier resumed his support of Graham and Robideau resigned.

After Graham was convicted, Peltier agreed to settle a defamation lawsuit he had pursued against DeMain. DeMain was simply made to issue the statement that he did not believe Peltier had received a fair trial in his conviction of the FBI agents’ deaths and that he did not believe that Peltier had any involvement in the death of Aquash.

However, today DeMain says he no longer agrees with those statements based on evidence that has arisen since. Also, Peltier’s attorney in the libel suit, Barry Bachrach, has since quit as Peltier’s counsel and now believes he should not receive clemency.

Aquash with her daughters and a relative
Anna Mae Aquash’s daughter, Denise Pictou Maloney says she talked to Peltier’s late cousin Robideauwho died in 2009over a span of five years and met him face to face at the court trials in South Dakota of her mother’s murderer. She says, “He (Robideau) wanted to keep alive what AIM meant even if it was contradictory to its history. I told him, you can’t ignore the horrific atrocities they were involved in and simply able to re-invent themselves as activists.”

“Peltier called her his sister in his letters to me,” Maloney recalls, “He promised to research her case when he got out. He sent me a letter immediately when I began investigating my mother’s murder not to trust the FBI and to be careful of what they are telling me. I hadn’t talked to any FBI agents I’d only talked to AIM members. The FBI was only the conduit that put the trial up. All of the testimony we heard at trial was testimony from AIM members.”

When asked if she believes Peltier put a gun to her mother’s mouth she said, “Yes, I do believe it. Because she told family members when she came home that they were questioning her, interrogating her. Bob Robideau told me specifically that he interrogated her at gunpoint and Minnie Two Shoes heard it from four sources. This was a regular thing that happened. He did do it to other people.”

Maloney believes her mother was targeted for standing up and calling out the corruption of certain AIM leaders. Testimony by AIM members also claim Aquash saw the murder of Ray Robinson, a black civil rights leader at Wounded Knee by AIM members and that she heard Peltier’s confession to the murder of the FBI agents. Both of these further put her at risk for elimination.

Leonard Peltier’s most recent petition for release on parole was denied in 2009, and may not be eligible for consideration again until 2024. Reports of Peltier’s ill health (he may have an abdominal aortic aneurism) have increased calls for his release.

For Aquash’s daughter the promise that AIM once held to help Indigenous people that her mother fought and died for remains paramount and worth fighting for but first, it begins with honesty about the past. When asked what such honesty might provide for her people, she said, “Freedom”—ironically, the same thing Peltier is seeking for himself.

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