Imprisoned since 1977 for the murder of two FBI agents during a gun battle on the Oglala Sioux, Pine Ridge Reservation, Leonard Peltier was denied parole this past Friday. Peltier’s last parole hearing was sixteen years ago. He will not receive another hearing until 2024, when he will be seventy-nine years old.
People generally inclined to be supporters of the police and the need for law and order will be generally found supporting the conviction. It tends almost to the automatic, as well, among people of progressive, activist political inclination – those generally supportive of the cause of the historically wronged and the marginalized – to champion Peltier’s cause. I don’t do that. I don’t know. I haven’t made myself expert in the details of the case. I wonder how many with opinions, on either side, are such experts. I do not immediately believe that FBI agents are wrong and lying. I respect what they do. Regardless of my views on the history and current state of U.S. behavior toward Native Americans, I do not immediately believe that Indians – in this case, Peltier – are telling the truth. I don’t without judgment believe the contrary in either instance. In this case, I simply do not know. From what I do know, I am inclined to believe Peltier was properly convicted. But I could well be mistaken.
The conflict in which Peltier was engaged took place during the tail end of a period of what would be referred to, in conventional political terms, as radical political unrest in the U.S, from the late 1960s through the 70s. It is important to recognize, however – and so few do, or care to – that the history of Native relations with the U.S. government does not fall within the bounds of conventional American politics. In the 70s, a number of headline-making actions by native groups, such as the occupation of Alcatraz Island or the siege at Wounded Knee, drew public attention to Native unhappiness with the state of affairs in Indian Country. The American Indian Movement (AIM) led the way in producing what was, so far, the last such moment in our public consciousness. Unfortunately, given the general fatigue that developed during this period with political upheaval and any kind of perceived lawlessness, AIM and it campaigns were ineffective in bringing about any kind of change in that public consciousness.
By that point in the 1970s, it had already approached half a millennium since the European conquest of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere had begun. It was three hundred years since the Pueblo Rebellion in the Southwest and the defeat of the Wampanoag Confederacy in New England, the head of the slain King Philip of the Pokanoket displayed on a stake in Plymouth for twenty years. It was about 165 years since Tecumseh had organized the failed pan-Tribal resistance to United States expansion in the Ohio River Valley, a hundred and forty years since the Great Removal and the Trail of Tears that forcibly transferred the Tribes of the Southeast to the “Indian Territory.” It had been the same amount of time since Johnson v. M’Intosh, the Supreme Court decision that declared Indians an “inferior race” of people and justified the taking of their land by right of “discovery.” A hundred years had passed since the Long Walk of the Navajo and the Apache concentration camps were established, almost a hundred since the theft of the Black Hills of South Dakota from the Sioux and the final surrender of Geronimo, who, with his Chiricahua warriors, and the Chiricahua scouts who helped capture them too, both defeated and betrayed at the same time, were then held as prisoners of war for twenty-seven years, until Geronimo’s death. It had been about 115 years since the Massacre of Wounded Knee, for which twenty Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest number ever for a single engagement, were awarded to U.S. troops. Fewer than a hundred had passed since the Tribes of the Indian Territory, in the dissolution of the Tribal land they had been given during the Great Removal, and of their governments, were offered individual allotments of land, later to be sold, so that Oklahoma could become a state. All of this had been followed by continued compulsory reeducation and deracination, in order to remove the vestiges of the problem, most of the twentieth century then passing with repeated alternations and reversals of government policy – on the reservation, off the reservation, assimilate and acculturate, protect and preserve.
Then Leonard Peltier did what he did in 1975.
Now, Reports Indian Country Today, in 2009, the leaders of South Dakota’s nine Sioux Tribes appeal to the federal government and the state’s two senators that the government must “fulfill its promises to provide adequate money for health care, economic development, law enforcement and other problems on American Indian reservations.”
“We need somehow to spur economic development, economic enterprise,” [Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman] Cournoyer told the senators. “These recessions don’t even touch us because we live in poverty all our lives.”
“I don’t promise we’ll solve everything overnight, but the current situation is intolerable. It should not happen in the richest nation on Earth,” [Senator Tim] Johnson said at the end of the meeting.
Crow Creek Tribal Chairman Brandon Sazue said his tribe is in serious financial trouble because the Internal Revenue Service is seeking to take money and more than 7,000 acres of land after the tribe failed to remit payroll taxes for a couple of years. That means the tribe cannot help people whose electricity is cut off when they are unable to pay utility bills, he said.
[Senator John] Thune said an emergency fund approved by Congress will provide $400 million a year for five years to improve law enforcement, health care and water supplies on Indian reservations. That money can help improve the quality of life for Native Americans, he said.
Four hundred million dollars. Five hundred years.
Remember that the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund suit – to reach a settlement of Indian monies the U.S. has supposedly held in “trust” since the end of nineteenth century, and which the U.S. has fought for thirteen years – and the Tribal Trust Fund suit, which began only in late 2007, and which the U.S. government also litigates, are reasonably estimated at over $200 billion dollars in value. This is not compensation for the land that was taken. This is only the money made off the land during the period of the trust.
Four hundred million dollars. Two hundred billion dollars.
Leonard Peltier was convicted of an individual act against FBI special agents who were also individuals. Their names were Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. They had lives. They had families who live, still, with the pain of their loss. This should not be forgotten. They did not deserve to be murdered, which is what they were – executed, according to the evidence. A trial determined Peltier’s responsibility. He is paying the legally determined price, a just punishment for whoever committed the crime.
But Leonard Peltier did not spring, against nature, without cause from the ether. He was not parthenogenetically produced of anger and violence. He was born of the unequal clash of two civilizations over five hundred years of cultural assault, unsurpassed genocide, and continuing injustice. The violence in which he and others engaged in the 1970s was wrong. It was also futile, without any hope of benefit to Native Peoples.
What, in the thirty-four years since, has the United States – have the American people – done to prove there was, in truth, a better way?