Leonard Peltier, the Sioux, and the State of Native America

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 leonard_peltier_in_custodydon’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 leonard_peltiercentury 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 leonard2families 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?


24 thoughts on “Leonard Peltier, the Sioux, and the State of Native America

  1. We have to look at the facts of the whole situation, why were the police and federal agents even at the Pine Ridge Reservation? The reason the police and federal agents were there is simple, they were there to make sure that the ,drilling of uranium deal, between dick wilson, ” the tribal chairman of Pine Ridge Reservation”, and the united states government, would go through, and to stop anyone that gets in the way. dick wilson leased land that was rich of uranium, to the united states government, without permission of the tribe. The traditionalist of Pine Ridge opposed this decision, and inadvertantly, started a civil war, between the Traditionalist, against, other non-tradtionalist,” mostly halfbreeds”, and the FBI. When the drilling started, people on the reservation started getting sick , because the deadly uranium leaked into the water, putting the whole reservation at risk. I want to ask a question, would the united states tolerate such actions from another country? And the answer is no. So why is everyone so ignorant, to the fact that the united states are just as evil as other countries we invade. Everyone knows that the united states would destroy anyone that tried that. I have other question, who were the traditionalist supposed to turn to? Dick wilsons, “GOONs” terrorized these people. It was very common to have a drive by shooting done to your house if you openly opposed the drilling. I think people should stop being ignorant, and try to see it from the otherside story, not what was fed to them from our government. They make stories up to minimize their involment. Leonard Peltier came later. When the traditionalist had no more options left and no where to turn, they called for aid from the American Indian Movement, out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. AIM members including ,Leonard Peltier, set up camp at the sites where the most shootings occured. Well the two agents that were killed chased a van onto a tradtionalist property full of children, old people, and a few AIM members. no one but the ones that were there know for sure who fired first, but what is clear, is why were the FBI there in the first place, it all goes back to the beginning. Three were arrested for the killings, ” HOW MANY WERE ARRESTED FOR THE MURDERS OF AT LEAST A HUNDRED TRADITIONALIST, PINE RIDGE AT THE TIME HAD THE HIGHEST MURDER RATE, THINK ABOUT THAT”, including Leonard Peltier. The first two went on trial and were aquitted, because the judge saw the truth, and said in court, ” that he felt ashamed to be part of something that would try to do that to someone else”. Leonard Peltier fled to Canada, fighting extradition, knowing he would not get a fair trial. He lost the extradition process and was released to the U.S. custody. The government wasn’t going to lose twice, for the murders of the two agents. They made sure not to use the same judge as in the first two trials. He also couldn’t use the same self defense plee. The FBI admitted in court that they didn’t know who shot the two agents. yet they convicted a man whos only crime was protecting his people. Maybe people should study the whole truth, instead of just what feels comfortable

  2. Jay–regarding the class action suit–I’m not familiar with the history of suits against the US government (or one of its agencies).

    What are the odds of a plaintiff winning against the government? Has it been done?

  3. Thank you Jay. I believe you will take the words of Leonard Peltier to heart and take inspiration from them. They are words of wisdom from a man worthy of respect.

    I also believe that in the spirit of truth and justice you will research Leonard’s case without any preconceived expectations of his alleged guilt.

    By way of helping you in your quest, may I suggest you begin by visiting the website FriendsofPeltier . You will find there much that you may not know about this case.

    Among the many people who have researched and support Leonard you will find:- Mikail Gorbachov and Archbishop Desmund Tutu (Nobel Peace Prize Laureates), Shami Chakrabati (Director Liberty Human Rights Organization), Nelson Mandela and the late Mother Teresa.

    Amnesty International have also written an open letter to Isaac Fulwood of the US Parole Commission calling for the immediate release of Leonard Peltier.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have asked me not to leave and continue to read your work. This I will do willingly.

  4. Suzanne, as we have digressed from the topic which is of interest to me and which prompted my initial reply to Jay, I am returning to it, as the only interest I have in the history of Europe, war and oppression is to do my utmost to ensure the same mistakes are not made again.

    I will leave you with this quote:- “Never cease in the fight for peace, justice and equality for ALL people. Be persistant in all that you do, and don’t allow anyone to sway you from your conscience.”
    ~ Leonard Peltier

    1. Elizabeth, that’s a fine quote. I’ll take it as inspiration. But I hope you won’t leave us. Continue reading. Comment. As you wrote, “without dialogue, understanding is not found.”

  5. Elizabeth–your last name is Welsh and I just took an educated guess. Was I wrong?

    Whenever someone defines themselves as part of a subjugated group, it’s been my experience, there’s no love lost for the perceived oppressor.

    And no…I don’t think the English are responsible for every act of harm or oppression towards indigenous peoples (which isn’t always a 100% accurate description as there’s been a millenia of migration all over the earth).

    I’m not sure why Europeans have been so intolerant of people they conquered. That’s the million dollar question…but it certainly seems to hold true. There’s always been conquest of one group over another…but Europeans (not exclusively the English) appear to have been the most brutal about it.

  6. Suzanne, whatever gave you the impression I hate the English? Do you perhaps feel the English are responsible for everything that has befallen the indigenous people of this world?

  7. Jay—point taken about Jews’ continual presence–from the beginning–in the birth of European civilization.

    Is that true about the American slave system being the lengthiest? I had understood slavery to have been a given throughout much of history…

    I was wondering if there was a Native American class action suit filed and looked it up…and indeed there is one. It looks like it’s pending and there’s a US gov. motion to dismiss it?

    Is this part of what you are talking about? http://www.tribaltrust.com/documents/us_mot_dismiss.htm

    Thanks for putting this on my radar.

    1. I didn’t mean specifically the American (U.S.) slave system, but the entire European slave trade to the Western Hemisphere. I don’t believe – from what we can know – that the numbers were exceeded elsewhere at any time. I was also referring to a combination of numbers, duration, and the systemic complex constructed around it. I believe, in that respect, it is unequaled. A kind of comparison is found in the Holocaust. It isn’t the greatest genocide ever in sheer numbers; certainly, the genocidal consequences of the European conquest of the Western Hemisphere are significantly greater in number. But the expressed, purposeful, and systematic nature of the Nazi “final solution” are outstanding in nature.

      Yes, the link you share refers to one of the Trust Fund litigations that are ongoing. This one is the Tribal Trust Fund suit, seeking an accounting of all monies earned and held in trust from lands that are Tribally owned. It was filed in late 2007. The much older (thirteen years) Individual Trust Fund suit is related to lands held in individual title. I have a link at the upper left (the Trust Fund Litigations) that leads to information and the official sites of each suit.

  8. Elizabeth,
    It appears that we have a fundamental disagreement and specific miscommunication. You write as if intellect, spirit, and heart are necessarily in opposition to each other. I do not believe that to be the case. It is fundamental to my world view that they are not. I am sorry you do not see the passion and heart that are within, behind, and around my intellect, for they are surely there. Perhaps with more time and more reading of me, if you care to.

    About this post, on which we are commenting – it is not really about Leonard Peltier. The minor publicity surrounding his parole hearing offered an opportunity – for which I am always in search – to address the issue of Native America and the neglect of its history and current state. I tried to be very honest about both my inclinations in the Peltier case and my uncertainty about those inclinations. This is the state that I believe most people, if they were honest, would acknowledge about themselves regarding a host of situations in life, including famous and notorious criminal cases, in which they cannot make themselves expert.

    I know that the case is very complex, with myriad details and forensics, accusations of abuse and misbehavior on all sides, betrayals and recanted testimony, and other related murders. Those who support Peltier, as I said in the post, are generally those who – as a matter of the spirit and heart – one would anticipate proclaiming his innocence. Those who are adamant about his guilt are those one would expect to passionately hold that view. In any case, someone killed those FBI agents, almost assuredly a Native American – I don’t believe there are many who claim otherwise, and the major defense of Peltier is that, while he was engaged in the conflict, he was not the one who committed that shooting – in which case, we are in the same position: a tumultuous period, a violent event, a Native who shot two men, and the history that led up to it all. It is that history, that context, and the unchanged situation since – the plea from the seven Sioux leaders to the U.S. government – that is the subject of the post.

    My concern here is not Peltier, but the overall and immeasurable injustice, and I believe true justice is perceived by the intellect and heart together.

  9. Elizabeth–are you Welsh?

    I was going to bring up Ireland as a remote comparison, as that’s my paternal lineage.

    What the English did was despicable…but personally, I never saw value in hating them or disdaining their culture. The Celts of that region have pretty much assimilated and adopted the English legal system etc. –certainly the language. Would the Irish, for example be thriving right now if they held onto to their old class and inheritance system?

    Also, I have Jewish lineage via my mother–and I don’t harbor hatred of the Germans either. I don’t know that I trust Jews moving back there as a community…but the Germans are not pariahs in my mind.

    I came to that conclusion understanding that every culture has blood on its hands.

    I think when it comes to political issues the mind has to play an equal role to–if not a more prominent role–than the heart.

    After all, hatred is based on emotion…not rational thinking.

  10. I am not Native American, but am indigenous to the country in which I live. Like the Native American, and indeed many other indigenous peoples from around the world, my people where subjugated by those who wished to own and exploit the land for themselves. They knew what it was like, among other things, to be punished for speaking their native tongue.

    You have asked if I can specifically locate the disconnect between us. I can only answer that I believe we are disconnected at a spiritual level. You perceive and write from an intellectual point of view – I perceive and speak from my heart.

    You mentioned the Peltier article. Having re-read it I am wondering if you could clarify what you actually think with regards to this case. Near the beginning of your article you said that while you haven’t made yourself expert in the Leonard Peltier case you believed him to be guilty of the murders. Then you said that “you simply did not know.” Later you stated, “Then Leonard Peltier did what he did in 19755.” Would it perhaps be benefical to the credibility of your article if you did in fact make a detailed and unbiased study of the Peltier case.


  11. Of course you may ask me that question Jay, for without dialogue understanding is not found.
    I guess I was hoping to find your writings filled with compassion and committment to Native Americans. I wanted you to feel what they feel, despair as they despair, but I couldn’t detect any passion in your words.

    The red earth may be sad Jay, but the people who live upon it are sadder.

    1. Elizabeth, I find your comment curious and surprising. I’ve rarely been characterized as lacking passion in my life or my writing. I wonder whether you say this speaking as a Native yourself or a non-Native, as I am.

      I can never feel what Native Americans feel or despair as some of them do – many, from my experience, do not. I think it would be presumptuous of me even to believe I could.

      That you find no compassion or commitment in my writing is equally surprising. I wonder, again, how much of it you have read. Beyond the one post you are responding to, there are many others, and links to writing elsewhere, all of which was written from, precisely, compassion and commitment. This post, in attempting to place Leonard Peltier in an historical context greater than a single act of violence, was intended out of compassion and commitment to all Native Americans. How have I so miscommunicated?
      As to the blog title, while I accepted the apparent consanguinity of it to perceptions of Native American history, the About page explains that the title’s origin is quite elsewhere.

      Perhaps you can more specifically locate the disconnect between us.

  12. Jay –I read the article. Glad I did because you touched upon something I was thinking about. Namely, how we have made more amends towards blacks because they are more assimilated. Whereas Native Americans are perceived as the other.

    That pretty much speaks to the point I was trying to make about assimilation.

    You will note that Jews assimilated as a survival tactic (after being driven from their native land)–and yet at the same time held onto an ancient belief system. I would argue that balance is how Jewish culture and religion survived chronic persecution.

    I’m not trying to sound cold or scientific about it…I’m just trying to see the big picture–and ask the question: which conquered groups in history survived through assimilation–and which ones were suffocated by a dominant culture and disappeared? I think there’s a lesson there for those struggling to survive.

    Personally, I would never rely on the altruism of government or anyone else to lift me out of my vulnerability. That’s just a continuum of the dominant and weak dynamic. This whole idea of a trust fund is paternalistic. My 2 cents.

    1. Suzanne, I don’t think you’re being cold at all, rather properly analytical. I’ve often thought of Jewish comparisons myself in this area, and you’re making good points. Of course, Jews are, complexly – to say the least – very much OF Western civilization, including its mercantile and industrial aspect, Native Americans very much not. More profound otherness. Effective assimilation undoubtedly supports economic success; we’ve seen that with some Oklahoma tribes on our travels. But those tribes already have a unique history, and the questions remain about the price and the nagging issue of why there should be the necessity.

      Also, the Jewish history is so very different in the final analysis. What would be comparable to the Native situation – if the Romans had remained occupiers of an immobile Jewish population four hundreds of years and, indeed, culturally overwhelmed it – in a modern setting? It’s beyond fruitful comparison, I think, and the Diaspora so different from continuing habitation in an occupied land amid the conquerors.
      We get to witness today what before was never properly observable, what it is like for whole peoples and cultures – it’s true of African-Americans, too, after the lengthiest, most systematic and vast slave practice in history – to process and attempt to recover from centuries of cultural annihilation. Most people haven’t the interest in processes that last more than months.

      I don’t have an answer, beyond recognizing certain just imperatives. Rather than paternalism, certainly – which was forced upon the Native population – hundreds of billions of dollars that has thus far been effectively stolen from American Indians, should be turned over to them.

    1. I hope the reasons I blog about Native Americans are clear from the blog posts, including this one. You can find more under Indian Country in the horizontal drop down menu at the top. Also, near the top left, you can find an image link to my 2008 article in Tikkun, “Aboriginal Sin.” The About page speaks to the larger project on which we are working. The historical and current situation of Native Americans is the most neglected in the nation. I came to fully appreciate that fact, and I am attempting to contribute.

      May I respectfully ask why you ask?

  13. Jay–I don’t have a conclusive opinion on this.

    I have more questions, if anything, about whether statistically, ethnic minorities thrive all that well as an unassimilated and isolated subset of a larger culture.

    I have my doubts…but I haven’t researched it.

    At the end of the day…you can’t make anyone do what they don’t want to do. You’re right, it has to be their choice.

    To my way of thinking…the reservation ghetto was created for the wrong reasons (to get a people out of the way for European expansionism)–and the wrongness of those reasons hasn’t evolved into something right.

    Nor do I think it will. Too much water under that bridge.

    Like I said though…those are my gut feelings. I’m open to other viewpoints.

    1. Suzanne, I have no conclusive answers either. The work in which I’m engaged is directed at asking Native Americans what they think are the answers. I do think it is an error to think of Native Americans as another ethnic minority. They are a conquered people being forced with woeful support to find a way to recover themselves – their cultural pride and integrity, their spiritual and psychological wholeness – in the midst of the world and power of the uncaring conqueror, because, of course, the conquest will not be undone. Who has the formula for that?

      As I’ve written, some reservations were, indeed, intended as concentration camps. But to many Natives, they are the last vestige of all the land that was once theirs, and of autonomy. If you haven’t read it, you might be interested in my Tikkun piece on the subject. The image link is at the upper left.

  14. Amnesty International is calling for an immediate release of Leonard Peltier. They support that if the ballistics evidence had been allowed to be presented in this past hearing, he would be free now. We all have an opinion. Your are intitled to yours.

    Mimi Red Elk
    South Dakota American Indian Movement
    Cheyenne River SD

    1. I had hoped to convey that the post was not actually about Leonard Peltier – or his guilt or innocence. I acknowledged leanings that I have, but acknowledged, too, that like almost everyone, I am not expert in the case and that I might well be wrong.

      The purpose of what I wrote was to convey that the Peltier case, be he truly guilty or not – and if not Peltier, someone is; the agents were murdered – occurs within a context of conquest and ongoing injustice about which there can be no doubt and that is unsurpassed in history. The crime was not a “common” criminal event, but one that was a product of world-historic events. To misunderstand that is to misunderstand everything – as it is to misunderstand everything not to recognize that the conditions that produced the event have not appreciably altered over thirty-five years of relative political quiescence.

  15. My views on this are probably controversial–and not informed from an insider’s standpoint. Although I do know of Native Americans who have expressed similar sentiment.

    I think the reservations are segregationist. Even if there were more money and higher morale…it’s still a bad idea, imo. This idea of holding on to an old way of life just keeps people down and separate.

    I guess maybe if you live like the Amish and become completely self-sufficient…

    To me, the reservations are not good adaptation.

    Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating book (Collapse) about why civilizations collapse…and in one example, he wrote about the failure of Christian Vikings’ to adapt to Native culture in Greenland (which itself was optimally adapted to the environment)…and thus perishing.

    I see a parallel here. Controversial…I know.

    1. Frankly, I think few people, including me, know enough to have sufficiently informed opinions on that subject. I’m still working on it. I think segregationist is the wrong word. We don’t say that of people who live in their own lands otherwise, and that is what, in their very imperfect way, reservations are – the remaining vestige of Native (limited) sovereignty. Are they good adaptation? That is another question – but adaptation as assimilation and acculturation? Reservations are, from one clear perspective, bastard spawn of the conquest. But whose responsibility is that? American Indians would take more land to be sure, but no one is offering. Adapting to circumstance in a culture that after hundreds of years still could not be more foreign, and doing it with out losing your integral identity is the challenge. No obvious solutions yet. The reservations may not be a solution – but how do we really know? What chance have they had to thrive? I write continually about the monies that the U.S. government have long held in “trust,” since the end of the conquest, and which have been misappropriated. Two hundred billion dollars could go a long way in funding a “stimulus” – business development, job creation, education, improved health maintenance – on reservations. Native Americans, like any people, want to remain who they are. They can’t live in the nineteenth century; it isn’t the nineteenth century. They need to develop their own fulfilling identities in the twenty-first century, but like any people they need the means. We can’t ghettoize the reservations and then complain that their ghettos. And crucial in this is that the choices are theirs.

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