Leonard Peltier: The Activist
In the Beginning
Leonard Peltier (of the Anishinabe, Dakota, and Lakota Nations) traces the roots of his political activism to the rank racism and brutal poverty he experienced every day as an Indian child growing up on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Fort Totten Sioux reservations in North Dakota.
Termination and Its Aftermath
During the last years of the Eisenhower administration a resolution was passed by Congress to “terminate” all Indian reservations and “relocate” Indians off their lands and into the cities. Indians were given two choices: either relocate or starve. Later, court decisions would declare this policy illegal. In the late 1950s, however, to implement their inhuman policy, the United States government cut off the reservations’ already meager supply of food and commodities—the pitiful little “payment” they had promised the Indians in their treaties to recompense Indians for all the vast and holy continent they’d stolen. Now, Indian people were offered money to get off their land and move to cities like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Chicago—where they were faced with joblessness, poverty, and hopeless despair on the mean streets of America’s inner-city slums.
Leonard was about 14 years old at the time. With his father, he attended meetings on the reservation to discuss the government’s decision to terminate Turtle Mountain. He recalls one Ojibwa lady, a cousin, who stood up angrily and asked in a loud, emotional, tear-filled voice, “Where are our warriors? Why don’t they stand up and fight for their starving people?”
“That sent electric vibrations from my scalp all the way down my spine to the soles of my feet,” Peltier says. “It was like a revelation to me—that there was actually something worthwhile you could do with your life, something more important than living your own selfish little life day by day. Yes, there was something more important than your poor miserable self: your People. You could actually stand up and fight for them… and as I would come to see in later years, all Indian people, all Indigenous People, all human beings of good heart. I vowed right then and there that I would become a warrior and that I’d always work to help my people. It’s a vow I’ve done my best to keep.”
Standing Up for The People
From that point, Peltier lived his life for the People, doing what he could to help. He protested for fishing rights in the Northwest, for example. But his first real experience with confronting the might of the U.S. government was the 1970 peaceful takeover of abandoned Fort Lawton, outside Seattle, Washington, which was on “surplus” federal land to which the Indians had first right under the law.
Faced with government machine guns and flamethrowers, the protestors were taken into custody. Peltier and the other Natives were beaten by the police at the time of arrest and beaten again when taken to their cells. When finally released, Peltier refused to leave the Army stockade until all the other protestors had been freed.
Ultimately, the Indian’s challenge was successful. Today, Fort Lawton is an Indian cultural center.
After Fort Lawton, Peltier traveled the country where, in Colorado, he joined theAmerican Indian Movement (AIM).
“AIM was born out of [the] turmoil [of "termination"]… The attempt to destroy us had only made us stronger, more aware, more dedicated. Every single one of us was willing to lay down our life for our cause, which was the very survival of Indian peoples…The growth of the Indian movement and the history of AIM are intertwined with my personal history… We found our inspiration and our strategy in the example and message of AIM leaders such as Dennis Banks, John Trudell, Russell Means, Eddie Benton-Banai, and Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt—all imperfect men, no doubt, yet men whose vision and bravery and fiery, even incendiary, words gave voice to a whole generation of Indian activists, myself included.”
In 1972, Peltier joined the Trail of Broken Treaties march scheduled to arrive in Washington, DC, in time for the presidential election. A caravan from San Francisco, California, met up with a caravan from Seattle and others from around the country. The four-mile-long procession arrived early on the morning of Friday, November 3, just before Election Day. The Indians had notified the Nixon Administration of their plans which included the presentation of a 20-point proposal for improving U.S.-Indian relations.
The first of the Indians’ 20 Points demanded the restoration of their constitutional treaty-making powers, removed by the provision in the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act, and the next seven concerned recognition of the sovereignty of Indian nations and the revalidation of treaties, including the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The fundamental demand was that Indians be dealt with according to “our treaties.” Other points were addressed to such related matters as land-reform law and the restoration of a land base, which would permit those Indians who wished to do so to return to a traditional way of life. From the U.S. government’s point of view, to recognize or negotiate treaty claims all over the country might necessitate the return of vast tracts of America to the true owners, a very dangerous idea indeed.
“We had our chiefs with us… Lodging had been provided for them… but the church where they were supposed to stay was full of rats… We decided to go over to the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] BIA and speak with Louis Bruce [the BIA Commissioner], and if we were denied decent housing for our chiefs, the plan was to hold a sit-in in the building until we got results.”
The government stalled and that evening sent in riot squads to try to evict the protestors. The Indians barricaded themselves inside and occupied the BIA building. Later reports of looting and vandalism by frustrated and angry Indians that caused damages “in the millions” were termed “grossly exaggerated” by Interior Secretary Rogers Morton. According to Carter Camp, the young Ponca head of Oklahoma AIM, “Most of the damage [was] done by the police.”
The government negotiated with the Indians, but only to end the occupation of the BIA building, not to resolve their original 20-point list of grievances. The government promised to look into the grievances (they never did) and they also promised not to prosecute the Indians for the BIA takeover (a promise broken like all the others). To defuse the situation and end their own embarrassment, the government eventually provided vehicles and an early-morning police escort out of town plus under-the-table money ($66,000) to pay the Indians’ return travel expenses. Some of the Elders even received first-class tickets back home.
After the Trail of Broken Treaties, AIM was classified “an extremist organization” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and on January 8, 1973, the leaders on the Trail were added to the FBI’s list of “key extremists.” From that point, the focus of the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO was turned to AIM, and an organized “neutralizing” of AIM leaders was begun. On January 11, the White House in effect rejected the Trail of Broken Treaties grievances.
A few weeks after his return from Washington, DC, in November 1972, Peltier was falsely accused of the attempted murder of a Milwaukee, Wisconsin police officer. Leonard’s claim that he had been set up by the police was eventually supported by several witnesses, including the police officer’s girl friend who said the officer had waved around one of Peltier’s pictures, sent to the local police from FBI headquarters, announcing his intention of “catching a big one for the FBI.”
Peltier spent five months in jail before Milwaukee AIM could raise his bail, during which time the action at Wounded Knee had commenced. Seeing no reason to expect justice in a trial in which the word of an AIM Indian would be pitted against the testimony of two policemen, Peltier went underground soon after he was released in April 1973.
Leonard attended the Sun Dance held at the Rosebud Reservation during the summer of that year and then traveled to Seattle, where he rejoined the fishing-rights fight of the Puyallup-Nisqually. But when news came of the murder of Pedro Bissonette—a Wounded Knee veteran and co-leader of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization on the Pine Ridge Reservation, who knew every detail about the Dick Wilson regime and its dealings with the U.S. government and was shot to death on October 17, 1973, a victim of the Pine Ridge “Reign of Terror”—Leonard and other West Coast AIM members answered a national call for support at the funeral on Pine Ridge. After the funeral Peltier returned to the West Coast. Having failed to appear for his pre-trial hearing in Milwaukee three months before, he was now a fugitive from justice.
In May 1974, Peltier and the West Coast group served as security for the revival of the ghost dance at the Rosebud Reservation. The following month, Peltier attended the first International Indian Treaty Council at Mobridge, on the Standing Rock Reservation. That summer, he also participated in his second Sun Dance. On August 9, 1974, due to Peltier’s failure to appear for trial in Milwaukee, a formal warrant was issued for his arrest.
In September 1974, Peltier returned to Seattle and soon thereafter headed for Idaho to help the Kootenai Indians (who had declared war on the U.S. government).
At the end of December, he went to Wisconsin where on January 1, 1975, Peltier participated in the takeover by the Menominee Warrior Society of an unused abbey of the Alexian Brothers Novitiate in Gresham. By now, Peltier had grown in stature, according to the FBI, as an “AIM manager.” (It should be noted that from before August 9, 1974, up to the shoot-out on June 26, 1975, and after, the FBI—according to its own documents—knew of Peltier’s movements. No attempt was ever made to take him into custody until his arrest in Canada on February 6, 1976.)
In late February 1975, an AIM group, including Peltier, traveled to the southwest (Shiprock) to assist John Trudell and Navajo AIM leader Larry Anderson in the eight-day takeover (February 25-March 3) of the Fairchild Corporation electronics plant, where underpaid Navajo women employees had lost their jobs for trying to protect themselves with some sort of union.
Then, at the invitation of Pine Ridge traditionals, the group headed north to South Dakota. In addition to providing a peacekeeping element on the dangerous reservation and protecting the traditionals from harm, the group provided community service: they chopped firewood for the stoves of the elderly, planted trees and a community garden to offset the unhealthy welfare food, re-roofed a store that had burned down, provided counseling to alcoholics, and offered free repairs on the worn-out local cars that were not only malfunctioning but dangerous. Bingo games and bake sales were set up to raise money for social activities that would bring people together and strengthen their resolve.
From June 6 to June 18, 1975, AIM held its eighth annual convention in Farmington, New Mexico, where Leonard Peltier acted as the head of security. Eight hundred Indians attended the event.
Peltier and other AIM members returned to Pine Ridge after the Farmington convention.
For a few days, the AIM group on Pine Ridge crowded into a log cabin near the Jumping Bull home, but eventually some tents were erected and a sweat lodge built in the woods of cottonwood, ash, and willow along White Clay Creek, perhaps four hundred yards southeast of the compound where a slope descended from plowed fields on the plateau south of the house to the creek bottom. Dino Butler, Leonard Peltier, and Dennis Banks took turns running the sweat-lodge ceremony, in which prayer with the sacred pipe was held twice each day.
“It was not an armed military camp hatching terrorist plans,” Peltier says. “It was a spiritual camp, there to support Dennis and the Oglala people.”
In the evening of June 25, huge dark thunderheads gathered over the Black Hills, followed by wild angry winds and lashing rain that caused property damage all over the western part of South Dakota. Such natural turmoil, according to Indian belief, foretold the event on June 26, 1975—the tragic shoot-out and Peltier’s wrongful conviction in the deaths of two FBI agents, for which he has been unjustly—and arguable illegally—imprisoned for over 30 years.
Now a great-grandfather, Leonard Peltier remains committed to The People and does whatever he can to ensure their survival. He has made remarkable contributions tohumanitarian and charitable causes during his many years in prison.
End Note: In February 1978, Peltier would ultimately be acquitted of the Milwaukee charge, but only after his conviction in connection with the shooting deaths of two FBI agents. During oral arguments in April 1978 related to an appeal of Peltier’s conviction—after his acquittal in Milwaukee—Peltier’s attorneys argued there had been a violation of the Federal Rules of Evidence which provide that, “Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show that he acted in conformity therewith.” The appellate court nevertheless allowed evidence of Peltier’s alleged past crime as proof of motive. The Milwaukee charge, therefore, unjustly contributed to Peltier’s conviction and subsequent sentence of two consecutive life terms.