Past Opinion, Edition 67-June 1, 2010
Edition 67-June 1, 2010
Why is Leonard Peltier still in prison?
By Thomas Terrio
An American hero of the Aboriginal kind

For the past 33 years a terrible injustice has been allowed to continue within the American criminal justice system. An innocent man, who defended his people, has been left languishing in prison for a crime he did not commit. His name is Leonard Peltier. He is a Lakota-Anishinabe member of the American Indian Movement and his case is well documented.

Peltier was charged, convicted, and sentenced to three consecutive life terms for the murder of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, at the Oglala Lakota Reserve in Pine Ridge, North Dakota, on June 26, 1975. Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and former United States Attorney General Ramsay Clark, have all called for Peltier’s immediate release. To this day, Peltier claims he is innocent of these murders.

Peltier’s life, indeed the lives of the majority of Aboriginal Peoples throughout world history have been filled with sadness, despair, abuse, and genocide since 1492. Peltier’s case is a more recent event in the history of the American Indian. Nevertheless, his case has shown how little has changed in the attitude towards Aboriginal Peoples in the US.

At eight-years-old, Peltier, like most Aboriginal children of the time, was taken from his family and sent to a residential boarding school for native people managed by the US government. The balance of probabilities suggests residential schools in the US were no better than the ones here in Canada—places of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

leonard peltier Leonard Peltier imprisoned in the US since 1976 on questionable evidence.

Peltier spent his teenage years with his father on the Turtle Mountain Reserve in North Dakota, before joining the American Indian Movement in the 60’s. In 1972, Peltier’s activism led to his involvement in the Trail of Broken Treaties, and the American Indian Movement’s occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington DC. This is where, Peltier believes, he was first noticed and then singled out by the US government. Peltier says he is in prison because of who he is; He has committed what he calls “Aboriginal Sin,” he was born Native American Indian.

On August 21, 2009, after 15 years without a parole hearing, Leonard Peltier was once again denied parole. His next parole hearing is scheduled for 2024. Peltier will be 79-years-old.  He is a forgotten man, a lost American hero of the Aboriginal kind, lost in a prison system which he describes as “The swiftest growing Indian reservation in the country.” Locked in a system that hates him for who he is, rather than for what he has been falsely convicted.

Although in prison since 1977, Peltier has contributed greatly to the well-being of Aboriginal Peoples. He has established scholarships for Native students and special programs for Indigenous youth. He has served on the advisory board of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. Peltier has also sponsored children in Central America, donated to battered women's shelters, and organized annual Christmas drives for the people of Pine Ridge Reservation. Furthermore, he has participated in and promoted art programs in prison.

In his book, “Prison Writings: My Life is my Sun Dance,” Peltier describes his time in prison this way: “Doing time creates a demented darkness of my own imagination. Doing time does this thing to you. But of course, you don’t do time, you do without it; or rather, time does you. Time is a cannibal that devours the flesh of your years day by day, bite by bite.”

It is common knowledge, Peltier was convicted on false statements and questionable evidence. Evidence long since discounted as not credible. This particular case has brought deep shame to the American criminal justice system and the FBI, simply because there is no reason to keep an innocent man in prison for something he did not do; unless of course, as Peltier alleges, you are keeping him there because of who he is. This shame now continues well into the 21st Century. For many years Amnesty International has declared Leonard Peltier a political prisoner of the US government. Isn’t it about time he received a presidential pardon from U.S. President Barack Obama? Why is Leonard Peltier still in prison?

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