You Never Let Your Guard Down When You Live in Hell

root - Posted on 04 September 2009

Our Brother Leonard Peltier's crisis continues

by Indigenous People's Media Project

“You never let your guard down when you live in hell”

“Innocence is the weakest defense. Innocence has a single voice that can only say over and over again, “I didn’t do it”. Guilt has a thousand voices, all of them lies”

--Leonard Peltier from “My Life is my Sundance"

The rain fell gently as I made my way to 7th Street near Market. I approached the federal building and looked up. The building’s metallic structure loomed ominously over the street—out of place among the people gathered in front of it. The rain fell on my forehead and came down like tears. More people appeared, as if rising from the ground. 2 men unfurled a banner announcing the purpose of the gathering: Free Leonard Peltier, free all political prisoners. The banner flapped in the wind like an eagle as the people began to speak.

A woman named Bird took a hold of the microphone and spoke passionately about her friend Leonard Peltier. “It’s shameful the way the US government is letting this happen to Leonard. President Obama said we will have no torture in our country referring to Guantanamo. But what about the torture that’s going on in the US prison system? Let’s live up to your words President Obama”.

Leonard Peltier AKA Tate Wikuwa, meaning, “wind chases the sun”, AKA Gwarth-ee-lass, meaning "he leads the people". He is a political prisoner. In the US prison system he is known as US Prisoner 89637-132. He has spent 33 years in prison (mostly in the infamous “Hot House”, Leavenworth Federal Prison) for the crime of being Indian--of loving and doing whatever necessary to insure that the indigenous people of this land live in dignty as human beings. On January 20, 20098 he was brutally attacked (beaten to a “bloody pulp” said one elder) as he was being transferred to Canaan Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. He was placed in solitary confinement when he refused to identify his attackers. He was given one meal—dangerous for a man who is an elder and diabetic—and denied access to legal counsel for 4 days. This incident is an example of a multitude of documented privations indicative of the government’s vindictiveness and willingness to circumvent justice to satisfy its craving for vengeance.

Leonard Peltier is serving a double life sentence (2 lifetimes plus 7 years). His scheduled release date is 2041. His sentence is a result of his involvement in a shooting in 1975 at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier and members of AIM (American Indian Movement) were summoned by elders at the reservation for protection against elements that were out of control—the goons (AKA Guardians of the Oglala People), and the poverty and oppression sanctioned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Those bold enough to speak out on behalf of their people were harassed; many ended up dead. Leonard Peltier and AIM answered the call.

On the morning of June 26, 1975, Leonard Peltier and members of AIM were camped out at the Jumping Bull Ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation. A black car pulled in to the area with a pair of unidentified men. They began shooting, killing a native man by the name of Joe Killsright Stuntz. The natives took cover, gathering the elders and children. They returned fire in self-defense, killing the two men. They later found out that the 2 men were FBI agents—their visit supposedly predicated on a pair of stolen cowboy boots. The presence of the GOONS was ubiquitous and State troopers had sent out armored vehicles and considered the area a compound. The natives fled. The FBI knew whom they wanted: Dino Butler, Rob Robideau and Leonard Peltier—AIM leaders that they considered threats. Robideau and Butler were tried and acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. Leonard Peltier had fled to Canada where he was welcomed and supported by indigenous brothers and sisters. He was subsequently extradited back to the US to stand trial. He was found guilty of the murders of the 2 FBI agents. The acquittals of Butler and Robideau infuriated the FBI. Someone had to pay for the killings of the FBI agents. That someone was Leonard Peltier. Had he been tried with Butler and Robideau, he would be a free man today. Coercion, including falsifying documents and affidavits to illegally extradite Peltier from Canada to Fargo, North Dakota was used to put Leonard Peltier in prison. The prosecuting attorney said, “We don’t know who killed these agents, but someone has to pay”. The evidence allowed in the trial of Robideau and Butler were not allowed in Peltier’s case—evidence that would have proven his innocence.

“We are going to march to the congresswoman Pelosi’s office”, said AIM West Coordinator Tony Gonzalez. “We want to let her know of our concern for the safety of Leonard Peltier”. The people marched up 7th Street and across Market. POOR Magazine poverty scholar Dee Allen led the chant, “Geronimo Pratt is free…Leonard Peltier should be free!” We made our way past city hall and to the Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue. A group of us entered the Federal Building. It was standard procedure—we went through metal detectors while stone-faced security personnel looked on. It’s a dehumanizing process—much like the airport. One man in our group was a disabled scholar who asked one of the security officers a question. The officer ignored him as if he were an insignificant annoyance. We were escorted to Congresswoman Pelosi's office by 2 security personnel--one man and one woman (the woman bearing a striking resemblance to the late actor Carol O'Connor). We had finally arrived.

A pleasant African-descendent young woman offered us coffee. Tony Gonzalez and Sampson Wolfe of the Northern California Leonard Peltier Support Group joked about coffee, about how much people fuss over it. The writer Dostoyevsky once said that you could determine the character of a man by the way he laughs. Both Tony and Sampson laugh well. We were met by one of Pelosi’s staff members. “I only have 5 minutes”, he said. Tony explained the situation of Leonard Peltier and asked if the congresswoman could help. The staffer indicated that he wasn’t familiar with Leonard Peltier but that he’d pass the information along. We left but not before being given complimentary 2009 calendars, complete with pictures of US historical sites and patriotic quotations meant to rouse the spirit and fire the bones. I flipped through the calendar. No quotations of native elders, their faces absent from the many pictures. I thought about the disrespect that the indigenous people of this land have had to endure. I thought about the day Quannah Brightman of United Native Americans lit sage in front of POOR Magazine’s old office building during our “Take back the land” ceremony. I remember the cop (African descended) telling him to extinguish the sage as it was “unpleasant”. We left the federal building and walked outside where the rain met us.

Leonard Peltier has survived incarceration and the physical pain of confinement. We believe he is innocent. We believe the FBI orchestrated the attack on Leonard in prison to blemish his record when he comes before the parole board. We demand that the Obama administration grant Leonard Peltier a full pardon and to right a wrong that has lived on far too long—despite evidence that would exonerate him. He is an elder, a man like any other who wants to be free. As he told Bird when they last spoke, “All I want to do is feel the branches crackle under my feet. I just want to feel the earth beneath my feet again. I want to be a father and a grandfather and go home and love my family. I just want to see them and be with them. If people only knew that”.

Note: Leonard Peltier was transferred back to United States Prison Lewisburg and released to the general population. While this is preferable to solitary confinement, the Bureau of prisons can’t or won’t protect Leonard Peltier from harm. Send letters, call, and/or e-mail the director of BOP. Harley G. Lappin, Director Bureau of Prisons U.S. Department of Justice 320 First Street., NW Room 654 Washington, DC 20534 Phone: (202) 307-3250 Fax: (202) 514-6878 E-mail: A sample letter (that you can adapt and use for a telephone script, as well) follows. -----

Dear Sir: I was outraged to learn that, on January 13, Leonard Peltier was transferred to USP-Canaan in Waymart, Pennsylvania, where he was immediately attacked and injured by young gang members. Your inability to protect Mr. Peltier in this or any other maximum-security facility is clearly evident. I understand that last August Mr. Peltier properly submitted a formal application for transfer to an institution close to his home in North Dakota-either the low-security prison at Sandstone, Minnesota, or the medium-security facility in Oxford, Wisconsin. Such an assignment, I know, would comply with Program Statement 5100.08 which states that the BOP is to make every effort to keep prisoners within a 500-mile radius of their homes so that prisoners can maintain ties to their families and home communities. In reviewing Mr. Peltier's places of confinement during the past 33 years, however, I was shocked to discover that he has never received such consideration. Apparently, your rules don't apply to Mr. Peltier and never have. In addition, in late 2008, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians also sent a resolution to you offering a third option, i.e., that their tribesman Peltier be transferred to that Nation's custody to serve the remainder of his sentence. Leonard has been a model prisoner for the past 30 years. In recognition of this, the BOP has greatly reduced his security rating. Peltier shouldn't be imprisoned in a maximum-security facility anymore. His reduced security rating, Peltier's application, and his Tribal Council's request should have been but clearly weren't taken into account in the BOP's recent decision to transfer Peltier to yet another maximum security prison-and one where his safety and wellbeing were put in such serious jeopardy. The only remedy to the current situation is for you to immediately transfer Mr. Peltier to one of the above, more appropriate facilities. I strongly urge you to do so. Sincerely, (Your Name) (Your Street Address) (Your City, State and Zip Code).


Sign-up for POOR email!