Opinion: The life of Leonard Peltier


Published: 01-16-2023 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Leonard Peltier remains in federal prison in Florida, now in his 47th year of confinement. So far, all efforts for clemency have failed. Very disappointingly, President Biden has not yet granted clemency.

I previously wrote about Peltier’s situation in 2016 and 2021. A leader in the American Indian Movement, Peltier is the foremost (and longest-serving) political prisoner in America. Among others, Amnesty International, Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the National Congress of American Indians, James Reynolds ( a former federal prosecutor on his case) and 7 current U.S. senators have called for clemency for Peltier.

The facts in Peltier’s case are egregious. Those who are unfamiliar might assume that with such a long sentence Peltier is in prison for murder. That is not the case. Peltier was convicted of aiding and abetting the murder of two FBI agents. The government has acknowledged that they don’t know who shot the agents. Peltier was one of 40 armed Native Americans at the scene and the rap was pinned on him. Two other Native American men were also tried separately for the crime and found not guilty.

Peltier is now 78-years-old and he has grossly over-served any sentence. As Native American artist Ricardo Cate has said, “It doesn’t take a prisoner swap to free Leonard Peltier.”

Most articles about the case focus on things like fabricated evidence, perjured testimony, threatened witnesses, a biased juror, the hidden exculpatory ballistics test and an array of constitutional violations. I want to tell a different part of Peltier’s history. Last June, he wrote an article about his early life. It adds an important background dimension.

When Leonard was 9-years-old, he was forcibly taken to an Indian boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota. This didn’t happen in the bad old days. It was in 1952. Many Native Americans, including other leaders of the American Indian Movement like Dennis Banks, had the same experience.

Leonard was a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe in North Dakota. His grandfather played a very important role in raising him. Leonard described his grandfather as a mentor and as a person who taught him how to live off the land. Tragically, from the foot of his bed, Leonard witnessed his grandfather die from pneumonia. This led to a family crisis. His grandmother was left in a financially desperate situation. It was so desperate she asked for help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and that turned out to be a big mistake. Instead of providing assistance, government agents came to take Leonard, his sister, and cousin away.

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Leonard’s grandmother cried and pleaded with the agents not to take the children. Leonard writes, “She cried out, but he told her she would be jailed if she tried to interfere. That was it. I said nothing. I was 9-years-old but I was afraid if I said anything or tried to run, the government man would take my grandmother and put her in jail.”

Leonard’s grandmother only had time to pack the few clothes they had. She asked Leonard to protect his sister and cousin. Leonard described a picture of helplessness and trauma. He went on, “Maybe that day was my introduction to this destiny I did not choose. Little did I know that those school years would condition me well. I was treated very badly by the people in that school, but it made me stronger. I found out in boarding school I had no rights. So I guess I am not surprised that at 77 and still locked up it is the same for me now.”

Leonard describes how they were taken to a parking lot where many Native children were also being forcibly removed from their families. Leonard presents a stark picture of cultural genocide. When they got to Wahpeton, the authorities separated boys and girls and lined them up in military formation, smallest to tallest. To Leonard, it was very scary.

The children were marched to a basement where their hair was buzz-cut off. Then they had to strip and take scalding hot showers. When they left the showers, their custodians put DDT (the insecticide used in agriculture) all over their bodies. The children were told it was to kill lice. The custodians then lined the children up naked close together and spread Vaseline all over them. Then they used a towel to rub the Vaseline off. If any dead skin came off a child, that child was hit hard with a fat ruler.

Leonard writes, “They made it clear we were hated. With every look, with every cruel word, they continued a war our ancestors had fought since their ancestors landed here back in 1492.”

Leonard recalled crying and whimpering in his dorm every night. The sound of a ruler smacking boys is a traumatic memory still affecting him. Leonard wrote that the Native children at Wahpeton secretly spoke their language, sang their Native songs and prayed. Some of the kids called themselves “the Resisters,” after the French Resistance.

After three years at Wahpeton, Leonard was able to leave but he wrote that the violent and harsh memories remain. He had heard about children who died by suicide and were buried on the boarding school grounds. Some children claimed to hear phantom crying in the night. Leonard wrote “we survived with our hearts intact.”

He concluded, “You don’t treat people badly like that. I rise only when I help you rise. Despite all the beatings, I still believe it. It’s a law, like physics, and it’s true. You get nowhere being mean and disrespecting the feelings of others, especially the most vulnerable. I have seen both kinds of people and more than my share of evil ones, and I know I’m right. I rise only when I help you rise.”

In considering why President Biden has failed to grant clemency to Peltier, I am struck by the political cowardice. This is no longer the days of J. Edgar Hoover. All the FBI agents involved with the case are long gone. There is no good excuse. With Trump, you would expect he would grant clemency to the worst people, his criminal loyalists and cronies. We have a right to expect far better from Biden.

The experience of Brittney Griner shows there is no substitute for popular pressure to force President Biden to grant clemency. Leonard Peltier should not be paying the price for the still broken relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government.