Leonard Peltier, the famed Native American activist who has spent four decades in prison, suggested in an interview published Monday with the New York Daily News that he's paying the price for having fought for the value of Indigenous lives.
“That’s what we were always fighting to change—the idea that Indian lives weren’t worth anything,” said Peltier, who questioned why no one was brought to trial for the death of Joseph Stuntz, a Native American killed in a shootout with the FBI, but he was sentenced for life for the death of two agents in the same incident.
Peltier was a leading figure within the American Indian Movement or AIM, a militant group championing Native American autonomy and culture, during its peak in political activity in the 1970s.
“We knew we were more than just feathers and buckskin, the way most people saw us. Indian culture has contributed great things to the world ... we wanted to be recognized,” he said.
He was called to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota to help provide security amidst political tensions and violence between rival groups.
FBI officials, on a deliberate mission to weaken and destroy leftist organizations with its operation COINTELPRO, viewed the reservation as a bunker for radical militant activity. They were told in a memo to “literally require military assault forces.”
“It was not an armed military camp hatching terrorist plans … It was a spiritual camp,” said Peltier in a separate interview.
On June 26, 1975 a massive shootout erupted, which included participants from AIM, the FBI and paramilitaries hired by the tribal chairman, who was opposed to AIM. An alleged witness—who was never on the scene and later recanted—turned in Peltier, and he was illegally extradited from Canada. The two other suspects were acquitted on claims of self defense.
While Peltier could have gained parole or clemency for admitting he had killed the agents, he told the New York Daily News that he could not because, “ I won’t betray my people like that, I won't betray my culture.” He added that the shootout was a “terrible tragedy” that “should never have happened.”
Calls have multiplied recently for President Barack Obama to grant clemency, as he approaches the end of his term and Peltier passes his 40th year behind bars.
Peltier, now 71, did not sound optimistic about a potential early release, saying his case is easy to dismiss as just another liberal cause. And since he is not eligible for another parole hearing until 2024, his freedom now relies on the altruism of U.S. authorities.
Now with diabetes, prostate problems and a massive aneurysm, Peltier said he is not expecting to live much longer and has requested a traditional ceremonial burial. Until then, he paints—the only thing that makes him feel free, he said.