Leonard Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences in Leavenworth for the first degree murder of two FBI agents. Those of you who attended reasonably liberal colleges have probably witnessed the hippie with telltale dreadlocks asking you to sign his or her petition for the president to grant clemency to Peltier and other American "political prisoners." Spurred on by a number of pop culture references such as �Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee� sung by the Indigo Girls, the Ken Burns PBS Documentary �The West,� Howard Zinn�s A People�s History of the United States, and our recent trip through the South Dakota Badlands, the Black Hills, and Yellowstone, I decided to look into the history of Wounded Knee, SD, the site of Peltier's alleged crime.
In 1890, in retaliation for the massive defeat suffered at Custer's Last Stand, the U.S. Army massacred between 150 and 300 Lakota (Sioux), most of whom were the unarmed widows and orphans of plains warriors, at Wounded Knee. It was said to be the last "battle" of the Indian Wars, after which American Indians were concentrated onto reservations where it was hoped they would quietly go extinct. The historical marker for this "battle" stands in the middle of the bleakest landscape I have ever laid eyes on. There is nothing but dirt and low-lying scrub in the gulleys. The Pine Ridge Reservation, which encompasses Wounded Knee is the poorest place in the entire US, with an unemployment rate ranging from 40-75%. There is a green piece of wood reading "Massacre" nailed over the the word "Battle" on the US-government-authored history of the site.
Thus the American Indian Movement of the mid-1970's chose it as the site of its protest against the Government's treatment of native peoples. Leonard Peltier was a Lieutenant in the organization in 1975 when he went to help protect the residents from the corrupt tribal chairman and his GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation). A number of AIM activists were staying on the Jumping Bull compound when two FBI agents drove in and the Indians opened fire (perhaps thinking they were GOONs). At the end of the firefight, the two FBI agents lay dead of execution-style shots to the head.
The people of freepeltier.org have their own version of the story to tell, but after days of research reading articles and trial transcripts, I have come to the conclusion that he had a fair trial, does not deserve an appeal, and is most likely guilty not only of aiding and abetting, but of the murders for which he was convicted. Much as I wanted to sympathize with the clearly oppressed Native Americans, Peltier seems not to be one of them.