Peltier, 77, has been locked up since 1975, making him the longest-serving political prisoner in U.S. history. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for his contested role in the murders of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Peltier’s conviction has been challenged for decades by lawyers, organizations, politicians, and former judges, as well as the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa, and humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International. Peltier is currently at a maximum-security prison in Coleman, Florida.
After hours of being sick and still in the general population, Gokee tells Daily Kos, Peltier was finally placed in isolation, where he will stay for the next two weeks unless his health deteriorates further—at which point he will be moved to a hospital.
Gokee says Peltier believes he may have gotten the virus from one of the unmasked guards or another inmate. “They don’t enforce mask-wearing at all. He told me he’s wearing the same mask since I saw him last year, and nothing is being sanitized,” she says.
Peltier is immune-compromised, suffering from diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and an abdominal aortic aneurysm, but he’s yet to receive his COVID-19 booster, although Gokee says almost all the other inmates in the prison have.
“If Leonard Peltier dies in prison, God help us,” Gokee said in a recent press conference. “Because America is watching. Joe Biden, this is up to you,” she added.
Since the start of his decades-long incarceration, Peltier has denied being directly involved in a shootout with two plain-clothed FBI agents over a pair of stolen boots at the South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. The shooting left two FBI agents dead along with a Native American named Joe Stuntz, who was shot in the head by a sniper bullet. Stuntz’s murder has never been investigated.
The FBI quickly focused their investigation on prominent members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who were camping on the property at the time. They’d been invited there by the Jumping Bull elders to protect the Nation from the extreme violence on the reservation at that time. Peltier was an AIM member.
Peltier’s trial was a joke. First off, the FBI agents were tied to a goon squad, something that was never introduced in court. Additionally, information about a ballistics test that would have exonerated him was never introduced at trial.
Peltier was initially convicted of first-degree murder; that conviction was later thrown out, but his sentence was upheld for aiding and abetting murder.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Reynolds, who upheld the conviction, and the federal Appeals Court judge who rejected his early appeals, have both since called for his release—along with Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Ali, Robert Redford, Wes Studi, Tantoo Cardinal, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Marlon Brando, among many others.
ILPDC’s co-director, Jean Roach, a survivor of the FBI shootout that left three dead, talked about the many wrongs against Native Americans:
”A long time ago, they killed our leaders, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, putting them in prisons. They’re doing the same thing to Leonard Peltier. We’re tired of the genocide and we’re tired of the double-standards my people are experiencing, and with COVID it’s even worse.”
On Monday, North Dakota Representative Ruth Buffalo organized a letter with the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators, asking President Biden, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Director of Federal Bureau of Prison Michael Carvajan, and Southeast Regional Director of the Bureau of Prisons J.A. Keller for the immediate release of Peltier.
“As Native people and public servants, we understand fully the sense of urgency our loved ones are faced with regarding COVID,” Buffalo told Native News Online. “Add inhumane living conditions, and prison guards who don’t follow CDC guidelines, it is a recipe for disaster.”
The letter reads in part:
“We request that Mr. Peltier be immediately released to serve the remainder of his sentence in extended home confinement or hospital care, recognizing the increased infectivity of the Omicron variant among the general and incarcerated populace.
“Even if Mr. Peltier had not been convicted under contested circumstances, his advanced age, ill-health, and the amount of time he’s served ought to be enough to reconsider his circumstances,” Buffalo said. “We are beyond the stage of making an example, and sheer human compassion and clemency urgently need to be considered. Continued imprisonment is surely a death sentence.”
At age eight, Peltier was taken from his family and sent to a residential boarding school for Native children run by the U.S. government. The children were forbidden from speaking their native languages and suffered both physical and psychological abuses.
As a teenager, Leonard Peltier returned to live with his father on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. It was one of only three reservations the U.S. government chose as the testing ground for its new termination policy. The policy forced Native families off their reservations and into the cities. The resulting protests and demonstrations by tribal members introduced Peltier to Native resistance through activism and organizing.
Eventually, his activism and work with AIM would bring him to assist the Oglala Lakota People of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the mid-1970s. On Pine Ridge, he participated in the planning of community activities, religious ceremonies, programs for self-sufficiency, and improved living conditions. He also helped to organize security for the Indigenous people who were being targeted for violence by the pro-assimilation tribal chairman and his vigilantes. It was here that the tragic shoot-out occurred, which led to his wrongful conviction.
From behind bars, he has helped to establish scholarships for Native students and special programs for Indigenous youth. He has served on the advisory board of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and has sponsored children in Central America. He has donated to battered women's shelters, organized an annual Christmas drive for children at Pine Ridge and Turtle Mountain, and promoted prisoner art programs.
He has also established himself as a talented artist, using oils to paint portraits of his people, portraying their culture and histories. He has written poetry and prose from prison and completed a moving biography titled Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance (St. Martin's Press, NY, 1999).
Peltier’s last chance for clemency is from President Joe Biden. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions supporting his release. With Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet Secretary leading the Interior Department, there’s a sliver of hope to save Peltier from dying in prison.
Haaland has been a vocal advocate for Peltier’s case, along with Petuuche Gilbert, president of Indigenous World Association; Norman Patrick Brown, who was among one of the young persons who survived the Jun. 26, 1975 shootout; human rights advocate Eda Gordon; and Lenny Foster, Peltier’s Spiritual Advisor of more than 30 years, who is a board member of the International Indian Treaty Council and American Indian Movement.
“He just needs to come home. He doesn’t deserve this. We’re asking that people call, email, and comment on comment lines and demand that Biden release him. If the president wants to find common ground and amnesty internationally, then it must start with Leonard Peltier. There’s no negotiating when you’re holding one of us as a hostage,” Gokee tells Daily Kos.
Gokee is asking that people write, comment, email, and call President Biden to ask for Peltier’s release and clemency.