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Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier

A Fifth Estate program, "Who killed Anna Mae", aired in the fall of 2000 raised the question that Leonard Peltier might be implicated in the murder of Nova Scotia MiqMaq activist Anna Mae Aquash [OFFSITE].

A main source for this show was an FBI agent who was working the case at the time. He claimed absolutely that Aquash was NOT an FBI agent. The gist of the argument was that Peltier and others in the leadership of the American Indian Movement at Oglala, where the FBI agents were shot, were suspicious of Aquash, felt they could no longer trust her and took her out and shot her. In a movement which was infiltrated by agents, it is impossible to tell who is telling the truth. We can be sure it is not the cops on either side of the border.

A separate Fifth Estate program, during the same season, "B.C. Bud," looked at RCMP-DEA cooperation to bust B.C. pot smugglers while leaving U.S. cocaine smugglers more or less alone, and interviewed an agent who said that U.S. agencies use "ruses" (that is, lies) to entrap people and it is all part of the game. Anything these people, whether retired or not, say has to be scrutinized in this light.

December 15, 2000: President Clinton was asked to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier based on an affidavit by Myrtle Poorbear sworn in Canada. Once again, an important person did the wrong thing by missing an opportunity to do the right thing and instead sprang his crooked cronies. -- Sheila Steele

The movement to free Leonard Peltier is once again in the news: inJusticebusters present two columns by Peter Worthington of the Toronto Sun and Wrongly imprisoned for murder, Leonard Peltier is now perhaps gravely ill. As far as we can tell, Sun Media, which owns these pieces had not kept them online.

The Nelson Mandela of America

Imprisoned native leader Leonard Peltier finally allowed to meet Sun columnist in Leavenworth lockup

LEAVENWORTH, KS -- The prisoner who's dubbed the North American Nelson Mandela seemed pleased to see me.

Ronald Williams FBI Agent

At first I had been refused access to Leonard Peltier, the Ojibwa-Sioux serving two life sentences in the maximum security federal prison at Leavenworth for the death of two FBI agents at South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reserve in 1975.

I had visited Peltier twice before, in 1992 and 1995 when, after looking into the case at some length, felt -- along with others -- that he was framed by the FBI and the "system" that wanted someone, anyone, punished for the shooting deaths of agents Ron Williams (right) and Jack Coler (right) in the range war of those turmoiled times.

Jack Coler FBI Agent

Without explanation, Leavenworth's warden, J.W. Booker, changed his mind after I wrote a lengthy article equating Peltier with Nelson Mandela. I had speculated that he was denied visitors because his health was worsening and authorities wouldn't be unhappy if he died in prison.

The Mandela parallel is apt. Mandela was 27 years in South African prisons before world pressure got him freed. Peltier is into his 24th year in prison for murders that the FBI and prosecutors now admit "we don't know who fired those shots." He has a form of lockjaw that prevents him from eating properly. His jaw is atrophied at a half-inch opening. He is denied specialist treatment.

Like Mandela, Peltier's sole motivation is working for his people, whom he sees as disadvantaged (to put it generously). He was a member of AIM (the American Indian Movement) in the mid-'70s which the FBI, somewhat hysterically, branded "subversive, extremist with a record of violence" and likely Communist.

Leonard Peltier

Last week I visited Peltier, first getting a guided tour of Leavenworth, courtesy of the prison's executive assistant, Bob Bennett. It is a remarkable prison of some 1,800 inmates and 600 staff, where the average sentence is around 20 years -- a city within walls, without women, where the pace is slow, amenities impressive, security phenomenal.

Peltier has aged since our last meeting, but seemed robust. As usual, he was optimistic about efforts being made on his behalf. A week earlier he'd met Danielle Mitterrand, widow of France's former president, who urged executive clemency. The day after my visit he was to be interviewed by CNN (which had previously been denied access). Soon he's scheduled to meet delegates from the European Parliament, which has also urged his release.

Peltier was puzzled and upset that Canada's Justice Minister Anne McLellan had recently responded to Reform Party questions that at his extradition hearings in 1976 no one had lied and "there is no evidence of any fraud in the extradition process." In fact, fraud illuminates the extradition. A sworn affidavit by one Myrtle Poor Bear that she was Peltier's girlfriend and had witnessed him kill the wounded FBI agents was (according to Paul Halprin, the Canadian lawyer representing the U.S. government at the extradition hearings) key in getting him extradited. It subsequently turned out that Poor Bear was mentally incompetent, had never met Peltier, wasn't on the Pine Ridge reserve that day. Her affidavit was dictated and concocted by the FBI. She had done three affidavits -- the first saying she didn't witness anything. Her other two were a combination of perjury, concocting evidence, fabrication and criminal impropriety.


As well as getting Peltier extradited, the fraudulent affidavit was also a contemptuous violation of the extradition treaty and deliberate ploy to corrupt the justice system. This is not an opinion, it is fact acknowledged by the courts at every level except, it seems, the Canadian government.

"Why would your justice minister say such a thing that everyone knows is untrue?" Peltier wonders. I told him, as I said on an Edmonton radio station, that McLellan was either ignorant of the case, or not telling the truth.

McLellan's other evidence, as well as the phony affidavit (which she insisted wasn't phony), was enough to get Peltier extradited -- a view disputed by former solicitor-general Warren Allmand who reviewed the case a couple of years ago for then-justice minister Allan Rock. Today, Allmand says the Poor Bear affidavit was virtually the only reason Peltier was extradited.

"If it wasn't for that false affidavit I wouldn't have been extradited," says Peltier. "If they'd had other evidence, they (the FBI and prosecutors) would never have jeopardized their careers, their reputations by creating false affidavits the way they did." Maybe, but they got away with it.

Peltier is encouraged that the conservative Reform Party and the socialist NDP in Parliament seem aligned in wanting Canada to protest the fraudulent extradition. "My case should cut across ideological lines," he says. "It's not an issue of left and right, but one of right and wrong."

Not a day goes by that Peltier doesn't mentally review his case and the range war at Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee in the mid-'70s, when the FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police, the GOONs (Guardian of Oglala Nation), SWAT teams, vigilantes and National Guard were poised.

Uranium deposits on Indian land were sought by government. AIM and traditional Indians felt another treaty was about to be violated in the name of expediency. In that time-frame, 60 Indians were murdered -- 47 of them AIM supporters. The wounded exceeded 300. Not one Indian death was investigated. "It was war," recalls Peltier.

Initially, the FBI put Indians Bob Robideau and Dino Butler on trial for shooting the two FBI agents who had entered the Jumping Bull compound on June 26, 1975, ostensibly to arrest one Jimmy Eagle for allegedly stealing a pair of cowboy boots. It came out at the trial that some 50 FBI agents and police were poised to attack the compound.

The jury acquitted the pair, ruling self-defence. Peltier still has difficulty understanding how he could have been found guilty of first-degree murder, and then have the FBI and prosecutors admit they didn't know who pulled the trigger and say that Peltier was guilty not of murder, but of aiding and abetting.

This distinction also confused appeal judges Donald Ross and Gerald Heaney, who said if Peltier had been tried for aiding and abetting, the verdict might have been difficult.


Judge Heaney reluctantly rejected the appeal because he said while it was "possible" the jury would have reached a different verdict had evidence not been withheld, he wasn't sure the jury would "probably" have acquitted Peltier. He lambasted the FBI.

Judge Heaney later wrote Senator Dan Inouye of Hawaii a letter which he asked be delivered to the president. He said that the government had "over-reacted at Wounded Knee;" that it "must share responsibility" for the violence; that "more than one person was involved in the shooting of the FBI agents;" that the "FBI used improper tactics in securing Peltier's extradition;" and that the president should invoke clemency to let "a healing process" begin.

An astonishing letter from an appeal court judge. To no avail.

While Peltier looks robust, his long hair and moustache show traces of white. At age 55, he has no self-pity, his sense of humour is unaffected, but he's in obvious discomfort, if not outright pain. Two operations on his atrophied jaw were botched, the second one in 1996 putting him in a coma for 14 hours and necessitating a total blood transfusion. He's understandably wary of prison surgeons.

Dr. E.E. Keller of the Mayo Clinic, a specialist in this form of jaw ailment, has seen Peltier's files and thinks he can correct it. But the prison says no -- it's their surgeons or no one. The warden issued a statement that the Medical Centre for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri, has confirmed Peltier suffers from ankylosis (fusing of the jawbone joints) which "prohibits him from properly opening or closing his mouth."

Although Peltier refuses further treatment at Springfield, the prison feels his "condition is stable and does not warrant prolonged, intensive treatment." Peltier eats by shoving food through a missing front tooth and mashing it against his teeth with his tongue. Wires from the bungled jaw operation jut into his mouth, causing acute pain.

"As I'm over 50, I get medical checks every six months, and I always complain about my jaw and headaches and pain on the right side of my face reaching the eye," he says. "But medical staff say there's a standing order they can't discuss my jaw or the pain.

"I have the beginning of an abscessed tooth at the back, which can't be treated ... I'd like the Mayo Clinic to look at it."

"Why won't they send you there?" I wonder.

"The prison says inmates can't dictate treatment. Also, they think I might escape." (Which he once did in 1979.)

"Would you escape?"

"Never. It would be a betrayal of my supporters."

I suggest that his enemies would relish him escaping because it would undermine his campaign for amnesty, which is gaining momentum. Peltier agrees: "I just want my jaw treated, to be able to open and close my mouth, to eat properly, to ease the pain, to be normal."

Peltier doesn't have the prison shuffle or lethargy one often sees in inmates with no future. He is fatalistic, but not resigned. He's become a leader, a symbol for Indians in the U.S. and Canada.


These days he's excited because two movies are in the works. One by Steven Segal about his life, the other by an Indian movie company called Smoke Signals, involving Whoopi Goldberg, Winona Ryder and Matt Damon.

He says: "I'm especially interested in the Indian production -- they've got the rights to Peter Mathiessen's book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Whoopi seems really keen."

I suggest that Graham Greene would be a natural to play him. Peltier seems to think he resembles Segal. I joke that perhaps he'd like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. He laughs. In Robert Redford's documentary, Incident at Oglala, there's an interview with a masked man identified only as "Mr. X," who claims he did the shooting. What about that?

"I don't know for a fact who did the shooting, but I think I know," says Peltier. "But I can't say anything. Who'd believe me? Besides, we have a tradition that you don't turn against your own. This wasn't a domestic dispute in 1975, it was a war. A soldier who's captured and turns against his own is ostracized. I want out of prison bad, I want to see my grandkids, I want to live what life I have left in freedom, but I can't point a finger at someone else.

"What's happened to me is what's been happening to Indians one way or another since the beginning. I didn't create the political climate of the 1970s but I lived it, like all Indians."

As for the immediate future, Peltier is encouraged that Amnesty International no longer merely urges his case be reviewed for a new trial, but urges immediate and unconditional release -- something he says the Methodist Church in America now advocates.

He thinks support is growing. Many early supporters who grew weary and frustrated over the years and left, have returned to the cause. The Congress of American Indians and Canada's Assembly of First Nations, representing virtually every North American Indian, plan joint action on his behalf.

"It would be useful if 500 or 1,000 tepees would arrive in Washington as a show of solidarity. It'd be theatre, but Indians are good at theatre. Tepees and a couple of hundred horses and Indians in traditional dress would have an effect. I know a hundred right now who would go, but who'd pay for it?"

Who indeed? Peltier facetiously suggests Microsoft's Bill Gates, supposedly the richest man in the world, might sponsor such a rally since he's feuding with the government.

Peltier is pretty active, despite his jaw and frustrations of getting justice. His paintings are sold or turned into prints which raise money for his defence. Extra money goes into a scholarship fund. For years he's tried to figure a way to paint the legendary Crazy Horse, with whom he identifies and is increasingly compared.

Any day now Peltier's autobiography comes out -- Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance, edited by former National Geographic writer and specialist on Indian culture, Harvey Arden, and published by St. Martin's Press.

In the meantime, like Nelson Mandela before him, he waits patiently and plans how to work for his people when he's released, something he is convinced is inevitable and predestined.

Leavenworth prison authorities, on the other hand, note caustically that as far as they are concerned, Leonard Peltier will be a free man only when his sentence ends in 2040, when he turns 97.

Wrongly imprisoned for murder, Leonard Peltier is now perhaps gravely ill

Leonard Peltier

After 23 years in prison and the refusal of authorities to even consider they may have made a mistake, Leonard Peltier, a Sioux-Ojibwa Indian, qualifies as the Nelson Mandela of North America.

Just as journalists were thwarted in attempts to visit Mandela in his latter years of imprisonment in South Africa, so has an iron curtain or, rather, a wall of silence, descended around Peltier in the U.S. federal prison at Leavenworth, KS.

Peltier, now in his mid-50s, is serving a double life sentence for the shooting deaths of two FBI agents - Jack Coler and Ron Williams - during a range war at South Dakota's Pine Ridge.

Several times in the 1980s I tried to visit Mandela in South Africa. He'd then been in prison for over 20 years. There was always an "official" reason why this was impossible. Pretoria's Afrikaner government wanted no publicity for Mandela who was becoming a symbol of the struggle against apartheid.

It's similar with Peltier. He represents the aspirations and frustrations of North American Indians. I've twice visited him at Leavenworth but now, apparently, no one gets to see him.

CNN's request for an interview was turned down, as was one from Britain's Guardian newspaper. A telephone interview was the best I could hope for, and that was unacceptable.

I wanted to see Peltier. Is his health deteriorating, as has been reported? Are harassments increasing? Is he persecuted - or neglected? Phone interviews and letters are monitored.

I told Leavenworth authorities - particularly Bob Bennett, executive assistant to Warden J.W. Booker - that I felt it important to have personal contact, like the last two times.

He echoed the warden's theme: "A more suitable means for conducting this interview would be via the telephone."

"Why the change of policy?" I asked.

"It's the warden's decision. You can reapply if you want."

Leonard Peltier Defence Committees (LPDC) have sprung up around the world.

The LPDC headquarters at Lawrence, KS, says only Peltier's lawyers, blood relatives and friends dating back five years before his incarceration are eligible to visit.

Like many of his close supporters, I think Peltier is in considerable danger - that he may well die if he doesn't get proper medical attention. He avoids trouble, but is often punished for being who he is, and what he represents. Or so it seems.

His lawyer, Bob Ellison, says bluntly that he thinks authorities "hope" Peltier will die, thereby letting them, the U.S. justice department and the FBI off the hook.

It's become widely accepted that Peltier's trial was a farce. Indians and others know who executed the two FBI agents, but the FBI doesn't care. They've got their man.

The last time I saw Peltier, he could barely move his jaw. An untreated injury led to atrophication, fusing jaw bone and muscle - sort of permanent lockjaw. He's had two operations - both botched. One operation put him in a coma. He required a total blood transfusion. His recovery room was the hole.

He now has only half-an-inch movement in his jaw. He eats by shoving food through the gap of a missing front tooth, and mashes food with his tongue before swallowing. Wires from his damaged jaw jut into his mouth and make eating excruciating.

He has abscessed teeth that can't be treated, recurring headaches and lives in pain. Mayo Clinic doctors have offered to come to Peltier and operate for free. The prison says no.

Peltier's sight is also deteriorating - inhibiting reading and his art work which the defence committee sells to raise money for the continuing campaign to win his freedom.

Like Mandela, Peltier has become an international cause. On April 30, Danielle Mitterand, former first lady of France and president of the human rights organization France Libertes Assoc., hopes to visit Peltier. She has appealed for clemency.

Canada may hold key

Ironically, Canada could hold a key to Peltier's freedom.

When the two FBI agents were killed that turbulent summer of 1975, The American Indian Movement (AIM), reservation police, administrators, rival Indians, the FBI, etc., were all embroiled in feuds and shootings - some 300 people were shot during that time. Four Indians were originally charged in the deaths of the agents, but Peltier escaped to Canada.

The others were acquitted. Had Peltier stood trial with them, he would in all probability have been acquitted as well.

In 1976, Peltier was arrested in Canada and extradited 10 months later on the basis of an affidavit by one Myrtle Poor Bear who claimed to be his girlfriend and said she had seen him shoot the FBI agents. At the time, as editor of the Toronto Sun, I wrote editorials supporting the FBI and criticizing Amnesty International, which questioned the extradition.

It subsequently turned out Poor Bear was a mental patient and the FBI had written the affidavits for her, coached her, pressured her. She didn't even know Peltier, had never met him, was nowhere near Pine Ridge at the time of the shooting.

But the phony affidavits got Peltier extradited. Peltier later told author Peter Matthiessen, as he told me: "I have no bad thoughts for Myrtle Poor Bear. She is a poor, sick woman ... a pawn for them to use as they've used so many Indian people."

The Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau refused to protest the fraud perpetrated on our justice system.

Neither did the Tory government of Brian Mulroney care.

Mostly it was NDP MPs who protested on behalf of Peltier.

Today, the Reform party seems willing to raise hell. We shall see. Reform justice critic John Reynolds says his party will try to convince the government to protest Peltier's fraudulent extradition. He's written both President Bill Clinton and Justice Minister Anne McLellan, urging they act on the case.

Allmand offended

Warren Allmand was federal solicitor general when Peltier was arrested in Canada and Indian affairs minister when he was extradited. He was the lone Liberal who was offended at the abuse of justice. Over the years he's sought to right the wrong and have the Canadian government protest the extradition.

A couple of years ago, before he quit politics to head the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, Allmand was asked by then-justice minister Allan Rock to re-examine the Peltier extradition proceedings.

Allmand's report has gathered dust.

Although his oath of office prevents him from making his report public, Allmand has no hesitation saying that the "only" cause for extradition was Poor Bear's perjured affidavit:

"Otherwise, there were no grounds for extradition."

Allmand even wrote Mandela, who, before he became president of South Africa, urged clemency for Peltier, asking him to renew his support. No response - a sad irony.

If Canada were to react, Peltier's supporters feel it could give impetus to get him freed and encourage the U.S. government to do the right thing. Even assuming guilt, 23 years is enough. Pine Ridge was a mini-war, not a criminal act.

The appeal courts in the U.S. over the years have been disappointing, even though it was proved (and admitted) that evidence was fabricated and misused.

One appeal judge, Gerald Heaney, has since said that if Peltier's appeal had been better handled (by the late William Kunstler) he'd have freed Peltier. As it was, Heaney rebuked the FBI and filed an official complaint. He also wrote president George Bush, urging clemency. When I spoke to him, Heaney said he thought he knew who had shot the two agents.

Leonard Peltier is a good man, a proud man, almost serene. He relishes news of his kids, and grandkids, who he hears about but never sees. Peltier's letters are gentle, sad.

I suspect he's dying.

The spirit and flesh can take only so much. If Clinton won't exercise his prerogative of executive clemency or pardon - as he promised prior to being elected - America may soon have yet another martyr on its conscience.

Evidence is overwhelming that Peltier did not kill those FBI agents. Even though he knows who did, it's a measure of the man that he won't tell. The sorrow is that the Indian who did the deed won't come forward. Maybe some day ...

Letters to the editor of the Toronto Sun supporting Peter Worthington's column should be sent here.


Dear Honorable Anne McLellan,

I am writing you in concern of First Nation Lakota-Anishinabe U.S. federal prisoner, Leonard Peltier. Leonard Peltier was illegally extradited from Canada in 1976 with the use of fabricated affidavits that have been deemed by both the Canadian and the U.S. governments to have been fraudulent.

It has been established by government officials that there was no other evidence against Peltier that would have been strong enough to extradite him, deeming his deportation from Canada illegal. This clearly demonstrates at what cost the US was willing to go in order to prosecute and convict Mr. Peltier of a crime which they now admit they do not know who is responsible for.

Mr. Peltier has now spent twenty-three years in prison and his health is deteriorating. It is imperative that issues regarding human rights and justice not be restricted by reasoning of national sovereignty. Especially when one nation is deceived into unlawfully supporting the human rights violations of another as Canada has been regarding this case.

Many major human rights violations, crimes and atrocities would not have been stopped if it was not for pressure and action taken by the international community; the case of Nelson Mandela being one example which closely mirrors the case of Mr. Peltier's. Therefore, it is now up to you to help right a wrong that the Canadian government originally fell victim to but today has become part of prolonging. We are asking that you release the findings of Minister Rock's internal review of Mr. Peltier's extradition which he had promised to release before leaving office.

We ask that you release Warren Allmand's report on Mr. Peltier's extradition and we ask that you release all documents pertaining to the review. We cannot fathom any justifiable reason as to why this information should not be released. Under U.S./Canadian Treaty law, deemed to be the "supreme law of the land," the Canadian government is obligated to make a formal request to U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno and President Clinton insisting that Mr. Peltier be granted a new trial or be granted Executive Clemency.

I am urging you to take immediate action by doing exactly this. As Judge Ross, who heard Mr. Peltier's first appeal stated, "it gives some credence to the claim of the Indian people that the United States is willing to resort to any tactic in order to bring somebody back to the United States from Canada. And if they are willing to do that, they must be willing to fabricate other evidence and it's no wonder that they are unhappy and disbelieve the things that happened in our courts when things like this happen." Please do not allow this injustice to continue. Thank you for your time.


To receive more information and documentation regarding this case, please contact the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee: Rent the movie Incident at Oglala at your local video store. If they don't have it, ask them to get it. Starring Robert Redford.