The Old Indian War: Leonard Peltier & Standing Rock

Press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on “Leonard Peltier’s Case for Clemency.” From left to right: Cynthia Dunne, Norman Patrick Brown, Jean Roach, Chauncey Peltier, John Dulles, and Justin Mazzola

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by Nick Estes

Former federal prosecutor Cynthia Dunne, an unlikely ally, considers the 41-year imprisonment of Native activist Leonard Peltier (Ojibwe/Dakota) as “one of the greatest injustices in the American justice system.”

Peltier is currently serving two life sentences for the 1975 murders of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, on the Jumping Bull Ranch in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Dunne concludes, like many, FBI agents provided false affidavits; witness testimony was coerced; and the FBI suppressed critical documents from Peltier’s attorneys during and after trial.

The FBI’s case, Dunne stated at a Washington, D.C. press conference last Wednesday, “is yesterday’s equivalent of a Trump tweet that has lasted for 40 years.”

In other words, it’s trumped up.

The case against Peltier, however, isn’t against one individual. It is against an entire movement, an entire way of life that has survived 500 years of active colonization and genocide. That struggle for life is currently underway in Standing Rock.

“Water Protectors are political prisoners, too,” Jean Roach (Minneconjou), longtime activist and board member of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, reminds. She connects Peltier’s unjust 41-year incarceration to the historic struggle at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Since August, more than 500 Water Protectors have been arrested. North Dakota has taken $17 million in disaster relief funds to employ the services of 76 law enforcement agencies from across the nation to suppress some of the world’s poorest people and to protect a $3.8 billion pipeline project.

Their crime? Simply wanting to protect water threatened by the most powerful, richest people on the planet.

Peltier’s crime was the same. Because he defended the sanctity of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with the Oceti Sakowin (the Great Sioux Nation) that guaranteed not only land rights, but also adequate healthcare, education, and employment, he was labeled a criminal.

Treaty rights are not exceptional. They are fundamental human rights; rights currently being withheld from Indigenous peoples — by the barrel of a gun and the isolation of a prison cell.

It goes without saying, Indigenous peoples rank among the lowest in most socio-economic categories. From education, mass incarceration, police killings, to the lowest quality of living in the Western Hemisphere, we are a Fourth World surrounded by a First World country. The wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world denies our existence and self-determining authority.

Rampant poverty, violence, death, and the targeting of our lands for sacrifice are continuations of nineteenth century Indian Wars of extermination. Peace has yet to be made.

“You don’t have the kinds of support Leonard does if you’re a bad person,” Chauncey Peltier said, the eldest of Leonard Peltier’s children. Because of 41 years of incarceration robbed of him of his father, he calls him by his first name “Leonard” and not “dad.”

The scars and continual wounding are real. Families are torn apart. Our Nations face perpetual existential threats from mass incarceration and irreversible environmental pollution. Generations face continual trauma.

We know this. The war rages on.

“Leonard Peltier should not carry the burden of the mistreatment of [Indigenous peoples] by the federal government,” Norman Patrick Brown (Diné) stated. Brown is a survivor of the Jumping Bull shootout was friends with 24-year-old Native Joe Stuntz, who was killed during the firefight and whose murder was never investigated.

Brown was 15 years old at the time and was later coerced into testifying against Peltier. He considers himself “not a victim, but a survivor” of the FBI and doesn’t regret his actions to defend his people that day.

Today, he stands with Peltier.

With climate change looming as a threat to all relations and an incoming US president who promises further death and destruction, more than ever we must stand for justice and peace.

While we know what Peltier and the Water Protectors stand against (corporate pollution and state violence), we must also emphasize what they stand for — humanity and the just relations among all humans and the nonhuman world.

They represent movements for life — hence phrases like, Mni Wiconi, or “water is life.”

Peltier has always stood for life and justice. He is a hero.

Today, however, Peltier is a 71-year-old elder with diabetes and failing health in a maximum security prison, an environment harsh for young inmates. Peltier represents all Indigenous and oppressed peoples held captive by this system. He therefore must be set free to enjoy his final years with his relatives, at home with dignity and respect.

As Obama’s presidency winds down, this is Peltier’s last chance at freedom. Not granting executive clemency is a death sentence.

If you stand for peace and justice, you must act now. Demand clemency!

We don’t need more casualties. This old Indian war must end.

In the spirit of Crazy Horse.

Hecetu Welo!

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