Hey everyone. I promised to post this interview with Leonard Peltier once I found it! It’s still making news that Peltier supporters are demanding his release. (see Incident at Oglala documentary by Robert Redford)
My interview with him was published in 1998 in News From Indian Country newspaper and in print by the Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC).
I interviewed this political prisoner while he was still an inmate in Leavenworth, a federal prison in Kansas. …I do recall I was very very nervous… I remember Leonard told me, “Write a good story.”
My interview was done over the phone at his Defense Committee Office in Kansas. Peltier called us (at least 4 times) and I did my best to take notes, holding the phone on my shoulder. Right after we spoke, Peltier lost phone privileges because of the actor Steven Seagal, who planned to play Leonard in a new movie (which didn’t happen.) I actually went to the scene in Oglala shooting, after this interview. It’s remote, and there are no traces of this deadly gun battle. (My former boss DeMain contends Peltier admitted to others he had shot the agents.) This gun battle was war, and there were casualties. No one in the federal government was indicted for the deaths of AIM members.
Today, Leonard Peltier is 71 years old and he has served 40 years in prison in a case that has long raised troubling questions—including from the judge who heard his appeal. It’s reported that Peltier has an abdominal aortic aneurysm, and his health is deteriorating rapidly. “If properly treated, Leonard could make a full recovery, but if the aneurysm ruptures, he has roughly a 10% chance of survival.”
He is called the world’s most famous prisoner of war. (Three years ago Leonard wrote and asked me to email him. He was hoping to raise funds for his legal team.)
by Trace A. DeMeyer — Lawrence, Kansas (ICC/1998)
Imagine spending 8,030 days in prison for a crime you did not commit. Imagine having a botched surgery that causes excruciating jaw pain, yet prison officials refuse corrective surgery with the specialist you need. Leonard Peltier says he knows he is innocent, and wants surgery, yet he waits.
Speaking by phone from the federal prison Leavenworth, KS, on June 24, Leonard Peltier (Lakota/Ojibway) talked about the life he has and the one he hopes for, while waiting for a Presidential pardon for the murders of two FBI agents at the Jumping Bull Compound on June 26, 1975, 23 years ago.
Ramsey Clark, Peltier’s attorney, hoped new medical evidence introduced at a May 4th parole hearing, would secure his release, but parole was denied. Clark is still waiting for the official reasons in a formal statement from the parole commission.
“I have medical problems,” Peltier said. “My jaw is stuck open 1/4 inch and I can’t chew properly. I have to mash food with my tongue. Even though I have asked for a special diet, sugar free, they’ve refused me and the commissary doesn’t have anything.” Peltier worries about the effects on his health, including inadequate digestion.
The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee has found three doctors who would perform corrective surgery at no charge, but prison officials have denied all requests. The pain in his jaw never subsides, he said.
“Dr. Keller, a specialist at the Mayo Clinic, believes he can operate and correct my jaw condition,” Peltier said. He underwent two major surgeries in Springfield Hospital for Federal Prisoners on Feb. 8 and May 3, 1996. Neither were successful.
Even though Peltier cannot fully close his mouth, prison officials still order Peltier to work making furniture at Leavenworth. His mouth is aggravated by the sawdust.
Every six months, prisoners are given new work assignments. “Tell the public I have no choice about where I work, clearly a violation of my rights.”
At the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC) office/apartment in Lawrence, Leonard’s paintings hang brightly on the walls, a constant presence for his busy support group. “I paint every night,” Peltier said. “It’s what I enjoy.” He then donates his artwork to the Defense Committee. They sell them to pay for his defense and build a bank account for Leonard and his family.
“A support group in California regularly exhibits my best paintings. With the money they raise, they plan to build a house in Pine Ridge – a museum for my art,” Leonard explained.
Leonard would paint all day if he could. “I need pictures of people and places to paint,” he said. Prison regulations prohibit Polaroid snap-shots. “I can accept art supplies from an art supply store, not from individuals who mail them to me.” He hopes to receive paints (acrylics or oils), canvas, and brushes. “Order them at the supply store and have the company send it to me,” he said. He also buys supplies from the prison commissary.
Money for art supplies must be postal money orders or Western Union money grams. Direct them to Leonard Peltier, Prisoner#89637-132, Box 1000, Leaven-worth, KS, 66048. Prison regulations do not allow postage stamps or cash.***
On May 4, Peltier had a statutory interim hearing which prison authorities are required to give to “old law” prisoners every two years. “This means that by law they are required to review me for parole every two years, though in no way are they required to actually ever grant me parole. After my team and I had made our oral and written presentations, the parole examiner attempted, unsuccessfully, to get me to admit that I had fired on the agents.”
Peltier said when this did not work, the examiner reviewed the documents on the basis of his urgent medical need. The examiner then left the room. About 45 minutes later, Peltier says, “He again tried to get me to admit to shooting the agents. My attorney and I now know the reason behind this. As I had suspected, they cannot legally keep me in prison this long for aiding and abetting, and they do not have enough evidence to keep me on the grounds of first degree murder.”
Leonard remembers, “The examiner then said, ‘We do not know who is responsible for killing our agents. Someone on that reservation killed those agents and since you were convicted, you’ll serve the time.’”
At the hearing, the parole examiner told them that one of the agent’s wives had contacted him and said she wants Peltier to die in prison. Peltier does not believe it. “That letter may have been false.”
Leonard said the parole examiner ended by saying, “You do not come for re-consideration for parole until the year 2008. This is not a parole date. When 2008 arrives, we will take it from there.”
Peltier believes “what the government and the parole board were saying is that they intend for me to die in prison.”
In 1976, Peltier’s colleagues, Dino Butler and Robert Robideau, were acquitted of murder charges based on evidence they acted in self-defense. The case against Theodore Eagle, also at the shootout and charged with murder, was dropped for lack of evidence. In Peltier’s case, only limited evidence was heard, as ordered by Judge Paul Benson. Historical background on Pine Ridge violence, persecution of AIM by the FBI, the Robideau or Butler verdict in Cedar Rapids, or testimony in that trial, was not allowed, nor was contradicting evidence given by FBI agent Gary Adams. With the court case and appeals process formally closed, Clark, former Attorney General in the Lyndon Johnson administration, has said, “the evidence that convicted Peltier doesn’t exist, and the prosecutor admits the government doesn’t know who killed two of its FBI agents.”
Clemency and Senate hearings
On June 27, a demonstration for Leonard was held in Washington, DC, to pressure the government for clemency and to open Senate hearing investigations. Peltier says he is building a new legal team to open and fight the case, using new evidence to finally prove his innocence. He said LPDC supporters are building a research team of college students and law graduates. He urgently asks that the public support their work. Leonard directs the LPDC office daily by phone. He says the defense committee does all the paralegal work for the attorneys.
“After hearing for themselves, during the parole review, how their judicial system treats me, my legal team is outraged and have now committed themselves to taking legal action. They are working pro-bono, but research and expenses are still covered by donations.”
Despite sounding calm, Peltier admits his frustration and anger. “I have my moments. We now know for a fact that two weeks prior to the shootout at the compound, they planned to come in and kill everybody. They were declaring war against the Lakota people. The documents are there.
“I know in my heart I’m not guilty of anything. The parole examiner said I’m guilty of aiding and abetting. Who was I aiding and abetting? They cannot keep me here. It’s a violation of international law. I’m not guilty of murder.”
Referring to Peter Mathiesson’s book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peltier said, “Duane Brewer said, ‘We were financed by the government and given the green light to go in.’” Duane Brewer headed the Pine Ridge Tribal Police Force, also known as Dickie Wilson’s GOON Squad.
According to the LPDC May/June 1998 newsletter, there are over 20 million signatures on Free Leonard Peltier petitions sent to the White House and to the Pardon Attorney. A Presidential Pardon or a new trial are his only hope.
What will Peltier do once he secures his freedom? The phone line went quiet as he thought for a moment. “I want to build a life for my two grandchildren. I want to help them, build them a home. I want a home base, and then build an international network and be useful to the Indian movement.” He also wants time with his five children. Peltier will be 54 on September 12. He says his hair is turning gray. He’s losing vision in one eye.
“Write a good story so that people will understand. Ask them to get involved. Tell them my case is still ongoing. A presidential campaign is coming up. Political campaigns always involve money. The tribes can help me there. Go and ask questions.
“Too many people gossip that we are doing alright with gaming when in truth we have the worst poverty in the US at Pine Ridge. I want to clear up all these misconceptions about Indian people. There is an Indian problem, and it’s not one we created.
“I have faith and hope in my people. I hope that I can get out and leave a legacy beneficial to my people. I want to help. The grassroots movement by indigenous people has been building and spreading to an enormous level, so how is it the President’s Initiative on Race doesn’t include us? I find that very racist.”
It’s hard to imagine Peltier in prison in 2008 for a crime he didn’t commit. He’d be 64 years old.
***Remember Peltier is no longer in Leavenworth…
I uploaded the Ramsey Clark speech I transcribed in 1997 at academia.edu which is a close look at the FBI and the insufficient evidence that convicted Peltier. READ HERE
Visit the 2016 clemency campaign for Leonard Peltier hosted by Amnesty International – USA and get involved:
Take Action: Ask President Obama to Grant Leonard Clemency
Take Action: Download a 1 page action sheet
Take Action: Grant Clemency to Leonard Peltier
Read More: Download the Issue Brief on Leonard Peltier’s case
- Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story (1992) is a documentary by Michael Apted about Peltier narrated by Robert Redford. The film argues in favour of the assertion that the government’s prosecution of Peltier was unjust and politically motivated.
- Thunderheart (1992) is a fictional movie by Michael Apted, partly based on Peltier’s case but with no pretense to accuracy.
Six presidents have held office since Peltier’s conviction.
“If not you, President Obama, who?” activist filmmaker Michael Moore asked as he addressed the crowd. “All the wrong people are in prison in this country. As an American, this is not how I want to be remembered. And so I think that we have a much larger job: We have to get Leonard out of prison immediately.”
Seeger returned to the stage and was joined by the night’s performers for the show closer, “Bring Him Home,” which Seeger adapted from his Vietnam War protest song, “Bring ’Em Home.”
[…] My earlier post on interviewing Peltier […]