Dakota Datebook

Leonard Peltier part 1

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

 

Leonard Peltier has become larger than life since receiving back-to-back life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents in a shootout in Pine Ridge, South Dakota over 40 years ago. It was on this date in 1977 that his trial in Fargo began.

Peltier was born in Grand Forks in 1944. When his parents separated, he was enrolled in the Indian Boarding School in Wahpeton. Later, he returned to live with his mother in Grand Forks, but by age 14, he was on his own.

Peltier moved to Washington State, where, in 1964, he got drawn into a fishing rights conflict between Northwest Indian tribes and the U.S. government. It was a high-profile struggle during which comedian Dick Gregory and actor Marlon Brando were arrested while “helping some Indian friends fish” on the Puyallup River.

It was a time of precedent-setting social upheaval in America, including the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests, the Black Panthers and women’s rights. For Peltier, it was the American Indian Movement, or AIM, which he joined in 1970.

When tensions flared on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation over allegations of repressive action by the tribal president, a group of old traditional chiefs and the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization sought to impeach tribal president Dick Wilson. Wilson, meanwhile, had created a private militia to suppress opposition. His opponents eventually asked the AIM organization for help.

A protest was organized to demand the removal of Wilson, restore treaty negotiations with the government, and correct failures regarding treaty rights. The hamlet of Wounded Knee was occupied by the protestors. A 71-day armed stand-off with U.S. law enforcement ensued, which involved a number of casualties.

When the stand-off ended, Wilson remained in office, and a period of continuing tension and violence persisted, a time referred to by local Native Americans as the ‘Reign of Terror,’ involving FBI surveillance and repeated arrests. Over 64 Native American opponents of the Wilson administration were murdered, with many others harassed and beaten.

AIM leaders Dennis Banks & Russell Means were brought to trial after the siege, but after testimony was shown to be fabricated, the judge dismissed the case saying “… the waters of justice have been polluted.”

Tomorrow we’ll hear about the incident that led to Leonard Peltier’s arrest, and his trial.

Written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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