November 18, 2016
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama,
I write to you to request the pardon of Leonard Peltier.
Leonard Peltier was a community organizer just like you. In a time of serious political violence, he and others were invited to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to protect people in the community of Oglala. They established a community garden, provided counseling to alcoholics, and did basic home and car repair for members of the local community.
On June 26, 1975, two unidentified white men, out of uniform in unmarked cars, tailed two community members in a red truck and drove onto the property. It was tense environment. There had been several hundred political murders in the previous two years. Because of its opposition to the reservation government, Oglala had been a target. There was an armed death squad of the reservation chairman (called the “GOONS”) and white militia groups operating in the area. It was a dangerous place. When the two men entered the property, warning shots led to a shootout. When Peltier heard the shots, he and the other leaders’ primary goal was to protect the women and children in the houses. Taking cover from long range, Peltier was one of dozens who participated in the shootout. He was shot at, and he fired back. It was impossible for him to know if he ever hit them.
In the end, the two strange men were injured and the men in the red truck turned around and approached them to investigate. When one of the strange men, in his injured state, shot at them from a few feet away, they immediately fired back, killing them both instantly at close range. They fled the scene and to this day we do not know who they were. The two dead men turned out to be FBI agents. At the time, the FBI was investigating groups that challenged established reservation governments. Their official reason for being on the property was investigating the theft of a pair of cowboy boots (seriously), but this was likely a pretext for surveillance of the community there.
It was a tragedy that was compounded. Although dozens of Native Americans were involved in the shootout, the federal prosecution focused on three of the leaders of the community: Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, and Leonard Peltier. Butler and Robideau were tried first, and were found not guilty by reason of self-defense. The jury found that they lived under such a reign of terror on the reservation from extra-judicial killings that they had reason to fear for their lives when the two strange white men entered the property. The jury also found that much of the witness testimony in support of the FBI’s case had been coerced. Peltier had fled to Canada, but was extradited and tried separately. In Peltier’s trail, the judged dismissed all testimony from the first trial, all discussion of witness coercion by the FBI, and any mention of the political violence at Pine Ridge. It was all considered “irrelevant”. The FBI’s witnesses were free to contradict statements they made at the first trial. Crucial evidence regarding the murder weapon turned out to be fraudulent, but the ballistics test results were hidden from the defense. Peltier was convicted of killing both agents and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in federal prison.
Fifty congressmen petitioned for a new trial. Had you been a senator at the time, Mr. Obama, you probably would have been among them. Amnesty International listed Peltier as a political prisoner. Robert Redford produced a documentary about him, Incident at Oglala, which can be seen here at http://www.freepeltiernow.org/incident.html. Had Peltier been tried alongside Butler and Robideau in the first trial, he almost certainly would have been found not guilty.
Leonard Peltier was among the most level-headed and soft-spoken of the community organizers at Oglala. It is ironic that the deaths of the FBI agents, unintended and in self-defense, were pinned on him and him alone. He has now served nearly forty years in prison. It is time to pardon him and return him to the Native American community, which so needs a thoughtful and compassionate leader like him.
Citizen of the Cherokee Nation
[For more background, see The Case for Leonard Peltier.]