“Manifest Destiny was a terrible doctrine that cost the lives of millions of our native peoples.”
“We are the subjects of the longest undeclared war in the history of the United States.” Dennis Banks
“The FBI is the continuation of historic US policy, the modern day cavalry.” Bill Means
Bill Means chaired and opened the International Peoples Tribunal on Leonard Peltier, held October 2-4 on Oneida land, near Green Bay. “This is a popular tribunal on the case of Leonard Peltier. We use the word popular in the political sense of the grassroots, those not in power doing justice when those in power are incapable or unwilling to do justice.” He added that the case of Leonard Peltier can begin a healing process between the Indian peoples and the United States of America.
He reviewed US predatory history on American Indians: 38 tribes were removed from their homelands and forced into Oklahoma. Every one of the 371 treaties between the USA and Indian peoples has been violated, even though Article 6 of the US Constitution states clearly that treaty law is the supreme law of the land.
The Case of Leonard Peltier
On June 26, 1975 at the Pine Ridge reservation, two FBI agents – and one Lakota AIM member – were killed. The FBI agents shot dead had been racing after a car in order to issue a warrant for the theft of a pair of cowboy boots. As Dennis Banks pointed out in the closing of the Tribunal, since when did the FBI serve warrants for shoplifting?
For the FBI killings, Leonard Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two life terms, and has now been imprisoned for 38 years. No effort was made even to charge anyone with the murder of the AIM member.
Background to the Killing of Two FBI agents
Several AIM members from the Wounded Knee events attended the Tribunal, giving background information. Larry Leventhal, an attorney along with Bill Kunstler, in the trial of Dennis Banks and Russell Means, and other lawyers working on the case all gave overviews of the legal issues.
The FBI killings occurred after a long struggle for Indian rights on the Lakota Pine Ridge reservation, one of the very poorest areas in the US. The American Indian Movement arose in the late 1960s, among its leaders were Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Leonard Peltier. At the Tribunal, Dennis Banks said, “When AIM was formed, it was obvious we were on a collision course with the US government.” Founders of the Black Panthers probably said the same.
Pine Ridge appeared a natural magnet for the rising native American rights movement, for there at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890, the US Calvary launched its last, unprovoked massacre of native Americans. Three hundred defenseless men, women and children were murdered, for the crime of performing a religious ceremony, the ghost dance.
In 1972 AIM launched a series of demonstrations with other native organizations that culminated in a march on Washington, called the “Trail of Broken Treaties.” There they occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the immediate colonial ruler over the First Nations peoples. They issued a list of demands:
When the occupation ended, AIM returned to Pine Ridge in celebration. They began to organize a series of demonstrations against racism towards Indians in the towns bordering the reservation. In 1973 AIM with 300 supporters, took over Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge reservation.
This put them in conflict with the reservation’s BIA neo-colonial tribal government, headed by Dick Wilson. Wounded Knee was surrounded by 300 FBI agents, 90 US Marshalls, BIA police, armored vehicles, and military aircraft flew overhead. Wilson formed the GOON squad (Guardians Of the Oglala Nation), armed by the FBI and Marshalls. The occupation of Wounded Knee lasted 71 days.
Then began Wilson’s counteroffensive: a reign of terror on Pine Ridge, lasting three years, 1973-1976. Public meetings were banned. Traditional Indians, more inclined to support AIM, were beaten, threatened, and shot, often in drive-by shootings, much in the style of Latin American death squads. The people on the reservation organized to defend themselves, called on AIM to provide more self-protection. John Thomas, there at the time, testified, “on the reservation you wouldn’t dare go anywhere by yourself or without guns.” Pine Ridge at the time had the highest murder rate per capita in the US.
AIM protected Indians going into town, going to the post office or the store, as it was not safe to go out, with so many murders. The reservation had become a war zone, funerals almost every week for those shot, beaten to death, or driven off the road. There were over 60 unsolved Indian murders during the reign of terror – all while the FBI and US Marshalls were present, providing the GOON squad with weapons.
Native American Gains Made from the Wounded Knee Occupation
Clyde Bellecourt testified that the three historic enemies of First Nations peoples were the white man’s education, white man’s religion, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Don Cuny recalled that teachers made them eat soap in school for speaking their own language. The schools and the church missions were instruments the white man used to eradicate native language, traditions, culture, religion and self-respect. Cuny said he remembers “talking to my grandma and grandpa what it was like when this big monster came moving over our land….Unlike before [with our ancestors] they do not just come out and shoot us, but instead lock us up forever.”
Tom Poor Bear said the occupation of Wounded Knee helped bring their own Indian culture into their schools, an independent radio station was formed, and people became proud of their culture, religious beliefs and ancestry. Dennis Banks recalled, in the documentary, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, at Wounded Knee “For once for us there was a sense of freedom of really being free.” New pride in being Indian emerged.
Yet, today Indians, like Blacks, are subject to a double standard “justice” system. Indians get longer sentences for the same crimes than whites do. Echoing Malcolm X, Tom Poor Bear said, “We Indians were born in jail.”
The arrest and trial of Leonard Peltier
After the Wounded Knee occupation, the US government launched an attack on AIM using the courts as a weapon, with 185 trials of over 500 AIM members. Over 90% ended up being thrown out. Dennis Banks, exonerated in one of these, related at the Tribunal that the judge reprimanded the FBI and US Marshalls, “you have polluted the Department of Justice.”
In Peltier’s trial, the judge restricted evidence the defense could submit. The FBI withheld evidence showing the bullets in the FBI agents’ bodies could not have come from his gun. Peltier was extradited from Canada to stand trial, and in the extradition hearing, the US knowingly submitted manufactured “evidence” to Canadian authorities and courts – all signed off by the US Attorney General. According to international law, then, Peltier should be returned to Canada for a proper extradition hearing.
The fabricated “evidence” used in Canadian court to extradite Peltier was then not used in his trial.
The judge at Peltier’s trial forbade information on the reign of terror against AIM and traditional Indians at Pine Ridge and the FBI role in it. At the previous trial of Bob Robideau and Dino Butler for the same murder of the two FBI agents, this was allowed, with the result that they were found not guilty on self-defense grounds. Peltier was not allowed this defense, setting court preconditions for his conviction.
At the Tribunal the Central Florida Leonard Peltier Defense Committee gave testimony on a total of eight judicial violations in the case of Leonard. Yet Peltier was never given a new trial, and on appeal, the Supreme Court wouldn’t look at it.
The last day of the Tribunal, Manny Pino, Acoma Pueblo professor, testified on the genocide carried out by Cold War uranium mining in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Lakota lands in South Dakota, and First Nation lands in Canada. Pino described how the US government targeted Indian lands as “sacrifice zones” which left a trail of death for Native American uranium miners who were not given protective clothing, and unknowingly ate radioactive food.
Findings of the Panel of Tribunal Judges
The judges at the Tribunal called for the FBI to be held responsible for their assaults and murders inflicted on the Native Americans at Pine Ridge. Noting the FBI presented manufactured “evidence” of Peltier’s guilt and withheld actual evidence of innocence, they demanded his immediate release, either through a new, fair trial, executive clemency, or compassionate release.
“Leonard Peltier has become an icon for the oppression and injustices practiced by the United States historically and persistently on Indigenous Peoples. Justice for Leonard Peltier can begin a healing process long overdue between Indigenous Peoples and the United States of America.”
The Tribunal also called for US recognition of native sovereignty on their Indian land and the end to the environmental injustices targeting Indian lands, based on racism. It recommended that its findings be submitted to the National Congress of American Indians.