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Once upon a time, the U.S. government threatened vulnerable people, coerced witnesses into lying, and hid key evidence in a court case in order to put a Native American rights activist in prison for life.
This is the story of Leonard Peltier, who’s been in prison since 1977 without any proof that he committed a crime. Think of him as America’s longest serving political prisoner: a fall guy whom the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office desperately needed after it failed to figure out who murdered two FBI agents in a 1975 shootout on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
There’s much more to this story, of course. The blatant 1970s-era racism against Indigenous people. The reality that the FBI was at least partly responsible for the deadly shootout that day. The U.S. government officials who have since admitted how flawed Peltier’s trial was and called for his release. The decades of protests by Native groups, celebrities, politicians and human rights leaders including Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Coretta Scott King and Amnesty International, an organization typically focused on political prisoners in other countries.
Books have been written. Movies have been made.
But really, today, the story is simple: There is an ailing 77-year-old Indigenous man who has been in prison for 46 years who never should have been there in the first place.
Why is he still there?
I’ve been trying to figure this out for months. It’s two things.
The main reason is that the FBI doesn’t want him out. They told me so — even when I didn’t ask them! That was VERY WEIRD. The unsolicited statement they sent me was also full of misinformation, which tells me their plan is to keep recycling a flimsy, face-saving argument for keeping Peltier in prison until he dies.
The other reason is that many people in Congress simply don’t know who he is. Peltier has been in prison longer than some of them have been alive, and certainly longer than their political careers. I have asked countless Democratic senators about Peltier and gotten blank stares. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) mocked me a couple of months ago for even asking, saying with a laugh that veteran Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was probably the only one who knew of Peltier since he was likely in the Senate when Peltier went to prison.
Brown was right about that ― Leahy does know who Peltier is, and recently has begun publicly calling on President Joe Biden to grant him clemency. So has Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who chairs the Indian Affairs Committee. But they are only two out of 100 senators speaking up, along with a handful of members of the House out of 435.
For a U.S. government led by Democrats who take great pride in their efforts to empower tribes and protect Native American rights, the silence on Peltier’s imprisonment is striking. Congressional leadership has said nothing. The White House is mum on where Biden stands on granting him clemency. The Justice Department won’t comment on the status of Peltier’s clemency petition. Just this week, during an unrelated Senate budget hearing, Schatz pressed Attorney General Merrick Garland on what’s going on with Peltier’s case. Garland said he didn’t know much about it beyond what he’s read in the press.
In the meantime, Peltier is still sitting there in his prison cell. He recently recovered from COVID-19, and he’s got serious health problems, including diabetes and an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He has maintained his innocence all these years, even when it likely prevented him from being paroled.
I talked to Peltier last week, in a rare phone interview with him from his Florida penitentiary. He did most of the talking. He said he was scared recently by chest pains he’d had when he was walking across the prison yard, and that he hopes to get back to painting after being denied access to the art room for years because of pandemic precautions.
But I’ll leave you with his response when I asked what he would say to Biden if he had five minutes alone with him.
“I’m not guilty. I would like to go home.”