Leonard Peltier and the long fight for Indigenous liberation (2024)

Leonard Peltier and the long fight for Indigenous liberation (1)

Despite now spending 47 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Leonard Peltier continues to be denied parole by the federal government of the United States. Why has the US so obstinately refused to free Peltier, despite decades of international outcry? The answer lies in the threat posed by what Peltier represents—the demands of the Indigenous liberation movement for sovereignty and justice after centuries of US settler colonialism. HistorianWard ChurchilljoinsRattling the Barsfor a discussion on Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement, COINTELPRO, and more.

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Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Mansa Musa:

When we hear a conversation around American Indians, Indigenous people, reservations, tribal councils, Bureau of Indian Affairs, we filter these conversations through a lens that is perpetuating misinformation, but more importantly, a distortion of history. What is behind the history of Leonard Peltier? Why is he still being held captive, mainly when it’s overwhelming evidence that he is innocent? Joining me to talk about the Indigenous nation’s struggle for self-determination is Ward Churchill. He is a Native American activist and author. Much of Ward Churchill’s work focuses on the historical treatment of political dissenters and Native Americans by the United States government. Welcome, Ward.

Ward Churchill:

Thank you. Pleasure to be here. Honor to be here.

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, my man. And I appreciate it. Like I said, I appreciate it, because it’s important that, as I was talking to you off-camera, it’s important that people get an understanding of why Leonard Peltier is being held in captivity all these years and what is the genesis of him being placed in captivity. Now we recognize that in this country that Native Americans, as they’re called, are original people of this country. We recognize that. So whatever claim they make, unlike other people who make claims, whatever claim they make, they not making a claim of reparation. They’re not making a claim of, you interned us, as Japanese internment camps, because in your imperialist mentality, you went out and waged war and then when it come back on you, now you going to lock up citizens of this country. They’re not claiming that. Their claim is that they have a right to autonomy, an autonomous situation where they govern themselves and this claim is not based on the fact that they say they was here. This claim is based on the fact that they got 100 pieces of paper saying this and treaties that’s been broken.

So when they make this claim, they make this claim under the knowledge and under the facts that we have a right to be independent. We have a right to self-sufficiency. We have a right to our own time. Ward, go peel back some of the layers as they got organized. Start with, if you can, with giving our audience an overview of AIM. And if you want to go work your way up to AIM, so that’d be a good starting point for how we can get into why Peltier.

Ward Churchill:

Well, you nailed it, actually. It’s not a matter of Indigenous people in North America. U.S. or Canada, either one, but we’re in the U.S. and the issues with the U.S. right at the moment as we speak, we don’t have claims for land against that. We have right to land. We’re the aboriginal, as they put it, population. The original population. The U.S. may have claims for land that it would like to press thus, but they’ve got that completely stood on its head in a colonial arrangement. But internal colonies, these are not subparts of the United States, they are other nations recognized as such by the United States by way of treaties.

And treaties according to Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. constitution can be entered into only between sovereign peers, so the U.S. government cannot enter into a treaty with a subpart of itself. And those treaties still exist because, nominally, according to U.S. narrative, they are the real estate documents, the basis upon which the United States can lawfully assert title, and consequently jurisdiction, entitled to and jurisdiction over all the areas within its domain. Well, that’s false. You know there’s a [inaudible 00:04:48] country that’s not ceded by treaty. Even nominally, even by pretense. It was simply taken.

And then there’s a question of the validity of treaties, whether the U.S. has complied, whether the treaty might be binding. We understood that. Actually, Indigenous people understood that all along. The Sioux Nation, where most of the events pertaining to Peltier transpired, pressed for separation, essentially, complete self-governance and territorial land base under Treaty of 1868. They began that in the 1920s, early on, okay? So these struggles have been ongoing. They never stopped. But in the 1960s you had a generation that was just fed up because things didn’t get better, there wasn’t progress being made. In fact, they were terminating declaring whole peoples to be no longer existent in terms of relation with the feds. Just more of the population which began in the 1950s and was ongoing in the ’60s. You had essentially a national liberation movement, although there’s a number of nations that are involved, so it has been called pan-Indian. Not a term that I especially like, but, Indigenous [inaudible 00:06:28].

Mansa Musa:

Right, they had a problem, it’s problematic in of itself, the term.

Ward Churchill:

Yeah.

Mansa Musa:

When it come to this phenomenon, it don’t have nothing to do with that.

Ward Churchill:

No.

Mansa Musa:

Right, right, right.

Ward Churchill:

You had then the American Indian Movement is founded in 1968 and basically there’s this period of organizing and it grows. Chapters are formed, if you will, in various locations around the country. The membership is growing and in 1972, you have the organization of what’s called the Trail of Broken Treaties. People converge on Washington, D.C., representative delegations, if you will, from Indigenous nations from California all the way over to D.C. So you’ve got several thousand Indigenous people converged on Washington, D.C. shortly before the ’72 election. And the feds, who had initially encouraged them to show up so that you could have this sort of dog-and-pony show meeting that Nixon could use, there was too many people that would show up a trail of, the 20 points that they want to negotiate with the Nixon administration.

At that point, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in D.C. says, “Enough.” They didn’t give their support to it, so all of a sudden you’ve got these people who have been promised accommodations, housing, and so forth for the duration of the meetings of the Nixon administration got no place to go, and there’s active hostility. They declined to allow trail participants even to conduct ceremonies at the grave of Ira Hayes in Arlington Cemetery. They balked Indians from going into the cemetery, this grave site.

So they weren’t reckoning with who it was that American Indian Movement was. The response to the Indians at that point, AIM in particular, was they went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and they took that building. They took the Bureau of Indian Affairs building away from the federal government to accommodate people. They were living in it and so forth, proclaimed it to be the Native American Embassy.

Mansa Musa:

And you know what? And right there, because it’s important that our listeners and our viewers understand that you used the term Indigenous nations, and it’s important that our listeners understand that when we talking about Indigenous people and their claim, we have to always put their claim in the context of, we are being colonized, we want our autonomy, we want our independence as a nation because this is what we agreed to, these are the things that y’all signed off on. We are only asking now for you to make the whole be held accountable to everything that you have done.

So when they took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs in history, and when you look at it historically, they saying that this was an insidious act on the part of rowdy savages. When you put it in context that this was, like you say, starting back in the ’50s, the nations are mobilizing to hold the United States accountable in their mobilization, like you say, at some point in time to make the consciousness of, Indigenous people got to the point where they say, “Listen, we’re tired of begging. We’re tired of asking. We’re tired of trying to get you to recognize and accept that you signed this, that we agreed to this. Now we’re demanding that we get what we’re entitled to,” and it was right at that point I want you to pick up on. Because I read where once the AIM got in the picture and the nations became more organized in terms of their direction, Hoover and COINTELPRO, they recognized them as a threat to national security, pick up on that.

Ward Churchill:

Well, they did. At that point in November of 1972, the FBI, which was already paying attention to them, really locked in because asserting treaty rights, national rights that are clearly defined constitutionally and in international law straight down the line, pushing those issues is [inaudible 00:11:30] as an issue. Plus you’ve got the fact that in the reservations into which Indians were shunted in the 19th century, which was thought to be the most useless land in the country, turns out to be some of the most mineral rich so you’ve got, yeah.

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, you made a mistake.

Ward Churchill:

You name it, a mineral, and it’s there. The United States was in the process of assimilation. Coming into the 20th century, they were trying to dissolve Indian Nations all together, dissolve the reservations, and just absorb Indians into this overburden of settler society. Indians are reduced in number recognized by the federal government to about a quarter million at that point. And you’ve got millions of settlers. So they’re going to absorb it and suddenly they realize in the resource profile, “Hey, if we dissolve the Nations, that throws this all up for grabs. Far better that we maintain these entities, the reservations which are solely under federal control, and then the federal government could utilize resources under whatever terms and conditions and whatever rates it wanted.” Preferred corporations, preferred rates of central planning pretending to be a free market economy.

Okay. It all gets complicated but basically, the reservations continued to exist because the resource extraction policies that could pertain were very useful to both the governmental and corporate interests of the United States and its position in the world. Okay. So when you start challenging that and you have a clear-cut case to do so in an international arena to play in if you’re not getting satisfaction here, this is a security threat of the first order in the minds of those in charge. So AIM is taken as a very high-profile target for neutralization right then and there.

Mansa Musa:

Right. And let’s pick up on, I want to pick up on that point because this is when we find, like you say, the reservations and occupation of the reservations in the form of the repression where the Bureau prison, the CIA, FBI, and the military is actually killing people on reservations because they’re being organized to understand that you can demand certain things and you have a right to certain things, and we are not asking no more, we’re demanding. And we are positioning ourselves to get our demands met, and we also position ourselves in the fighting formation to protect ourselves, because we’re being killed off and we have a right to self-defense.

Pick up on the state of, as you evolved into your analysis, pick up on that point how these reservations… Because this opened the door up for why I would find a federal agent knocking on my gaddoggone door in the middle of the night. Or why I would find a federal agent having a roadblock for me to come… Like I’m in South Africa, I have documents to leave and documents to come back. This will go into that space because, like you say, once they became, once they recognize AIM as the threat like they recognize with the party. They recognize the party is a threat, so the free breakfast program is a threat. Feeding kids is a threat. Giving out the newspapers is a threat. Testing for sickle cell anemia… Because anything that’s related to the party and organizing people is a threat. Go ahead, Ward.

Ward Churchill:

Well, all of those things are relevant. Because AIM, particularly in Minneapolis, it was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as I say, in 1968, following the model of the Black Panther party in the urban context. Policing the police, the observation of the police, to curtail police violence against the community that had been relocated largely from reservations into the urban context. They established survival schools, they established clinics and so on. All of that pertains, but then there’s the issue of the treaties.

Mansa Musa:

That’s right. Come on.

Ward Churchill:

And that, all of the reservations were bound up by. We had a particular issue in South Dakota in Pine Ridge Reservation at that time. Because if you think back, you’re starting with the OPEC oil crisis stuff is beginning to emerge, so fossil fuels, and that’s getting to be a little shaky. They’re worried about the Arabs just closing off supply.

Mansa Musa:

Hey, come on, come on.

Ward Churchill:

All right. Nixon, during that period, hatched a plan and articulated it. His goal was by the end of the decade of the 1970s to build about 100 more nuclear reactors and switch over to nukes [inaudible 00:17:25] engaged in a nuclear weapons program that is fairly well known, but when you start talking about building another 100 nuclear reactors and converting the whole country, the power grid on to increasingly large proportion nukes and uranium becomes a premium.

In Pine Ridge, you have the northwestern eighth of the reservation, which was sort of borrowed during the Second World War by the feds to use as an aerial gunnery practice range. Flying around B-17s, practicing the 50-caliber machine guns with a lethal range of three miles, so forth, you’ve got to have some place that has no population or no population you considered-

Mansa Musa:

Human.

Ward Churchill:

Basically, yeah. Of consequence if they’re killed. But they did remove most the people from that area. It was lightly populated. But the arrangement was that the area was to be restored to the Pine Ridge Reservation and to the people there once the war ended. My understanding is that World War II ended in 1945 and we’re coming into the 1970s now and they’ve never gotten the land back, and you had a special kind of satellite mapping that was going on, sort of like infrared film, but this stuff just about radiation that’s being emitted from the land so they’re mapping out uranium deposits, is what it amounts to.

They discovered it, the feds, that is, discovered that there’s what appears to be a significant uranium deposit on the gunnery or in the gunnery range, if you will. So I did some on ground follow-up on that and said, “Yeah, there is uranium here,” and it’s intermixed with molybdenum, which happens to be another strategically valuable material. So they hash a real complicated plan to install a bootlegger who had worked for the tribal government before, name of Dick Wilson. He’d fled South Dakota and was living in Arizona at the time in order that he would not be arrested for prosecution on, oh, embezzlement of funds and various other things.

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, and various other things, yeah.

Ward Churchill:

They brought him back and basically contrived with some local business interests in exchange for monopolies on construction on other projects on the reservation put him in office. And quid pro quo was that he would sign the papers transferring the gunnery range and all the uranium and molybdenum, which was still secret, to the federal government. Badlands National Monument, actually, at a certain point when it was convenient. They didn’t have a date when that was going to happen, but the term of office in Pine Ridge is two years then and now, so presumably within two years.

Then there was a lot of resistance to Wilson because he was a known entity. They were bringing him back. And true to form, he’s hiring his entire family, his brothers, his son, his wife and all of that, to populate the tribal government. You got the formation of what was called the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights. The Oglala Lakotas are the resident population there, seven bands of Lakota. Each has its own reservation. And that’s a little simplistic, but yeah, overall-

Mansa Musa:

No, I got you, I got you. Yeah.

Ward Churchill:

Yeah. The Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, and they begin to organize opposition to him, which leads to an attempt to impeach him under the federal laws that pertain to tribal governance after 1934 in the Indian Reorganization Act, as they called it. Which, the feds couldn’t stop them from them from doing because it was their own law.

Mansa Musa:

Yeah. So they do what they do.

Ward Churchill:

The way they resolved that was in triplicate, really. They provided what they called highway improvement funds. And if you’ve ever been on an American Indian reservation, still today in a large part, but especially back in the ’70s, you knew when you arrived because the bottom went out from under you driving in the car. I mean the roads were…

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, right. Treacherous.

Ward Churchill:

Yeah. So perfect rationale, highway improvement funds. We need to improve the roads there. But the money was utilized under the authority of Wilson, so he used it to form what he called the Tribal Rangers Group.

Mansa Musa:

Right, there we go.

Ward Churchill:

And the Tribal Rangers Group was better known and called themselves the Guardians of the Oglala Nation. If you look it, G-O-O-N, spells something, something real similar to goon. So it’s his private police force. Interestingly enough, more than half of them, estimates run up to three quarters of the people who were goons, employed as tribal rangers, were also Bureau of Indian Affairs police. So yeah, this is their moonlighting activity. So A, if you’re a BIA cop and you want [inaudible 00:23:41], you’re maybe not doubling your salary, but you’re really increasing it by becoming a part of this, and they began to physically repress the opposition.

Mansa Musa:

There we go. That’s where I want to be at, right there. And you know why right there? Because this is where, this contradiction, because now we recognize that when we talking about Peltier, we talking about any Indigenous person. Any Indigenous person that’s been locked up, any Indigenous person that’s been killed, assassinated. We’re talking about the genesis of it is imperialism, capitalism, and the control over the minerals of the nation, of the Indigenous people’s nation. This is so the bootleggers and the auxiliary force, the paramilitary in this case, they took Indigenous people, which they do in every case. United Slaves, Ron Karenga, Cotton Smith, how they kill like Fred Hampton. When we look at, they always go find somebody that they can pay off or scare off, or scare into submission to do their bidding.

But as we close out, Ward, and the reason why I wanted to bring this to head, run up to this point is because I’m going to be talking to somebody later on about Peltier, but I wanted to get our audience in a space where they understand the historical content. Because we talking about, when we say Peltier, really we saying that you have under law, you have no right to have to do anything with him under law. Under your laws, you have no right to do anything to him under your laws. But more importantly, even if we was to say you can bring him into this process of this corrupt judicial system, you still didn’t have the information and the evidence to put him in the position that you found him. You still had to go coerce witnesses. You still had to go bribe people. You still had to go fabricate evidence and manufacture evidence to get them in the space.

More importantly, other people that was charged with him, they was able to exercise their right to self-defense. You positioned him so he couldn’t do that and then you brought the whole fabricated case against him. As you close out, Ward, speak to our audience about why it’s important that they understand the significance of this history and how when we talk about Indigenous people, no matter what their situation is, how Indigenous people have, they have the right. We don’t have the right, they have the right.

Ward Churchill:

Right. Well, they were pressing the right, but in a form that really didn’t take into account the degree of repression that would be visited upon them. Now, I’ve talked about the Feds funding this Tribal Rangers Group, the goons, and they were heavy physical repression. But that second part of how the feds responded was to send in a special operations group 60 strong of U.S. marshals. So they’re running around in baby blue jumpsuits with all kinds of weaponry, including sandbag machine gun positions in Pine Ridge town at the tribal office buildings and so forth. They had machine gun people if they tried to storm the building.

And the third part of the impeachment process there was, in effect, placed Wilson in charge of his own impeachment hearing. So all the people on the council, the tribal council who might’ve voted against him, he knew who they were. They were all arrested and run into jail the night before so they weren’t even present to vote on impeachment at the time. So he is not impeached, sufficient to say, and he immediately declared a ban on all meetings on the reservation of more than three people.

Well, theopposition went to Calico Hall, a town just outside the town of Oglala, which is where the firefight that [inaudible 00:28:34] goes to prison as a result of happens a couple of years later, and now you’ve got the traditional leadership of the Oglalas meeting and they’re trying to figure out what’s the response, and that’s when they put out a call for AIM to become involved. They asked for the intervention of the American Indian Movement, which was largely assembled in Rapid City for other reasons. Another clash, this was with South Dakota state authorities.

The upshot of that is they decided to go up to the site of an 1890 massacre, famous one, Wounded Knee, and to convene a press conference there. Because it was the American Indian Movement, because it was Wounded Knee and so forth, they figured the press would show up and they’d be able to get the information out as to what was happening on the reservation to the body politic. They think people just didn’t know, which to a certain extent was true. But the goons and then the marshals were setting up roadblocks around Wounded Knee by the time they woke up in the morning and you had this 71-day siege that results.

Okay. And now the Army comes in by way of Boney Warner and a guy by the name of Potter, both field grade officers, both of them dispatched by the White House, Alexander Haig at the White House sent them to act as consultants. So the Army is now providing equipment, munitions, and so forth to this array of goons, marshals, and white vigilante organizations from around the area. And what you have that’s been put into effect, and this is what’s crucially important for people to understand because this still very much exists, COINTELPRO is an FBI operation. It interfaces with local police, it interfaces with various government agencies and so forth, but the overarching formula for this is something that has existed in various forms since World War I.

And it’s called Plan White. Well, it should be Plans plural White, because it sort of evolves over time. And what that involves is using military and civil authorities, intelligence authorities and police, and what are described as patriotic organizations in combination, coordinated centrally, to put down insurrection or to quell disturbances or basically to maintain the status quo in terms of [inaudible 00:31:43].

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That’s right.

Ward Churchill:

Okay. By the time you get to 1973, which is when Wounded Knee happens, you have various scenarios that have been spun off the latest Plan White. One called Garden Plot and the other called Cable Splicer. Garden Plot in particular seems to have been field tested for rural application. Not against Indians per se, but rural application. Well, you get rural, remote even in common vernacular, when you get to western South Dakota. It’s just not on anybody’s radar. So they figured they can field test this operation on that reservation to see what the effectiveness is, see what the problems are with the implementation. They can make corrections, they can change plans accordingly. Same kind of thing they were doing to a certain extent in Vietnam during that.

Mansa Musa:

Right. Hey Ward, look, we’re going to have to wrap up, so…

Ward Churchill:

Okay.

Mansa Musa:

But no, why don’t you try to summarize as we close out.

Ward Churchill:

That’s the model that remains in place. It’s a FEMA or it was installed in FEMA when Reagan was elected because the guy that formulated Garden Plot in particular was Louis Giuffrida who’s appointed the first director of FEMA. So they’ve run that out. They’ve got current scenarios that they implement as necessary against whoever.

So yeah, we have this particular Indian focus and the rights of Indigenous nations and the decolonial struggle and all that needs to be clearly borne in mind, but it doesn’t end there. What they will do to Indians, Indians are the miners’ canary as Felix Cohen once put it. What they will do to Indians, they will do to anyone.

Mansa Musa:

As they are.

Ward Churchill:

Yeah. Whether it’s Black Liberation Movement, whether it’s Chicano [inaudible 00:33:59], they don’t care who. If you become a tangible threat in their estimation to the business as usual of the U.S. internal empire, this is what they’ll come at you with – a combination of forces and dirty tricks that we really can’t go into much further at this point. But it is big time and it is continuously available and to one or another extent, is applied as necessary.

Mansa Musa:

Yeah. And ultimately, they use the death of a thousand cuts is which they doing with Peltier because once you got him locked in, and then now he’s just going to die a death of a thousand cuts if he get out. If and when he get out.

Ward Churchill:

For three years after Wounded knee, you got basically a counterinsurgency war that is waged, fought out on and around Pine Ridge, and that’s Peltier. Ultimately, the American Indian Movement and the traditional old laws were not supposed to be able to hold up under this, they did. And that makes what happened to Peltier symbolic for the United States. Symbolic for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in particular because falsely convicted of killing two agents. That’s why you have this vestiture of interest in maintaining him in a state of… Well, you’re going to get to it a little later, you say. Degradation at this point.

Mansa Musa:

Thanks, Ward.

Ward Churchill:

Yes, sir.

Mansa Musa:

As we close out, we really appreciate this, Ward, for not only this insightful information, but more importantly to contextualize when we talk about Peltier or anybody that’s an Indigenous person that’s in this country that’s being occupied by this country. When we talk about it now we got a context where we can say, yeah, this is about corporate America. This is about capitalism. This is about fascism. This is not about Indigenous people. It’s about them not owning up to the treaties they signed. This is about them speaking with a forked tongue, as they say.

Thank you, Ward. There you have it. The real news, rattling the Bible. We appreciate you, Ward. We ask that you continue to support the real news in Rattling the Bars, because guess what? We are actually the real news.

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Leonard Peltier and the long fight for Indigenous liberation (2)

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