On June 26 in Oglala, SD, Native Americans commemorated the events that occurred 39 years earlier on this day. Standing on the bluffs above the site of a the infamous shootout between FBI agents and Indian activists, approximately 150 activists prayed for and demanded the release of political prisoner Leonard Peltier, who has now spent over 38 years in prison, wrongly convicted of murder. At the gathering, Peltier called from his prison cell in Florida, obviously humbled humbled by the support.
In the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the American Indian Movement (AIM) gained stature among Native Americans as a way to reclaim tribal dignity and actively petition the federal government to address poverty, housing and treaty issues. The government viewed AIM as a radical, militant group.
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where living conditions were particularly harsh, AIM gained prominence. But for those who opposed the local tribal government, which sought to maintain the status quo, life on the rez only worsened. In the two years prior to the confrontation in Oglala, over 60 so-called “traditionalists” were killed, allegedly by paramilitary groups hired by the tribal government. AIM members arrived on Pine Ridge reservation to assist traditionalists, but came under fire as well. The FBI arrived as well, ostensibly to calm the tension, but AIM accused the authorities of failing to protect those at risk on the reservation.
On the morning of June 26, 1975, two FBI agents drove onto a ranch where AIM members were camped to serve an arrest warrant. An exchange of gunfire took place and the two FBI agents were killed. Leonard Peltier does not deny that he was present during the incident, but he has always denied killing the agents.
In the aftermath, Peltier fled but was eventually captured in February of the following year. In the ensuing trial, evidence was fabricated and witnesses were coerced to testify against him. Peltier received two consecutive life sentences.
During his time in prison, Peltier has become a powerful spokesperson for Native American issues. His case has also become a rallying point for Native peoples throughout the world, a tangible instance of the institutionalized, inhumane treatment accorded them.
Now, nearly, four decades after the shooting, the numbers of those demanding justice for Leonard Peltier continues to grow. Whether he will ever be released is doubtful. A sitting President could easily extend amnesty to him, but the courage to do so has always been absent.