Leonard Peltier, political prisoner in the United States.
Hanz Dieterich.

Leonard Peltier has been political prisoner of the USA government for 12 years. He was condemned to two sentences for life, by the double crime of being North American Indian and being a defender of the rights of his people.

180 years after the constitution and after the "Man's Rights" declaration (Virginia Bill of Rights); 150 years after the verdict of the the United States Supreme Court of Justice superior judge, John Marshall, in the sense that the Indians legal relationship with the United States was not a relationship among equals, but a wardship relationship between people lack of complete civilian capacity and the government of the splendid United States democracy; 110 years after the Congress and the States of the American Union ratified in the Constitution that the Indians would not have parlamentary representation; 100 years after general Philip Sheridan pronounced the sentence, "the only good Indian is the dead Indian"; 90 years after the Supreme Court of Justice of the country passed sentence on that Indian is, for birth, an "alien and dependent"... the State of the United States needs to make a punishment with an innocent indigenous leader to demonstrate to the other ones that the defense of his rights won't be tolerated.

It won't be tolerated although 90% of the indigenous population suffers unemployment, that the infant mortality rate is ten times higher than the national average and its suicides rate is twice as much. It won't be tolerated although the health services for the reservations operate under the national standard, that the sterilization programs frequently violate the federal regulations, that the 23 and 35 percent of Indian childrenare are pulled up of the family by their parents' "incompetence" in order to educate them - incompetence declared by the omnipotent officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, BIA - and that alcohol continues being, like in the colonizaton era, one of the main destruction weapons used by the system to destroy the Indian nations.

The history of this State against the North American Indian is the history of 371 broken treaties; of the cultural war against their individual character that penalized up to 1934 with prison the Indians who taught or practiced their religions, languages or history; it is the history of the gigantic robbery of their lands and of countless slaughters like that of Wounded Knee, where in the 1890 Christmas the United States chivalry slaughtered 300 men, women and children.

But it is also the history of the heroic fight of indigenous for the defense of their lands and their rights. The interview with Leonard Peltier, made from his prison in St. Louis, revives the spirit of the indigenous nations best leaders, as Tatanka Yotanka ("Sitting Bull") and Tashunka Witko ("Crazy Horse") of the sioux, Goayathlay ("Gerónimo ") of the Apaches and Heinmot Tooyalaket (·Chief Joseph") of the Nez Perces.

Question: Mr. Peltier, how long have you been in prison?
L. Peltier: On February 6th, 1988 I served 12 years in prison. I pay two sentences for life..

Question: Is it correct the accusation that you shot and killed an FBI agent?
L. Peltier: No, I am innocent of that charge. I have claimed my innocence since the beginning and I continue insisting in it

Question: If you are innocent, why do you continue in prison?
L. Peltier: Well, the Indian American Movement (AIM) was one of the targets of the counter-intelligence program (Cointelpro) of FBI. We defended the treaties of our people, the same as their rights and lands. We became very popular and we grew quickly in all the indian country. Internationally we were also known as a progressive indigenous organization. Then, the government of the United States flattened us.

First they drew up multiple accusations against the leaders and later they started to concentrate in the inferior stratum to that of the leaders, the one that they called the "lieutenants". I was very popular in the Pine Ridge Reservation (Reservation in South Dakota, in the area where the slaughter of Wounded Knee was carried out - H.D.). I had lots of support in the whole indian country. Indeed, when they arrested me, a lot of influential indigenous people protested and said: "They think that they can easily put Leonard Peltier behind the grills. Seemingly they don't know what's this about".

Question: Do you see a parallel among your case and what happened to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela?
L. Peltier: Yes, surely. The dominant white class tried to destroy the movements of the black. They attacked their leaders and they killed the leaders of the second line who were not so well-known but popular among their people. One of them was Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party. They executed him. The evidence that arose years later showed that he was coldly executed (by the police - H.D.) Yes, there is a very strong parallel between their fight and ours.

Question: 55 members of the American Congress, members of the Canadian Parliament, International Amnesty, etc. have requested that you are given a new process, a fair one: why these efforts have not been successful?
L. Peltier: It is really difficult to say, in a fact sense, why not. But, one of the reasons is that somebody must pay the death of their agents. I was the last one (of four - H.D.) who was processed. They didn't have evidence against me, they had to create it, to manufacture it and to make perjury. They know that if I get a new process they have the same possibility to win than the one a ball of snow has in the hell. And they try to take out profit of my situation, leaving me in prison so much time as it is possible for them.

Question: This reminds me the case of Sacco and Vanzetti in the years 20. Do they use you to intimidate another critical people?
L. Peltier: Without doubt. It has been a very common tactics of them to unjustifiably imprison the leaders or to kill them. There is not problem in transcending that some leader is innocently in the prison. This is in fact my case, particularly since that last artificial quarrel in which the court admitted that the government had suppressed very critical evidence, what prevented me to defend myself properly; and also that as much the government as the FBI had acted in an inappropriate way. They were aware that this information was going to be distributed worldwide. Without doubt they have the hope and the tactics that this information will discourage another people to resist their oppression, anyway, they hope it will impede the development of the fight.

Question: But the government says that there are no political prisoners in the United States. Do you considered yourself a political prisoner?
L. Peltier: Definitively, and the last verdict of the court checks it. Basically they said that it doesn't matter if the tests against me were "manufactured" (by the government/FBI - H.D.) and that i have neither right to defend myself. They have said this since the beginning and thus they acted: I had no right to defend myself, I don't enjoy these rights.

Question: In Germany it is thought that the United States are a democracy. Can a democracy allow such things?
L. Peltier: I still have to see that a member of an ethnic minority or a poor person goes as far to occupy the presidency of the country or any powerful guide position. We have some in smaller levels, as for example, in the congress, but as for the democracy, not. It's a fraud; it is a fraud. In this country only the rich ones become leaders.

Question: After 12 years in prison, do you still have force to continue and do you tdefend your convictions of the 70's?
L. Peltier: Yes, certainly. You must know that it was a very hard week for me when I was condemned. But I believe that I have assimilated it and that I have come out of it stronger than before. I know that politically I am much stronger than before.

Distinguished academics have read my verdict and they are scandalized by the way it was made. Some influential people, with power, support me and they say that they won't stop until I am free. There are comments and supports of this kind from millions of people and every time they are more. This gives me force and they won't break me. I won't surrender before them. I have not been eleven years in prison to become now weak.

Question: Mr. Peltier, is any hero or indigenous leader who you consider example for yourself and your fight?
L. Peltier: Yes, Crazy Horse, Chief Gall, Sitting Bull, Gerónimo and Chief Joseph (leaders of the Sioux, Apache and Nez Percés). They were combatant for my people's freedom. Many of them were heroes. They are my idols. I hope to have their spirit. They were very powerful people and I hope their spirit is inside me and of our children.

Question: Do people in the reservations know these celebrities?
L. Peltier: Yes, they are present because the book that was written on my cause is called "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse"; because for lots of people, still in the non Dakotas tribes, or as one says in English, the Sioux, Crazy Horse, is a hero. He resisted until the end. He believed in his philosophy, political and religious and in his way of living and he didn't want to quit them. He believed that coexistence with nature was the best thing for the whole humanity.

Question: And do you have the same determination of resisting until the end?
L. Peltier: Yes, until my people are free. when my people get rid we will be able to rest and to try to reconstruct our nation. Just as things are now it will be difficult. There are still intents to exterminate us and our reservations, of assimilating us to the American system, to the white society. But again we will resist. We are not speaking of violence. There are many different ways to resist and this is in fact what we are making.

Question: Which is the perspective of liberating inside the main imperialistic power?
L. Peltier: Many perspectives see the current situation as the "modern reality". They believe that some day the USA will allow us to make a nation inside them. It will be a very hard fight and it has been since the European invasion; but it has never finished and it continues being an alive topic in the Indian places.

We have achieved some advances through the years. We have obtained more self-determination and self-sufficiency. We have achieved more legislation as for the sovranity of our reservations, regarding our own tribunals and we also achieve, for example, own numberplates. It is a slow process, but we have made some advances. It is still a long, very long road, but we are strong.

Question: The Black Panthers movement was destroyed by the government. Does the AIM still exist?
L. Peltier: Yes, we are still very influential. It doesn't have many members as some time ago, due to the infiltration and that kind of things. But we find a lot of resonance among AIM people, we have our leaders and a grateful force among the indigenous communities, progressive people inside the USA and internationally. I believe that politically we are stronger than ever because we have very good political connections. We continue existing, they have not been able to completely destroy us.

Question: The rates of mortality among the indigenous population are higher 10 times than the national average and the suicides rate is higher 2 times. To what is this due to?
L. Peltier: It is the result of the oppression in the reservations, of the population, of alcohol, of unemployment and of the scarce medical and educational facilities. People in the reservations live without hopes. Children see the parents depressed the whole time, trying to drown their depressions in alcohol, and then the children take the same road, because they see that there is neither space for them

There is also a double justice system inside and outside the reservations. At the moment there is a great controversy in South Dakota on the problems and the double justice system for which we protest in the years 60 and 70. A white man shot an Indian girl in the head. They made him the process and a jury of white found him guilty. But the judge gave him a sentence on approval. And an Indian man who took a can of beans of a parked car was condemned to five years of prison. This is an example of the double justice system that, together with the other mentioned factors, cause the high suicide rates, alcoholism, etc.

Question: Inside prison, do you have disadvantages for belonging to an ethnic minority?
L. Peltier: Well, it is the same thing that in the outside society. Since our population is so small, we don't have political power; since we don't have the control on the resources of our reservation, we don't have economic power. And the same thing happens inside the penitentiary institutions. As our population is not as big as that of other groups, again we suffer. Basically, it is the same thing. We don't have more open discrimination against us than other groups, because, in general terms, we are very popular, that is to say, not very popular with the government, because we have something that they want.

Question: However, there are Indians who, at least verbally, enjoy a lot of sympathy in the American government. I am thinking Nicaragua's Miskitos
L. Peltier: Well, we also have that kind of people here. The ones called "apples"; I don't know how they call them in Nicaragua. We have had them since the invasion. They are the weak ones, those who join with who has the power. And the money is more important for them than their blood or their culture and Indian philosophy. They are bad people and some of them are simply murderous and, naturally, they enjoy the sympathies of the respective governments.

Question: Have the 12 years in prison become you more politician?
L. Peltier: Yes, I am politically more conscious. during the years 60 and 70, although I was involved in black manifestations, against the Vietnam war, etc., my main concern was the political problems of the indigenous. I thought that if I wanted to help my people I should concentrate on those problems. But since they imprisoned me I had the opportunity to read and to learn much more on the oppression that exists in the world. And naturally, my political conscience has developed and I feel the responsibility of protesting against the evil in the world.

I don't like to see that people suffer, that there is abusing or that there is injuring; and I don't care who they are or what they are. I feel that it is necessary to make something so that these abuses finish.

Question: Mr. Peltier, if you could speak to the pueblo of Nicaragua now, would you have any message for him?
L. Peltier: Yes. First, I'd like to congratulate them for their very successful revolution and to send them my blessings and prayers so that the the revolution continues strengthening. I urge people to support their government and to close lines behind it. Many of them are dying for their convictions, for their revolution; and to become now against the government would be an error. They should understand that if the contras take the power, the people would be again where it was before the revolution. They should stay firm behind their government, because that's their government. It is for what they fought.

Telephone interview made with Leonard Peltier in the prison of St. Louis, Missouri, USA, September 27th, 1986.

1. In the State of South Dakota, 40% of all the adoptions made between 1967 and 1977 by the state's Departament of Public Welfare involved Indian children, in spite of the fact, that Indians only represent 7 percent of the youth population of that state. Bruce Johansen and Roberto Maestas, Wasi'chu. The Continuing Indian Wars, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1979, p.72


Most recent revision: May 18, 2002