The Pine Ridge Indian reservation is well-known as the most economically impoverished locale in all of North America. Alcoholism is often the only resistance to depression. The area has among the highest infant-mortality rates in the western hemisphere, as well as the lowest life expectancy for men and women. Unemployment ranges to 75 percent. Plumbing is a luxury. Relief, unknown. A shadowland of statistics. America's shame, hidden behind headlines, today Clinton and Kosovo, then behind Nixon and Vietnam.
In 1973-75, Pine Ridge was the same, except for having a higher murder rate per capita than any city in the United States. The aggressor was the new Oglala Tribal chairman, Dick Wilson, a former plumber who won the government puppet seat in a fixed election. Wilson embezzled money allocated to traditionals, hired his extended family to tribal posts, gave them enormous salaries, grafted uranium-rich lands and signed them off to the U.S. government for favors. The depth of corruption was a vacuum. When traditionals stood up to oppose Wilson's regime, mysterious deaths followed. Bodies of traditional Lakotas were turning up in culverts, in homes, beaten, shot, mutilated, murdered by Wilson's private army of GOONs, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation. The traditional Oglalas, desperate, living in terror, their children and elders bracing every minute for drive-by shootings and death, asked the newly-formed American Indian Movement for help.
With its COINTELPRO brainchild, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI operatives had a mission of quashing all movements considered subversive, using divide-and-conquer tactics, flooding inner-city neighborhoods with drugs, tying up movement hands with false arrests and trials, and complicity in cruel and torturous measures. The main targets of their aggressive attacks were the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, both tagged as Commie groups. In 1975, the FBI funded, participated in, and armed Dick Wilson and his GOONs with high-tech assault weaponry, using Pine Ridge as a battlefield to wipe out AIM.
The pressure boiled over on June 26, as two FBI special agents entered the Jumping Bull residence, an AIM nerve center. The two agents, Coler and Williams, followed a pick-up driven by a suspect, Jimmy Eagle onto the compound, where they parked in a field surrounded by armed AIM defenders. To this day, witnesses insist that the agents fired upon AIM first using service revolvers and assault rifles stashed in their cars. The agents, outnumbered and outgunned, were both wounded in the exchange of fire, and soon after executed at point-blank range by an unknown assailant. Everyone in the compound fled, first the reservation, then the state. Peltier, like Sitting Bull before him, ran to Canada.
Later, Jimmy Eagle, Bob Robideau, Darrell Butler, and Leonard Peltier were indicted in the deaths of the agents. Jimmy Eagle was acquitted. Robideau and Butler were acquitted in their own trial by reason of self-defense. They told the jury they had no idea these men were FBI agents, explaining Dick Wilson's "Reign of Terror" on Pine Ridge, the murders, the drive-by shootings. The FBI cars were unmarked. Two strangers stormed in there and opened fire on the AIM encampment, so AIM fired back. There was no evidence linking these men to the execution. They were acquitted. Self-defense. Peltier was the prosecution's last chance at a conviction. One Myrtle Poor Bear conveniently came forth, a woman no one at Jumping Bull ever saw or knew, claiming to be Peltier's girlfriend, swearing under oath she saw Peltier shoot the agents. With her affidavits-three total, all conflicting-the extradition from Canada was sealed.
And voila! An AR-15 rifle suddenly turned up as the murder weapon, and a mysterious shell casing turned up in one of the dead agent's open trunks. Even though there were several AR-15s at the Jumping Bull residence that June day, this one was Peltier's. How could they prove it was Peltier's? There were no fingerprints on the AR-15 because the rifle had been melted and scorched to cinders in a car fire in Kansas, 3,000 miles away from Peltier's hiding place. So the government prosecutors linked the casing with the rifle through a nebulous firing-pin test. But how to link these grains of evidence with Peltier? At face value, Peltier should have been acquitted for the mere reason that they couldn't put the rifle in his hands during the firefight. There was no evidence that linked him to the rifle, if indeed it was even the weapon used to kill the agents. However, with a blatant manipulation of justice, the government linked the weapon to Peltier. How they did this in a court of law is baffling. Anyone can look into the record and see that it's impossible. To this day, Peltier was proven no more guilty than Robideau or Butler of the deaths of the agents. He was only firing upon two strangers in self-defense. Yet he's still in prison after 24 years.
Leonard Peltier has asked himself this question day and night for the past 24 years. The past 288 months. The past 8,760 days. The past 210,240 hours. The past 12,614,400 minutes that have been etched from his life.
The question hangs in the dense air of the Leavenworth Federal penitentiary. It echoes from the cold, monolithic walls of concrete, the dead eyes of the guards. It rings from the forbidding iron doorway of Leonard's cell, which leads out to the larger cage of the prison population, which leads out to two rows of 12-foot chainlink fence ribboned in razor wire, which leads out to the governmental cage imprisoning all American Indians, which leads out to the mental prisons of the captors, the walking dead. The sentence for Leonard? Two consecutive life terms. The sentence for American Indians? Two consecutive life terms. The sentence of the sentencer, the United States? Two consecutive life terms. The sentence of humanity for standing idle? Two consecutive life terms.
The FBI says it's a national security measure. They got their man, and they're dead-set on keeping him. To them, he's a symbol reminding them of their own self-hatred. A projected scapegoat for governmental shame. To traditional American Indians, Leonard has become a martyr sacrificed to the battle for the freedom of Indigenous peoples around the globe. A native catalyst uniting the struggle in the continuing war against genocide. To Peltier? "I'm imprisoned for two consecutive life terms for being Indian."
We hope that Leonard's own words will answer part of this difficult question. But more so, we hope they will challenge the reader to ask even harder questions. Questions about responsibility. About the value of justice. About the struggle for rights, Leonard's rights, human rights, natural rights, our rights. About the meaning of "Freedom" and the cost of losing it on any level.
Boulder Weekly: You've had a pretty busy week.
Peltier: Yeah, I had Rigoberta Menchu come, which was a great honor. It was a very successful visit. I had no idea that the Nobel Prize winners carried such weight. A lot of people pay attention to her. She recently visited the Justice Department on my behalf. I've known Rigoberta since the early '80s when she was working in the Treaty Council. It was good to finally meet her in person. I'd only spoken with her over the phone. She's a good lady. She's suffered a lot.
BW: What kinds of things did you discuss?
Peltier: They were wondering what strategy they could use to help get me out. Continuing efforts at building coalitions. In Washington, D.C., after they met with the Justice Department, they held a press conference and over 300 national organizations stood behind her, supporting her efforts to free me. It was a big plus for us. A major gain to try to unite more tribes behind me, getting them to write a letter for executive clemency and so forth.
BW: How do you feel about the way things are going?
Peltier: Well... I still can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. These politicians are such sleazebags that you just don't know. You can't really get anything from a lot of them once they get into power. They totally forget about all their commitments. The poor people elect them, and they forget about all the poor people. When Clinton was running seven years ago, he was questioned by his campaign constituents, "What will you do for Leonard?" And he said, "I'll look into it." And here it is seven years later, and he still hasn't done anything. We know that the Federal Pardon Attorney in his first term recommended clemency. It went through Janet Reno's office. And it's been sitting in Janet Reno's office ever since. Numerous people have met with Clinton, and he knows about the case. Peter Matthiessen met with him, Thom White Wolf, the head of the United Methodist Church, has seen him several times. Clinton was on Pine Ridge last year, and he saw some of my supporters out there waving signs for my release. But Harold Salway [Oglala Tribal President] told me that when he and Clinton were by themselves, Clinton asked him, "Who's Leonard Peltier?" So it doesn't look that good for me when you got people saying those types of things, ya know?
BW: I know you've been through this a thousand times, but what was the pressure like on Pine Ridge in 1975?
Peltier: For 24 years now, I've been speaking about this continuously. I can only answer the same way I've always answered. There was a Reign of Terror being committed against the Oglala people by their own tribal government. We know now that an agency of the United States government did an investigation, and before their funding ran out, they were able to investigate 64 deaths that were caused by Dick Wilson's GOON squads. People were living in fear. People were living in constant terror. That's the way it was.
BW: What was the FBI's main reason for being there? Who were they protecting?
Peltier: Special interests-Dick Wilson, who was supporting special interest groups, mining companies, government agencies giving up Indian land for minerals. It's a well-known fact the FBI has always supported big business and big government. They knew they were getting close to the completion of the Termination policy, which was planned for 1985, and they had to initiate incidents to cause it to accelerate. Unfortunately for them, it backfired. The world turned to the Oglala with support.
BW: How did the American Indian Movement get involved?
Peltier: AIM was requested by the traditionals and the Oglala people on Pine Ridge to come in and support them. To try and find some justice through the judiciary system. To help combat discrimination, poverty, and the criminal activity of their tribal chairman. That's why AIM was there. And it was there upon request. Nobody in AIM went there and imposed themselves.
BW: What was your role with AIM at that time?
Peltier: I was an assistant to Dennis Banks. A bodyguard, if you want to use that term. I was basically just one of the organizers, really. Of course we protected Dennis. You certainly couldn't walk up to him and strike him with me and a few other guys around. We were security, but that wasn't really our function. Our function was to help organize events on the reservation.
BW: When did the FBI start investigating you?
Peltier: That's hard to say. I haven't gotten all my FBI files back from the Freedom of Information Act requests. But they've known about me since Fort Lawton in Seattle . I helped occupy the Fort Lawton military base about a year after the Alcatraz occupation. Those of us who were involved and arrested had records kept with the FBI. I was very visible there, and I was very visible in helping the Indian community organize against the Vietnam War. There's documentation now that proves that I was being watched at that time.
BW: This was all part of the FBI campaign against the American Indian Movement at that time?
Peltier: Yeah. But not just AIM. There were a lot of organizations that were just as active. The United Tribes of All Indians which I was one of the founders was a very powerful organization. It's been in existence since 1970. It's just that it didn't take some of the actions that AIM did. AIM got the spotlight.
BW: After the 1975 firefight, why did they need to pin the deaths on you?
Peltier: What we figured out during the trials is that they certainly didn't want to charge somebody from the Pine Ridge reservation. So they tried to charge somebody that was considered an "outside agitator," which happened to be myself, my cousin Bob Robideau, my friend Darrell [Dino] Butler, and of course Jimmy Eagle. I myself, and my cousin Bob both have Lakota blood in us. We're not really outsiders either. But that's the way they tried to portray us. "Here's these outside agitators from AIM, coming in and causing the deaths of their agents." So they indicted us. And as it was, both Darrell and Bob went to trial in Cedar Rapids, and happened to be very fortunate in having a judge that really had respect and honor for the oath he took, and he gave them as fair a trial as he possibly could. There was a lot more evidence that he could have let in, but he'd seen it would have been too damaging for the government. But he let some in, and it was enough. The jury heard it and said "Oh, wait a minute, something's wrong here. They didn't kill these agents." Remember, they were prosecuted as the shooters too. And if they were shooters, they did it in self-defense. The agents Williams and Coler were saying they were out there looking for Jimmy Eagle for kidnapping and robbery. This is what the FBI told the media and the world. But at the bottom, when the indictment was found, the only thing he was indicted for was a misdemeanor for stealing a pair of cowboy boots.
But what we think, and what I believe really happened, is they knew Dennis Banks was gonna be there. And we also know now from Duane Brewer, who was one of the GOON squad leaders, that they knew the Jumping Bull residence was an AIM stronghold. They had planned assaults on the Jumping Bull residence and another place in Kyle. They were all over the Pine Ridge reservation. They were planning-with intelligence from the FBI, armor-piercing ammunition, sophisticated weaponry, and funding-to assault these places. We also know there was a large mobilization of armored personnel carriers at different points around the reservation getting ready to move in.
BW: What was the history of Williams and Coler?
Peltier: Well, Williams we know was probably obsessed with his hate for Indian people, and especially the American Indian Movement. He was involved in a cover-up, it got exposed, and it hurt his record. So there was a lot of vengeance on his behalf. People don't know about this, and of course the media keeps refusing to print it, portraying him rather as a clean-cut American boy. That's bullshit. If you look back at what he and [agent] David Price did at Means-Banks trial in Minneapolis, you will see that these guys helped cover up a brutal rape and assault committed by their star witness, Louis Moves Camp. They had taken him out for a little drinking that night. Louie was a sharp-lookin' dude. He picked up this girl, and they slapped him on the back and said, "Okay, we'll see you tomorrow," and he takes her into this hotel room, and he beats her and rapes her. And these guys covered it up.
BW: How did the Robideau-Butler trial differ from yours?
Peltier: They were allowed to bring out a lot of the stuff about the terror and the killings, all the poverty and everything else going on at Pine Ridge. And they were acquitted and found not-guilty by self-defense. Unfortunately for me, by powers that are unknown to us, someone took my case out of Cedar Rapids and went shopping for judges. We know who it was; it was the Justice Department. But we don't know who it was in the Justice Department. Probably the directors. A lot of judges refused. But Judge Benson agreed to work with the government and get a conviction.
BW: And that was your first trial?
Peltier: That was my first trial. I had a jury of 50, 60, 70-year-old white American North Dakota citizens, who had been raised all their lives believing Indians were all drunks and lazy and worthless. I just had to be guilty, you know, because the FBI wouldn't have arrested me if I weren't. Plus we're all drunks. That was my jury in a nutshell. I wasn't allowed to do anything in defense. The government was allowed to put in five weeks of testimony. They were able to create a murder weapon. They were allowed to illegally accuse me of owning that weapon. And I was only allowed a day and a half of testimony. Everything else was ruled irrelevant. I'd call a witness, the judge would rule it irrelevant. Myrtle Poor Bear was the woman they used to sign affidavits to extradite me from Canada. We had Poor Bear's father on the witness list, and her sister. They were both going to testify that she was mentally retarded, that she was a liar, that she was nowhere near me, and never did know me in her life. Her sister did get up and testify to that, without the presence of the jury, of course. Later, Myrtle came to us and told us what happened to her. She told us that her life had been threatened. That she had been terrorized by the U.S. marshals and the FBI to cooperate with them and testify against me.
BW: Were the same cards stacked against you in the appeals process?
Peltier: Their most critical evidence against me was the ballistics evidence. I filed two appeals. During the first appeal I filed 12 automatic reversible errors-constitutional issues. My case was heard by Judge Gibson, Judge Ross, I think, my memory suffers. And... Who was that FBI director? Webster. We didn't know this at the time, but Webster had already been asked if he would accept the nomination of the FBI. And of course he said yes. Then he was somehow mysteriously appointed to hear my case. So he hears our oral arguments and everything, and then all of a sudden we find out through our connections in Washington, D.C. that Webster had been asked months prior to hearing my case if he would accept the FBI nomination. So we protested to get a new hearing. We wanted a whole new judge panel, but they would only give us one new judge, and Judge Webster had already set it up. He assigned the judge to replace himself. They confirmed my conviction of first-degree murder. They said, "You are guilty of first-degree murder by the most critical evidence against you, which is the murder weapon.
BW: This was the sketchy AR-15 burned and mangled beyond recognition in a car fire?
Peltier: Yeah. I filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and received thousands of documents. In two of the documents I found they had done a firing-pin test of the murder weapon and it came out negative. I filed an appeal. Judge Benson denied it. So I appealed that to the courts. The courts reversed Benson and sent it back demanding an evidentiary hearing in 1984. There was a firearms expert, Evan Hodge, who had testified falsely-and this is a fact, this is not "accusations by Leonard Peltier." We proved this at the 1984 trial. He testified falsely at Bob and Dino's trial. He testified falsely through affidavit at my extradition hearing, and at my trial. He testified that the weapon was so severely damaged that he could not perform a firing-pin test. He testified under oath that only himself and his assistant, Joe Twardovsky, had access to the ballistics worksheets that were kept in a vault.
Judge Benson reluctantly granted us a handwriting expert and dismissed the case pending his examination of the worksheets. So I go down to the holding cell, and my lawyer says, "We're gonna come down and see you right away." It was Kunstler, Bruce Ellison and Lew Gurwitz. So anyway, I'm waiting for them to come right down for three, four hours, right? I'm waiting and waiting. So finally I look out this little window and I see my lawyer, and he's smiling, giving me the fist of power. So they come into the cell and say, "Here's what happened." Apparently, Crooks, the prosecutor, was walking down the hallway with Joe Twardovsky and Evan Hodge. And he asked Evan Hodge, "Evan, this is your handwriting, isn't it?" And Evan says, "No, this is Joe's. It's yours isn't it, Joe?" And Joe turns around and says, "No, it's yours, isn't it, Evan?" And finally Crooks-this is Crooks' version, the prosecutor-he says, "I then interrupted and said, 'Well, whose is it?'" So they had to chase the judge down-the judge lives in Fargo, and they transport him secretly, because he's so hated, they figure somebody would want to kill him. (Laughs) I'm not saying by us Indians, but everybody. There's crackers and tax-resisters, everybody hates his guts. Anyway, they don't have a radio in his car. Secret transportation and all. So they had to chase him down doing 150 miles an hour (laughs), and they found him and told him, "You gotta come back." So they brought him back, and they had one of those little meetings together, and they called Evan Hodge back to the stand. And the prosecutor asked him, "Is this your handwriting?" And Evan says, "No, I misspoke." And that's all he needed to save him from a perjury trial.
So the hearing was postponed for 10 days, and the handwriting experts not only found one foreign handwriting, but two others. Three altogether. You can look at them. I've looked at them, and I have a pretty good eye for stuff like that, and they were almost identical. For five people to have almost identical handwriting-the odds are phenomenal! So you know, what that tells me is that they took Hodge's and his assistant's handwriting and learned how to copy them. Even the marshals, after they saw this, said, "They have to turn you loose, because this is their most critical evidence against you." But Judge Benson dismissed it by saying that due to the fact that Evan Hodge returned to the stand on his own free will, it enhances his testimony rather than discredits it. So therefore his testimony will be accepted as credible.
BW: And you appealed this decision?
Peltier: We appealed and had a hearing in St. Paul, Minnesota, and during that hearing, William Kunstler made a very critical error on my behalf. This is 1985, and Judge Heaney asked, "Didn't Norman Brown (a Navajo AIM shooter at the 1975 firefight) testify that he had seen Leonard Peltier down by the agents' cars? And if he did, are you saying that he's now changing his plea from not-guilty to self-defense?" Kunstler said, "Yes, Norman Brown did testify to it." Of course, the prosecution was overjoyed. They couldn't believe Kunstler's stupidity. And I was right here in this visiting room. One of my other local lawyers brought me a tape of that hearing, and I heard this. I went back and called Bill. I said, "Bill, that's an error." He said, "Well don't worry about it, it's nothing." Judge Heaney told me that the reason he did not overturn my case is because Kunstler said Norman Brown had testified that he'd seen me down by the cars. Before he died, Bill Kunstler wrote an affidavit that he made a serious error. It's a technical error. I'm in prison the rest of my life because of a technical error. I'm gonna die in prison because of a technical error.
BW: Why did the FBI need to fabricate the evidence in the first place, for the first trial?
Peltier: Why? To pull the entire weight of the United States government to get a conviction. They wanted to get their man. In 1985, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals-on my second appeal-released a two-page opinion. In this opinion they found that there was a withholding of exculpatory evidence, which means there was evidence which could have exonerated me if it had not been withheld, which was the murder weapon. Perjury by government witnesses. FBI misconduct. And the judge erred in his rulings, which prevented me from putting up a defense. Those are four constitutional issues. But because of political pressure by the FBI and their overwhelming control of the courts, they quoted the Bagley decision-a Supreme Court decision called Bagley (which weighs possibility against probability)-to deny me my trial. What's so ironic about this and supports what I just said about the FBI's influence of the courts, is that there was a case almost identical to mine just prior to my case. They ruled the opposite. Totally opposite. And they released the guy using the Bagley decision. Then in my case, which was the next case, they did a complete reversal. So I'm sitting in prison again on another technicality. The courts have now set it up so that it's impossible for you to not only receive a fair trial, but they're now saying you have to prove your innocence. In a case like mine, how do you prove your innocence? It's impossible. It's set up in this country so that poor people cannot receive justice. They will not use those tactics against high-caliber attorneys. Public defenders, they don't know how to fight these types of things. Poor people don't know how to fight against this system. The United States government can indict you on something, and now you've got to prove your innocence. And that's not the Constitution of the United States. But that's what's happening with the right-wing fascist conservative bull that's going on in this country. People don't realize, or don't want to wake up and see what's really happening. This is the same thing that the Nazi party did during their taking control of Germany. They started with their judiciary system, and nobody in Germany believed it could happen there either.
BW: Why do you think that's happening here?
Peltier: Big business. Control. They want more control. More power. It's world domination. The United States government has been a very vengeful government. We know they've committed atrocities since the beginning of their existence. During the First World War, the Second World War, Vietnam, Korea, there's numerous massacres. Of course, if you want to go into the American Indian history, there's numerous massacres clear across this country, well-documented. And whenever they got defeated like at Little Big Horn, they've wanted vengeance for the next 200 years, and it's still going on with us. They still want revenge for their soldiers getting killed. It's the same way in the justice system. You'd have to be a total moron not to believe some of the things I'm saying about their justice system. We know that there's been numerous scandals going on in Philadelphia with the police. We know that there's numerous scandals going on with the Los Angeles police. The Massachusetts police. Michigan... I mean, you just name the city, and we know the police have been setting up and sending people to jail. In some cases killing them. What is so hard to believe about this? Unless you somehow subconsciously believe that they're doing right, and that they should continue this war on poverty and elimination of minorities and poor people in this country. And that's what they're doing. There are now two million people in prison. Two million. I've read some cases of convictions that are astonishing, where they've even tampered with the jury. The federal government. But people out there, they're so brainwashed. You've gotta be a moron to continue to believe it. You see it right in front of you. You see them shooting a guy 19 times. They shoot another guy 41 times! And they still try to say "Oh, well, they were justified." You know these cops will get off lightly.
BW: Many people call you a political prisoner. Do you consider yourself a political prisoner?
Peltier: Yeah. Certainly. I am a political prisoner. I'm a political activist. I've fought in a war that was waged against my people that's existed for over 200 years. And I'll continue. I have my enemies. I have my enemies both in and out of my people. I have some of my own people that are just as bad as the enemy. Not all Indian people are good people. We've had Indian people that were scouts that led the enemy into villages, killing women and children. Their own people.
BW: Do you feel that all poor and minority prisoners are also political prisoners?
Peltier: Well, I wouldn't go as far as to say that, because some of those people did commit serious crimes. My idea of a political prisoner is someone who is out fighting for his or her people's rights and freedom and is imprisoned for that alone. Some people have different opinions about that.
BW: And in your case, American Indian nations are separate nations from the United States?
Peltier: Yeah, separate nations. We're fighting nation against nation. Sovereign against sovereign. But back to the other issue, some people consider others who got a bad deal or got railroaded into prison political prisoners. I believe there's an injustice there. And I believe it's political to some extent... Well for prosecutors it's a great extent, because the more convictions they get, the further up the ladder they climb. But I don't believe that everyone's a political prisoner. It's hard for me to call somebody a political prisoner who's been selling drugs to his brothers and sisters in the streets and then got railroaded into prison. But if the guy received some injustices that should have been corrected, or was treated unequally in the justice system, then he should be given a new trial. I believe that.
BW: Last November at the Washington, D.C. Peltier rally, Representative Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), read that FBI-planted letter to Congress. What are your feelings on this?
Peltier: I think the voters should really take a look at the credibility of this congressman. If he'll get up there and make these false presentations to his Congress, after taking an oath to abide by the constitution in fairness and honesty, then I think they ought to question his convictions. Here he is, up there supporting an organization that just got done killing 80 people in Waco, Texas. Forty children, burned them up alive. We know this for a fact now. And he's up there supporting them? I think the public and his constituents in Colorado ought to seriously look at who this man really is. He should not be in office. We just went through it again, when Rigoberta Menchu was at the Justice Department, and the official who met with her stated, "I do not know about the ballistics. I do not know about these other issues. The FBI has been telling us the total opposite of what you just told me." He was upset about it, too. He said, "Is this stuff true, what you've been telling me?" And Rigoberta said, "Yeah, just look in the record." Well this congressman is either a blithering idiot, or he's both a fool and a blithering idiot for not researching what he's been told (by the FBI) to testify before Congress. Everything that we present to these congressmen has to be accurate. If it isn't, it'll turn back against us. We'll lose our credibility, our support, and everything else. They should be put in the same position.
BW: After 24 years, why is there a drive to prevent you from receiving executive clemency?
Peltier: I don't know. I really don't know. That's the thing. I do know this. Peter Coyote, who's a Hollywood actor-I've known Peter since back in the hippie days-was a California delegate for Clinton's presidential campaign in his first election. Of course, Clinton was elected. So they called all these delegates back to ask them what favor they wanted from the president for helping him get elected. So Peter Coyote said, "Listen, I want to speak with the Attorney General." He didn't get a meeting with Janet Reno, but he got a meeting with one of her top assistants. The second in command. So Peter went down there to talk for hours. He ran everything down about this case-he's very well educated about my case-and told them, "I want clemency for Leonard Peltier. That's my favor." So the guy told Peter, "I'll get back to you." The guy left the meeting, and he called Peter back two weeks later, and he said, "You know what, Peter. I'm gonna be honest with you. I thought when you were telling me all these things about Leonard's case that you were some left-wing fanatic." He said, "I've researched everything you've said, and everything you said is true. But unfortunately, Leonard Peltier is a very powerful person, and they don't want him out of prison." And that's all I can say.
BW: During your imprisonment, you've become a symbol representing all Indigenous people being oppressed by their governments. How does that feel?
Peltier: I hear that... I don't know... I hear that. It's quite a pedestal to be put on. Especially when you're not trying or wanting something like this to happen to you. I just hope that I'm not a disappointment to my people if I'm ever released. I hope I never disrespect that honor. I receive a lot of letters from people-in the Boulder area in fact. Some Indian women have told me that when I'm released, they're already setting up organizations, and they're gonna make me "Chief of Chiefs." (Laughs) You know, it's quite an honor. But I don't feel any different than the Leonard Peltier that came in here 24 years ago. I don't act any different. And I hope I can continue to say that for the rest of my life. I hope that the status they've given me will be a benefit to my people. Otherwise it wasn't worth it.
On February 18, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and Mayan Nobel Prize Laureate, Rigoberta Menchu, visited Leonard Peltier along with Curt Goering of Amnesty International, which has until recently stayed uninvolved in Peltier's case. Menchu and Goering are only two of many visiting Leonard in the biggest push for Leonard's release to date. On January 20, Phil Fontaine, Canada's Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, also visited Peltier to unite Natives from both countries in the struggle. Last November, in wake of the publication of Leonard's book Prison Writings: My life is my Sun Dance, American Indian leaders descended on Washington, D.C. to voice their opposition to the illegal incarceration of Peltier, considered a political prisoner by a growing force of global Indigenous rights activists. During the month-long rally, Katherine Porter, wife of Congressman John Porter, delivered 35 million signatures of petition demanding immediate executive clemency for Peltier. To squelch the widening effort for Peltier's freedom, during the November event, the FBI placed ads in the Washington Post and other national media, denouncing Peltier as a cold-blooded killer, guilty as charged. U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., also anointed himself in blood, reading the FBI dispatch word for word before Congress, charging Peltier as "a violent man with a violent past... Leonard Peltier is a murderer without compassion or feeling towards his fellow man."