Guest columnist David Detmold: Leonard Peltier is America’s Nelson Mandela

  • Marchers carry a large painting of jailed American Indian Leonard Peltier during a march for the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Mass., on Nov. 22.  AP

Published: 12/1/2021 1:20:14 PM
Modified: 12/1/2021 1:19:41 PM

On Thursday, Nov. 25, I was honored to join more than a thousand other people in observing the 52nd annual National Day of Mourning organized by the United American Indians of New England at the statue of Ousemequin, the Massassoit, overlooking the harbor at Plymouth, an area known to the Wampanoag as Patuxet.

Instead of feasting on turkey, we fasted in the fall sunshine while prayers for healing were offered. We listened to speakers from many Native nations talk about their efforts to overcome centuries of colonial oppression, to reclaim the bones of thousands of their children from unmarked graves in government sanctioned boarding schools, and to stand up for Mother Earth in the struggle against fossil fuel infrastructure in British Colombia, northern Minnesota, and beyond.

But once again this year, the most poignant speech was the one delivered on behalf of imprisoned American Indian Movement (AIM) elder Leonard Peltier. Peltier, convicted in 1977 of aiding and abetting in the murder of two FBI agents during a firefight at the Jumping Bull Ranch in Oglala, South Dakota, has been in prison for almost 46 years. He is now 77 years old.

For those not familiar with the case, Peltier was the only person convicted in that shootout, which ultimately involved more than 150 FBI agents, SWAT team members, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, and local vigilantes who surrounded the Jumping Bull Ranch on Pine Ridge Reservation on June 26, 1975. The traditional Jumping Bull family had invited AIM members to camp and protect them during the period in the early 1970s known as the Reign of Terror, when the Pine Ridge Reservation was the murder capital of America, with at least 64 local Natives killed (and most of their murders still unsolved).

On that day, driving unmarked cars, wearing plain clothes, without announcing their presence, FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler drove onto the Jumping Bull Ranch, where approximately 30 AIM members and family members were at the camp. A shootout occurred, and in the aftermath, one AIM member, Joe Stuntz, and both Williams and Coler were killed. Peltier, with other AIM members, succeeded in guiding the women and children in the encampment through the back country, past an intense law enforcement cordon, to safety without further loss of life. He escaped to Canada, but was extradited to stand trial in Bismarck, North Dakota on a perjured warrant.

Two other AIM defendants, tried separately for the deaths of Williams and Coler, were found not guilty on grounds of self-defense. Among all the participants, Peltier was convicted based on eye witness testimony later found to have been perjured. As U.S. attorney James Reynolds, whose office prosecuted the case against Peltier in 1975, wrote recently in a letter to President Joe Biden, appealing for clemency for Leonard, “We were not able to prove the Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation.”

But as Leonard Peltier has said, “Someone had to pay for the crime.”

And pay he has.

Blind in one eye, suffering from severe diabetes, denied proper diet or necessary health care, unable to see his family, rarely able to see the sun or even exercise in the yard where he might see an occasional bird fly past, his only view of nature, Peltier has maintained his innocence, and remained steadfast in his refusal to bow to the authorities while he continues to hold out hope for his release.

Amnesty International says, “President Biden must grant Leonard Peltier clemency on humanitarian grounds and as a matter of justice.” Members of Congress and even Pope Francis have added their pleas for his release. Now it is up to you, each of you who read this letter, to add your voices to that call.

Please write to President Joe Biden, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20500, or President@WhiteHouse.Gov urging immediate clemency for Leonard Peltier. For more information on his case, go to:

As Leonard said in his letter to the National Day of Mourning at the statue of Ousemequin this year, “I wish all of you good health and happiness this year. You are in my prayers. I am grateful to all of you who have supported me, or will support me going forward. I still hold out hope that I can make it home to Turtle Mountain while I can still walk out under my own power.”

Leonard Peltier is America’s Nelson Mandela. We must free him now.

David Detmold lives in Montague.

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