February 4, 2012 was the first international day of solidarity with Leonard Peltier. After decades wasted in prison, charged with a crime that has no evidence, Peltier’s supporters are once again appealing to the United States government to set him free.
Peltier is an Native American Lakota activist who was involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s. The AIM was a group based in fighting for indigenous sovereignty, rights and leadership. In the early 1970s, Peltier learned about an ongoing dispute at the Pine Ridge reserve in South Dakota. Tensions were building as elected leader Richard Wilson created a private militia that was rumoured to have attacked politicians. When protesters attempted to impeach Wilson, the tension cumulated to the Wounded Knee Incident. Wilson’s eventual resignation did little to stop the violence at Pine Ridge. This was the climate that Peltier entered into.
Peltier was charged with killing two FBI agents at point blank range during a heated exchange of fire between AIM members and the agents. Though Peltier admits he was there at the time, he has maintained his innocence. Two AIM leaders were charged with the death of the agents before Peltier. They were both acquitted due to lack of evidence and the possibility that they were acting in self defense. If Peltier had been at the trial, he would have likely been acquitted as well.
Peltier had fled to Canada. The main evidence given at his extradition hearing was from a former ex-girlfriend who claimed to have witnessed the shooting. However, she later admitted that she didn’t know Peltier and had been pressured by the FBI. Once back in the United States, Peltier’s trial was held separately from his peers, who successfully were acquitted. During his trial, inclusive evidence was presented as fact. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences which he is still serving.
Activists and supporters are still fighting for his clemency.