Free Leonard Peltier

AP FILE Leonard Peltier at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. Peltier, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is how at a prison in Florida and is requesting clemency from President Joe Biden. (Joe Ledford/The Kansas City Star via AP, File)

Mark Trahant

Leonard Peltier’s name has become a story that reflects other stories. One narrative describes Peltier as America’s longest political prisoner, serving more than 46 years in a federal maximum security prison. In that telling, Peltier has become a humanitarian and a 78-year-old Turtle Mountain elder who has been incarcerated for far too long.

There is a long list of people, tribes and organizations that have called for Peltier’s freedom. The former prosecutor in the case. Members of Congress. Amnesty International USA. Pope John Francis. The Dalai Lama. The National Congress of American Indians. Dozens of tribal nations, including Peltier’s own tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. And, as of this month, the Democratic National Committee.

That’s one version. A contrary account casts Peltier as the lead character for the crimes committed by the American Indian Movement during the Wounded Knee era, including internal community violence, and he is described as a remorseless murderer.

That last story is still promoted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on its website. But Peltier is not in prison for murder. The government could not justify a murder case, so it switched gears and today Leonard Peltier is Inmate #89637-132 serving at the United States Penitentiary, Coleman, in central Florida, on charges of “aiding and abetting” the murder of federal officers, plus a seven-year sentence for an escape attempt.

Indeed Peltier has already served a longer sentence than most principals in murder convictions. There is no way to look at the evidence and come away with any conclusion other than Peltier is being punished for crimes that could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.


Kevin Sharp is a Nashville attorney, and former U.S. District Court judge, who is representing Peltier pro bono with a petition to President Joe Biden calling for clemency. That petition questions the role of the United States government saying “the FBI redoubled their efforts to secure a conviction,” including dropping other charges, so that the “weight of the Federal Government could be directed against Leonard Peltier.”

One of the problems is that even if guilty, Peltier has overserved.

“He’s overserved any sentence he should have,” Sharp said. “You got your pound of flesh. If that’s what you wanted, you got a guy who was there and you, he’s now 78 years old, and he’s got 46 years behind bars. What else do you want? Except for him to die. And we stopped talking about him that way, but that’s the worst thing that can happen because now you don’t start, stop talking about him. Now you’ve got this guy that you allowed to die in prison. It gets louder, not softer.”

Over the years the government first said Peltier shot the agents. Then later the prosecution switched the story to “we don’t know who killed the agents, but we know Leonard was there,” Sharp said.

“Okay. Congratulations. There were 40 other people there with weapons. There were lots of other people there that day. There were 150 agents there. One of them killed Joe Stuntz, a 21-year-old Native boy. We don’t know who killed him. We know it was one of the agents that they never went to figure it out. So those are the facts that we know. And if that case was tried today, there is no way it stands.”

Sharp said the Peltier’s trial would not stand scrutiny today.

“There aren’t even two sides,” he said. “We know that the witnesses were intimidated. We know that witnesses were threatened. We know that affidavits knowingly false affidavits were submitted to the courts. We know that when the trial took place and the prosecutor said, we only have this one piece of evidence, this shell casing, this ties Leonard to, to this shooting. We know now that they knew that wasn’t true. And we only learned years later after his conviction, that there had been a ballistics test that showed it wasn’t his weapon.”

In the White House petition Sharp argues that Peltier “remains a casualty of this country’s cruel and lawless war against American Indians his continued incarceration, moreover, is a constant reminder to Native communities that they are disposable in the eyes of the U.S. government and unworthy of the most basic protections afforded by our Constitution.”

It’s the failure of basic constitutional protections that power Sharp’s message: He left the federal bench because of what he saw as structural issues in the criminal justice system.

“I was forced because of mandatory minimums to sentence a young man to two life sentences,” Sharp recalled. “It was very frustrating to me because in order to become a federal judge, you’re vetted and investigated by the FBI, vetted and investigated by the White House, the Department of Justice, the Senate Judiciary committee, and they have their own investigators all for one reason … and that’s to satisfy themselves that you have the intellect and the temperament and the judgment to rule on these most important items in our country and that is dealing with somebody’s liberty.”

Sharp sent Chris Young to prison. And that crossed a line for him. So after six years as a federal judge, Sharp shifted gears and set out to defend justice. “That led me to the Trump Oval Office and working with Kim Kardashian to help free this young man. His name was Chris Young … and Chris is free today. We actually were able to secure clemency.”

Associated_Press_Domestic_News_Kansas_United_Stat_99042902236 copy

AP FILE: Leonard Peltier in 1999 at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. (AP Photo/The Kansas City Star, Joe Ledford)

It was in that context that Sharp became interested in Leonard Peltier.

He received a package from Connie Nelson, the former wife of Willie Nelson. “And I sat down with this package and it was the trial transcripts from Leonard’s trial,” he said. “It was newspaper articles, court opinions, photographs, and I just started going through it and I am sucked in.”

Sharp saw holes in the government’s story.

“It was easy for me to see what happened, the misconduct by the prosecutors, by the investigators, the rulings by the court that would never stand today because the standard of review is different. All of that was easy for me,” he said. “What then has sucked me in for years since I first opened that package is the ‘why?’”

Why are there so many constitutional violations? What was going on? What led to this point?

“It was the context. That’s what sucked me into this and has aggravated me, has, you know, made me angry, made me sad, made me confused. ‘What are we doing? And why are we here? And that’s why Leonard Peltier is so important.’ This isn’t about people with guns on Pine Ridge, you know, South Dakota on June 26th, 1975. That’s part of it. But the real story is the why. And as, as one of the courts said in one of the court opinions, the United States government needs to take responsibility for what happened there that day.”

Sharp said there is no way that Peltier’s trial would meet today’s minimum standards of justice.

In 1986 the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals found that the government had failed to disclose evidence favorable to Peltier. This is what’s known as a “Brady violation” and it’s enough to require a new trial. But in Peltier’s case the rule was ignored. The district court “held that the October 2, 1975, teletype, evaluated in the context of the entire record, would not have affected the outcome of the trial and that, therefore, Peltier was not entitled to relief.”

Or consider the story of a self-proclaimed racist juror. Three women in Fargo slipped a note to the trial judge, Paul Benson, that said they were friends with the juror and she told them that she was really prejudiced against Indians. The judge asks her about the statement. “Yep, I said it. But I told you when you were asking me questions that I would set any prejudice I had. I’d be fair.” The judge says, “Thank you very much.” And the trial continued on and Juror Number 10 voted “guilty.”

That fact alone would be enough to reverse a trial.

“If that happened today, he gets a new trial,” Sharp said. “So it’s those things that drive me crazy. When I talk about, look, I, I believe in the Constitution, those are all constitutional violations. We get a new trial.”

The government’s prosecutors changed their theory in 1985 – after Peltier’s conviction. As the prosecutor Lynn Crooks told the appeals court, “we can’t prove who shot those agents.” Thus, Peltier was not actually convicted of murder instead he’s been in prison since 1977 on “adiding and abetting” the murder of federal officers.

Another former prosecutor in the case, James Reynolds, has called for clemency. In a letter to the president, Reynolds wrote that with the benefit of hindsight “I have realized that the prosecution and continued incarceration of Mr. Peltier was and is unjust. We were not able to prove that Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation.”

One other story told about Peltier is not directly related to his aiding and abetting conviction – and that’s the tie to the Anna Mae Aquash murder investigation. The American Indian Movement at first blamed the FBI for Anna Mae Aquash’s murder in February of 1976. But later information surfaced that she was murdered by AIM because she was suspected of being an informer. Aquash’s family said Peltier was involved and was aware of her killer. Two former AIM members, Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham, were convicted of killing Aquash.

Sharp points out that Peltier has never been charged in connection with Aquash.

In a statement this week, Thalia Carroll-Cachimuel, executive director of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, said “there has been an extraordinary volume of misinformation spread regarding Leonard Peltier. Leonard Peltier’s conviction and perverse length of his incarceration are emblematic of the racist mistreatment of American Indians by law enforcement that existed throughout Indian Country for decades. If there is evidence that has never before been produced, then we encourage its unveiling if the true motive is justice. If the motive is simply to support Mr. Peltier’s unjust imprisonment, the bar must be set much higher.”

Peltier’s petition for clemency will be up to President Biden. Just this month a resolution enacted by the Democratic National Committee said the party’s platform already says the president should use clemency “to secure the release of those serving unduly long sentences.”

And, in Peltier’s case, “given the overwhelming support for clemency, the constitutional due process issues underlying Mr. Peltier’s prosecution, his status as an elderly inmate, and that he is an American Indian, who suffer from greater rates of health disparities and severe underlying health conditions, Mr. Peltier is a good candidate to be granted mercy and leniency; and … it is highly appropriate that consideration of clemency for Mr. Peltier be prioritized and expedited, so that Mr. Peltier can return to his family and live his final years among his people.”

Peltier’s petition says the time for clemency is now because his health is fading. “Leonard suffers from a variety of ailments, including kidney disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, a heart condition, bone spurs in his feet, a degenerative joint disease, constant shortness of breath and dizziness, and painful injuries to his jaw. A stroke in 1986 left Leonard virtually blind in one eye,” the clemency petition says. “Prison doctors advised Leonard that the condition required surgery, but the maximum-security prison where he is incarcerated does not have the capacity to treat the condition. Leonard’s physical condition is dire, and he cannot physically defend himself in prison, let alone threaten anyone with harm.”

North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, brought the resolution forward at the September DNC meeting. She said it started with a coordinated message from a variety of state legislators and the North Dakota Democratic–Nonpartisan League Party. That was followed by a similar call from the Native American caucus of Native American state legislators. All that built toward the DNC resolution.

Buffalo represents Fargo in the legislature, the city where Peltier’s trial originally took place. She said has heard from constituents “regardless of party affiliation” supporting clemency because of the constitutional violations.

“One thing that has kept us going is so many of us unfortunately have relatives and loved ones who are currently in the criminal justice system or who have thankfully made it out of serving time behind bars,” she said. And so Peltier’s long prison time is “something an issue that definitely hits home for many of us.”

She said Peltier should come home.

“I know there’s so many people who have been praying since the seventies for Leonard’s release,” Buffalo said. “And so we know that there’s many grandmas and elder women at Turtle Mountain who pray for Leonard on a daily basis.”

This whole case is a reflection of injustice, she said, and it must be resolved in order to heal communities. She said: “Leonard’s release is one sure way to make sure that we are on a path towards healing.”

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is ICT’s editor-at-large. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix. The Indigenous Economics Project is funded with a major grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations. 

The Doctrine of Discovery Discussion

Lakota Law

Lakota Law livestreams are back, y’all! Continuing in the tradition of “Cut to the Chase,” I’m organizing informative panels hosted by our Lakota leaders and featuring Indigenous guests from across Turtle Island and beyond. Co-produced by Indigenous Peoples Movement and Last Real Indians, “In Critical Times” streams will be available to view live or later on social media, and they take place every other Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern. This week, we had a trio of great guests join host Chase Iron Eyes for a deep dive on the Doctrine of Discovery. I encourage you to watch the whole discussion here!

A discussion on the Doctrine of Discovery

Click the pic to watch this informative discussion led by Lakota Law’s Chase Iron Eyes.

Our guest experts for this episode — Shawnee/Lenape scholar Steven Newcomb, Indigenous Peoples Movement co-founder Jen Martel, and Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council Executive Director Phil Two Eagle — really brought some fantastic perspective on the Doctrine, which forms the horrifyingly racist underpinning for the Christian colonial world’s justification for expanding into Indigenous territory.

The Doctrine, which stems from a papal bull written in the late 1400s, argued that Christian monarchies should be able to subdue non-Christian lands, at will, under divine right. The fact that this dangerous foolishness still influences public international law and Federal Indian Law should disturb every one of us. This 84-minute conversation is well worth the watch — all the way through. I think you’ll likely learn some new things and understand even more deeply why your friendship means so much to us.

Shonabish Chi — thank you for tuning in!
Earth Hadjo
Online Events Coordinator
The Lakota People’s Law Project

National Voter Registration Act Win!

Lakota Law

As we near this year’s midterm elections in November, I’m pleased to report that good things are happening that bode well for Native participation in our democracy. If you’ve been following us for a bit, you may recall that the Lakota People’s Law Project has been participating as a plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the State of South Dakota for its repeated noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, also sometimes called the “motor voter” law). A while back, we let you know we were close to a settlement that would make access to voting much easier for residents — especially Native People — in South Dakota. Today, I’m happy to announce that we’ve won! The case is officially closed, and we achieved everything we set out to do. You can check out the article in Native News Online right here.

Click above to read the story in Native News Online.

As the news story above indicates, voters all across South Dakota (but especially Native People, who have been disproportionately affected by the state’s violations of federal law) will greatly benefit from the settlement. The Federal Court found that, among other violations, South Dakota failed to automatically update voter registration addresses of voters who change their driver’s license address; refused to provide voter registration services to individuals who lack an existing driver’s license number or Social Security number; failed to forward completed voter registration applications to county election officials in a timely way; didn’t properly train state employees or conduct internal oversight sufficient to ensure NVRA compliance; and failed to ensure that driver’s license “issue sites” — common in Indian Country and other rural areas in South Dakota — provide voter registration services.

The settlement ensures that, over the next three years, South Dakota will implement policies and practices to fully comply with the NVRA. Among the key elements are a provision that the state designate a statewide NVRA coordinator to oversee compliance with the law by all relevant state agencies. It also mandates that the state develop a comprehensive NVRA curriculum to provide annual training to county election officials, employees of driver’s license offices, and public assistance agency workers on their voter registration responsibilities. Importantly to South Dakota’s Native residents, the state must also amend its voter registration application form to allow voters without a postal address to provide a description of the physical location of their residence.

Thanks to this lawsuit, over the coming years, Native People in South Dakota should be given a fair shake at election time. That will be crucial in building the change we want to see. So now, it’s time to make sure my relatives exercise their right to vote. And on that note, I’m very excited to announce that Lakota Law’s 2022 Native vote campaign is just about ready to launch! Keep an eye on your email next week, because we have a big announcement coming your way. We think you’ll be as excited about it as we are. Please stay tuned!

Wopila tanka — thank you, always, for standing up for Indigenous rights.
Wašté Win Young
Legal Analyst
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Lakota People's Law Project

Lakota People’s Law Project
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Bismarck, ND 58504-5859

Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark

The Wounded Knee Memorial and cemetery, shown here in a 2018 file photo, marks the site where more than 250 Lakota men, women and children were massacred by U.S. soldiers in 1890 in South Dakota. The memorial land was already owned by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, but the tribal council voted Sept. 7, 2022, to join with the Cheyenne River Sioux to buy the remaining 40-acre parcel of the historic landmark from a non-Native owner. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)

Mary Annette Pember

It was the last resolution of the day but it was a stunner.

The Oglala Sioux tribal council voted in an historic decision Sept. 7 to purchase 40 acres of Wounded Knee land from Jeanette Czywczynski for $500,000 – a move that now puts the entire Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark site under ownership of the Oglala Sioux.

Sold for far less than the $3.9 million price demanded by her now-deceased husband, James Czywczynski, the land now includes a covenant to preserve it as a sacred site and memorial without commercial development.


The vote passed with 15 members voting yes, three voting no and one member not voting. Those opposing the resolution expressed concern over allowing the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe 49 percent ownership of the land.

“Our tribes have come together through war and times of need. It’s not just our relatives buried there (on Wounded Knee land),” said council member Julian Spotted Bear, who supported the purchase.

According to the resolution, the Oglala Sioux tribe will pay $255,000 and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe will pay $245,000 for the site, and agree to petition the U.S. Department of the Interior to take the land into trust on behalf of both tribes. The title to the land will be held in the name of the Oglala Sioux tribe.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe made the decision to participate in the purchase about a week ago, according to Chairman Harold Frazier.

“Many of those massacred at Wounded Knee were from the Minneconjou band on Cheyenne River,” Frazier said. 

“When I heard about it, I said, ‘We have to buy it; let’s buy it. That’s our ancestors’ resting place. We need to respect them,'” he said.

The agreement ends a decades-long dispute over land that is the site of the historic Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 in which hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were killed by U.S. soldiers of the 7th cavalry using machine guns in an attempt to suppress the Ghost Dance, a Lakota religious movement. Victims were buried in a mass grave in a nearby Catholic cemetery.

American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt, second from the right, joins in a solemn moment observed before the signing of a statement ending the bloody standoff between federal forces and the AIM members at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on April 5, 1973. From left are: Russell Means, AIM leader; Kent Frizzell, U.S. assistant attorney general; Chief Tom Bad Cobb and AIM leaders Pedro Bisonette and Carter Camp. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

American Indian Movement leaders join in a solemn moment in 1973 just before the signing of a statement ending the bloody standoff between federal forces and the AIM members at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. (AP File Photo/Jim Mone)

The property, which includes a portion of the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark, has become a potent, painful reminder of brutal federal violence used to suppress Indigenous peoples.

Jeanette Czywczynski became sole owner of the property after her husband, James, died in 2019. James Czywczynski purchased the property in 1968.

The Czywczynski family operated a trading post and museum there until 1973, when American Indian Movement protesters occupied the site, destroying both the post and Czywczynski’s home.

The family moved away from the area and put the land up for sale, asking $3.9 million for the 40-acre parcel nearest the massacre site. The land, including an additional adjacent 40-acre plot, had been assessed at $14,000.

The issue of Wounded Knee ownership became a national symbol of a century of unscrupulous treatment of Native people by the U.S. government and non-Natives.

For a time, Czywczynski toyed with the idea of partnering with developers to build a motel and gas station near the site. He later offered the land to the Oglala Sioux tribe for sale but grew bitter and frustrated over negotiations.

Some tribal members wanted to develop the site for commercial purposes and some opposed such a plan, maintaining that it should be shielded from development and maintained as a sacred site.

In 2013, film star Johnny Depp announced a plan to buy the property and donate it to the Oglala Sioux tribe. Depp, who played the role of Tonto in a remake of the film, “The Lone Ranger,” was criticized for trying to capitalize on the film and for his misappropriation of Native culture. He was also criticized for making unsubstantiated claims of having Native ancestry. Depp did not follow through on the purchase.

In 2016, Lakota journalist Tim Giago, founder of Indian Country Today, announced plans to purchase the Wounded Knee land for $3.9 million and went to work fundraising the purchase price.

Giago, who grew up in the town of Wounded Knee, said he wanted to put the land into trust for the entire Sioux Nation. Giago’s plans, however, fell through. He died in July 2022 at age 88.

The Oglala Sioux tribe already owned the land containing the Wounded Knee cemetery and mass grave of the 1890 massacre victims. Red Cloud Indian School recently returned about one acre of land to the tribe where Sacred Heart Church once stood.

Leaders from  the Oglala Sioux tribe did not respond to ICT’s request for comment. ICT was unable to reach Jeannette Czywczynski.

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Oglala SiouxLand DisputeHistoric LandmarkCheyenne River SiouxWounded KneeAmerican Indian Movement

Mary Annette Pember


Mary Annette Pember

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for ICT.

Let’s Green CA! Call to Action

Lakota Law

One in six children in California’s Central Valley have asthma. It’s a clear environmental injustice, one that our sister program, Let’s Green CA!, is working hard to correct. Now, they’re on the doorstep of a big win.

Earlier this year, Let’s Green CA! partnered with legendary activist Dolores Huerta and her foundation to reduce toxic air pollution and cut greenhouse gas emissions by increasing access to clean cars. And the great news is that their clean car equity bill, SB 1230, just passed the California State Assembly; it will soon head to Governor Newsom’s desk for his signature. Today, I invite you to take a look at Let’s Green CA’s new video, which examines the human impact of toxic air pollution in California’s Central Valley, then send a message to Gov. Newsom in support of SB 1230. Newsom’s signature is the last step on SB 1230’s journey to becoming law, so it’s time to rally together and get this done!

Click the image to watch LGCA’s new video (featuring the one and only Dolores Huerta) and take action for clean air.

Toxic air pollution is making children and families sick, and the climate crisis only exacerbates this injustice. The Let’s Green CA! team understands that climate action is one of the best ways we can protect frontline communities — and all communities. So I encourage you to send your message to the governor and stand in solidarity in this fight for environmental justice today.

Wopila — my thanks for your awareness and action.
DeCora Hawk
Field Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project

P.S. I’m proud of my colleagues at Let’s Green CA! Help push their bill across the finish line by urging Governor Newsom to sign SB 1230 into law today.