Peltier clemency denied: 40 years later, what does AIM mean to Native American activism?

Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement (AIM) aren't exactly models for today's Native activists – but they are still important forebears.

Joe Ledford/Kansas City Star via AP
In this April 29, 1999, file photo, American Indian activist Leonard Peltier speaks during an interview at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan.

Barack Obama spent his presidency’s final days on a spree of prison commutations, with the last round announced on Thursday. 

One name was conspicuously not among them: Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist who has served more than 40 years in prison after being convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI agents at a South Dakota reservation. Mr. Peltier, who is 72 years old and serving two consecutive life sentences, maintains his innocence.

“He looks upon it as a death sentence,” Peltier’s attorney, Martin Garbus, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “He’s terribly, terribly upset. We had understood about a week ago that he was at the top of the list to be given clemency. I don’t know what happened.”

Amnesty International, which considers Peltier a political prisoner, said it was “deeply saddened,” though former FBI agent Ed Woods, who has long campaigned against freeing Peltier, thanked the president in a statement.

“We are collectively grateful, and humbled, that you chose not to grant commutation to Leonard Peltier,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “His brutal attack and murder of two young FBI Agents and his remorseless public statements support that justice should continue as he serves the remainder of his lawful conviction and sentence.”

For many young Native American activists at places like Standing Rock, Peltier stands as an icon in a larger narrative of injustice and resistance, a symbol of the last time Native American issues came to national awareness with such force – until now. 

“At Standing Rock, there were many people with billboards, signs, and T-shirts asking for his release, so he clearly has an echo in today’s culture,” says Mr. Garbus.

But the tactics and goals of today’s activists are starkly different from those of the militant American Indian Movement (AIM), of which Peltier was a part. And his story may have informed the direction of the current movement by moving it firmly away from violence, allowing it to fuse indigenous territorial rights with environmentalism and an expressly non-violent religious revivalism – a pluralist ethos that may sustain it as climate concerns grow more acute, and widespread.

AIM was formed in the 1960s by young Natives who were frustrated with what they saw as the impotence of the existing Indian political organizations, as Lock Haven University political scientist Timothy Baylor wrote in 2008. Many of the group’s members had been raised in cities. Some were Vietnam veterans. And Peltier, like many others, had grown up in boarding schools that forcibly disconnected Native children from their families and tribal traditions, as part of assimilation-oriented government policies.

“The whole notion that they were going to be assimilated into the dominant society took them a step away from their traditions and therefore they were looking for a connection,” says Walter Fleming, the Native American studies department head at Montana State University and an enrolled member of the Kansas Kickapoo tribe.

For many young men in particular, that connection was with “warrior” culture, or what they imagined it to be, as they looked for new ways to protest the government's treatment of Native Americans.

In the early 1970s, AIM started occupying federal buildings, from Indian Affairs offices to idle military installations. In 1973, when the federal-backed tribal chairman at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota refused local pressure to step down for corruption and violence, AIM members stepped in, taking hostage the village of Wounded Knee – the site where US troops massacred tribe members some eight decades before – and prompting an armed standoff with federal authorities.

Wounded Knee became about much more than the chairman: a protest aimed at what supporters called historic and ongoing abuses of Native communities, from a court's handling of a local murder case, to reservation poverty, to violations of treaty rights. But for many, the tension and violence of the 71-day takeover came to overshadow its supposed aims. The standoff lasted two months and ended with two AIM members dead, a dozen wounded, and twelve others missing.

Some former members recall the takeover, which ended after White House representatives agreed to sit down with AIM leaders, as an important generator of pan-Native pride.

“Wounded Knee opened a lot of hearts and minds to what oppression we were suffering,” Len Foster, a Navajo AIM member who remained at Wounded Knee throughout the occupation, told Indian Country Media Network in 2014. “We were downtrodden, oppressed, made to feel ashamed. We were told to cut our long hair, not to participate in ceremonies, to become Christian and burn our medicine bundles. All the decisions we made at Wounded Knee affect our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Their tactics were strikingly different from those at the Standing Rock protest.

You’re not going to see guns or any kind of weaponry” at Standing Rock or other protests, says Rosalyn LaPier, a visiting researcher at the Harvard Divinity School who has written about Native activism.

“Today, the way [activists] are speaking about protest is: protest is prayer, protest is ceremony, protest is part of some kind of religious action,” she tells the Monitor. “At Standing Rock, they define what’s occurring there almost always in religious terms, and people view going there as a pilgrimage.”

For the “water protectors” at Standing Rock, preserving the environment is tantamount to preserving sacred sites, she adds. And as easily extracted fossil fuel resources became scarcer, scholars like Michael Klare have argued, indigenous lands may come under the lens as new sources.

“If you look forward to the future and next years, I think there’s going to be continued action [by activists] in indigenous lands,” says Dr. LaPier, “not only in places like Standing Rock, but in remote areas in the US and Canada and throughout the world.”

And this time around, those activists will find new supporters at their side.

“There is,” says Dr. Fleming, “a broader base of allies than perhaps there’d been in the past,” extending out to indigenous groups in Australia and elsewhere. “The major issues are not like they were forty years ago.”

But what happened at Wounded Knee in the 1970s, he adds, has shaped the modern movement.

The "water protectors [have] been very consciously avoiding any violence ... in confronting the militarized foe," he says. "I think that’s directly from that memory in the early seventies."

The deaths for which Peltier was convicted, of FBI agents Jack Coler and Robert Williams, came not during the standoff, but two years later, in the midst of a bloody campaign of murders and assaults by the still-in-place tribal chairman against his local foes.

The FBI says Mr. Williams and Mr. Coler entered the reservation on an unrelated case, and were shot point-blank in the head by Peltier, who then fled to Canada.

Today, Peltier acknowledges firing his weapon at the property where the killings occurred, but says he wasn’t the one who shot the agents. He describes being besieged by over 100 federal agents who made no attempt to apprehend him or the other people present. Judges on appellate panels – along with a raft of human-rights groups and prominent figures from Nelson Mandela to U2 – later raised doubts about significant improprieties by the prosecution.

“It was at a pretty violent time,” says Fleming of Montana State University, “and consequently, I think there’s a split in the Indian community about what AIM was. There are people who still strongly believe that he killed the FBI agents, or at least if he didn’t do it, he would know those people.”

“In the Indian community, lack of clemency was not a big surprise,” he says.

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