Felons, like Leonard Peltier, surrender certain rights by virtue of their convictions, as here with double first degree murder and aiding and abetting. Included among those forfeited rights are voting and jury service, being barred from obtaining, receiving, transporting or possessing any firearm or ammunition, serving in the Armed Forces, obtaining certain federal licenses, federal employment and certain benefits. Voting restrictions, however, vary from state to state.
It’s doubtful, though, whether Peltier cares about voting since he does not consider himself an American citizen.[i] Peltier possessing a firearm is another matter altogether.
A right that a convicted felon does not forfeit is established within the Bill of Rights: the First Amendment, which generally guarantees the right of free assembly and speech.
There are limitations on free speech, of course, that include concepts like fighting words, inciting illegal action or panic (like yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater), obscenity, slander, and libel, among others.
Much depends on the venue one chooses to express certain ideas and speech and arguably the most widely recognized forum today is the Internet.
Publishing ones thoughts, words and statements on an Internet website amounts to offering those statements for a response in the court of public opinion. That action establishes the First Amendment right of anyone reading those statements to comment and respond on its validity, accuracy and truthfulness. That right of free speech is not a one-way country back road but a multi-lane superhighway. If one chooses to make public statements in such a manner, he must accept the concurrent responsibility to defend those statements and rise to the occasion when challenged. It’s really quite simple, it just goes with the territory. That certainly applies to those who challenge as well.
Peltier maintains the right to free speech, however, has added one more critical element to that equation. He has consistently promoted himself as a public figure, trying to garner both sympathy and financial support by thrusting himself to the forefront of a particular controversy in order to influence a resolution and affect public opinion of himself. The legal standard for libel of a public figure is much higher than for the average citizen. For example, Peltier has proclaimed, “My autobiography is the story of my people.” [ii] That alone places him in the public arena.
What if some concerned person or association was to call Peltier a coward?
Standing on its own would that amount to slander or libel, or just an opinion? Asked another way, can someone even slander, defame, or libel a convicted double murderer? Yet another way: can someone slander a convicted double murderer without making knowingly false statements of fact? Or, can someone slander or libel a double convicted murderer by providing the truth from public documents and Peltier himself?
Was Peltier a coward during his brief involvement with the American Indian Movement or during any other time in his life? With Peltier, his actions speak louder than his words.
Would it be cowardly (as suspected by AIM that Anna Mae Aquash was a government informant), for Peltier—on orders from AIM hierarchy, to put a gun in her mouth to make her confess? Imagine how she felt during those terrifying moments. Peltier glaring into her frightened eyes, putting the filthy barrel of a gun into her throat, accusing her of betraying AIM. Imagine the panic and horror she must have felt. (She didn’t confess because there was nothing to confess to; she wasn’t, but that mattered little, because as everyone knows, she was kidnapped, murdered and her lifeless body dumped in a ravine.) [iii]
Would doing that to a young woman and mother make Peltier a coward?
Hold that thought for a moment.
What about Peltier’s respect for women in general?
"When I was younger," Leonard says, "I thought it was a lot of fun running around like that, shaking off all those wives. Now I'm older, I realize I hurt a lot of those women, and I feel very bad about it, I really do. I think about them all the time now, especially the ones that had my kids.[iv] Now that the fun is over, at least he supposedly “thinks” about it.
On June 26, 1975 Peltier tells us he acted bravely that day, as a warrior he claims, saving women and children, but, and here again we can rely on Peltier’s own public proclamations, namely in the Redford film, Incident at Oglala.[v]
“And I heard crying and everything. We gotta get those women and children out of that place, man. Cause there were babies there. There was a…I thought the old folks were there. I said we gotta get those people out of there man, what the hell is going on.”
(Sounds good, but there were no babies as Peltier claims, some children yes, like Angie Long Visitor, with her husband and two children who made their way from Jumping Bull to Highway 18.[vi])
But for all Petlier’s feigned bravado on film, let’s dig a little deeper and uncover a compelling little detail. More publically available facts to consider:
Meanwhile, Nilak (Butler) and the children were making their way back up the creek. “We hooked up with the guys about that point—we were just crossing this little river, going across this bog, and I lost my moccasins…And we got growled out because they said, We didn’t know where you guys were, and we were worried about you.” [vii]
A brave woman, with children, making her way to escape the carnage of two murdered Agents, and where is Peltier and the other brave warriors? Hightailing it to the hills as fast as he could leaving at least Nilak and her children and Angie Long Visitor and her children to fend for themselves.
A responsible and decent person would consider that a cowardly act. Since it was Peltier who started the shooting and as a result placed all the others in jeopardy, bravado aside, he was only worried about one person. Himself.
But hold that thought for a moment.
Going back to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Jumping Bull property, June 26, 1975, one of the participants in the attack on the agents, Norman Brown:
“From the green house in the compound, looking downhill to the west, Norman Brown saw two cars and two white men well over a hundred yards away; a gold and white car was parked behind a green one, both aimed in the general direction of the camp. The trunk of the gold-white car was open, and its driver was behind it, a rifle or shotgun at his shoulder; the other man, using a handgun was crouching and shooting next to the green car. Brown recalls seeing Leonard Peltier lying down by a row of junked cars near the woods, rising up to fire, lying prone again.” [viii]
Pinning down two Agents in an open field, firing down upon them with rifles until they are wounded and can’t defend themselves is pretty much what a civilized person would consider a cowardly act by Peltier and all the AIM members involved.
On November 14, 1975, while the fugitives from Jumping Bull were making their way north, Peltier was travelling in a motor home when stopped by an Oregon State Trooper. The individual in the front passenger seat, later identified as Peltier, was ordered to the ground. A shot was fired and distracted the trooper as Peltier “…sprang up and took off on the run toward the right-of-way fence along the highway” escaping into the woods, but not before the trooper swung his shotgun, fired, wounding Peltier in the shoulder. Peltier eventually made it to Canada.
Under the seat where Peltier sat in the motor home was a paper bag. Inside the paper bag was Agent Coler’s revolver. Found on the bag was a latent thumbprint of Leonard Peltier. This was part of the government’s strong circumstantial evidence connecting Peltier to Jumping Bull and the brutal slaying of Agents’ Coler and Williams, as well as evidence of his guilt and flight from justice.[ix]
Also travelling in the motor home was AIM leader Dennis Banks, Anna Mae Aquash, a pregnant Kamook (Darlene) Nichols, and Nichols’ little girl, Tasina Wanblee.[x]
It’s important to note that during their flight north, Peltier confessed to the murders of Coler and Williams, punctuating it by holding up his hand in a defensive gesture stating, “The M….. F…. was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.” This was very dangerous knowledge for the already suspected and threatened Anna Mae to learn, and in 2004, at the trial of Arlo Looking Cloud for the murder of Anna Mae, Nichols testified under oath about Peltier’s admission.[xi]
It’s more than reasonable to believe that any decent and honest person would disagree that shooting two severely wounded human beings in the face at point-blank range with a high powered rifle makes Peltier a coward. [xii]
Back to the motor home:
So Peltier is nearly caught, lying on the ground while two women, one pregnant, and a child are again placed in jeopardy because of his actions. And what does he do? What he does best: he got up, concerned only about himself, and ran away like a frightened little girl.
No brave warrior here. None of that “…we gotta get those people out of here, man.”
Everyone is invited to add up all that Peltier has said about his own contrived bravery and compare it to his actions. Most reasonable people, considering the actual facts, not the folklore, would see his actions as cowardly. And they would be right.
There is more, but we’ll leave it here for the moment, except to comment that a recent Native American publication contained an article about various gatherings on February 6th to recognize Peltier’s forty-year incarceration and demands for clemency. By most accounts the gatherings were small; there certainly weren’t thousands attending. What was notable, however, as it rehashed some Peltier myths: it never mentioned that he was allegedly innocent. That was likely not an inadvertent oversight.[xiii]
* * *
The clock and clemency:
Peltier is painfully aware that the clock is ticking and will stop dead sometime around noon on January 20th. Parole is a distant hope; his next parole hearing is eight years away, leaving clemency or commutation as the last resort.[xiv]
The President likely would care less whether Peltier is or was a coward. The President has made it clear that his clemency efforts are directed toward long sentences for minor drug offenses and exclude crimes of violence. And that leaves Peltier out in the cold.
Clemency is no more viable than parole and Peltier will continue to serve the remainder of his consecutive life sentences for the brutal slaying of Jack Coler and Ron Williams. The myth and folklore surrounding Peltier are irrelevant, but the facts his supporters conveniently ignore, most certainly are.
“In the Spirit of Coler and Williams”
[i] Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance, (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999) 63. “I would like to say with all sincerity—and with no disrespect—that I don’t consider myself and American citizen.”
[ii] Peltier, 43
[iv] Peter Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse; The story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s war on the American Indian Movement. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) 533.
[v] Incident at Oglala, The Leonard Peltier Story, (Carolco films 1988), Miramax Films release, 1992
[vi] http://noparolepeltier.com/debate.html#critical; http://noparolepeltier.com/debate.html#13; see both re
Angie Long Visitor.
[vii] Matthiessen, 161
[viii] Matthiessen, 156
[ix] http://noparolepeltier.com/585.html 8th Circuit Court decision: 2.Ontario, Oregon, A. Evidence of flight: “We hold that there was a sufficient number of such evidentiary manifestations to make evidence of flight and of resistance to arrest highly probative of consciousness of guilt, and hence guilt itself in this instance. First, Peltier fled the scene of the crime immediately after its commission. His actions in Oregon were a continuation of that immediate flight. Second, the motor home and station wagon were travelling arsenals linked by communication devices and code words designed for avoidance of arrest was significant of Peltier’s state of mind. Finally, and most important, evidence linking Peltier to the murders was discovered upon a search of the vehicle from which he fled. The presence in the motor home of Agent Coler’s revolver, in a bag having Peltier’s thumbprint on it, was one of the key pieces of evidence against Peltier.” (Emphasis added)
[x] Matthiessen, 249-251
[xi] http://www.noparolepeltier.com/usapressrelease.pdf U.S. Department of Justice press release 8/21/09
Indian Country Today Newsletter, March 2, 2016, page 8 (last accessed 3/4/16)
[xiv] http://noparolepeltier.com/debate.html#paroledenied 2009 Lewisburg parole hearing.