In 1977, American Indian Movement member Leonard Peltier was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents, and has remained a political prisoner of the US ever since. Peltier’s conviction has long been contested by activists and legal experts. Despite the recantation of three key witnesses, his case has never been brought back to trial. Peltier has been eligible for parole since 1992, and the federal government has ignored calls to free him for more than 30 years. Rachel Dionne Thunder joins Rattling the Bars to discuss Peltier’s case and the radical vision of the American Indian Movement which the federal government has sought to repress through Peltier’s incarceration.

Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Mansa Musa:

Rachel Thunder, her name speaks for itself, was reared in the spirit of the American Indian Movement and active in freeing Leonard Peltier, the longest held political prisoner. Welcome to Rattling the Bars, Rachel.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Hi. Thanks for having me.

Mansa Musa:

Tell our audience a little bit about yourself, Rachel.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

So my name is Rachel Dionne Thunder. I currently live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I come from an AIM family, that’s the American Indian Movement, which is a Civil Rights movement for American Indian people that started here in Minneapolis in 1968. I’m also one of the co-founders and board members of our organization here called the Indigenous Protector Movement.

And so, growing up as a girl, as a little girl in AIM, I always heard stories of Leonard Peltier and those founding members of the American Indian Movement, and the injustices that they fought during the Civil Rights era in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And so, our work today is carrying that on, but also not forgetting our now elder, Leonard Peltier, who is the longest-held indigenous political prisoner. He’s been held for nearly five decades at this point.

Mansa Musa:

We’re talking about people whose nation, these are nations that’s asking for… The thing with Leonard Peltier is because of, like you said earlier, the Civil Rights. But it’s more about the human rights of a people who are claiming nationhood and the right to self-determination and the right to govern themselves. And it’s because of this that we find a situation with Lewis Peltier. But not only with him, but other indigenous people that have came and gone. And so, let’s talk about, as you spoke earlier, about AIM. Now, we recognize that, and it came out, I think the birth is in the Minneapolis, if I’m not mistaken.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Yeah. In 1968.

Mansa Musa:

1968. We know that during that period, a series of events took place that led up to AIM being organized into an entity. We had all the tribes, various tribes come to Washington during the Nixon administration to try to get treaties that was signed, giving back properties, getting out the way of indigenous people from having their own nation. That they came to Washington with the sole and purpose of educating the populace about what was going on on the reservations, and then the different parts of the country where indigenous people was populated.

As a result of that, that put them on the radar, because they took over the Bureau of Prisons… Not the Bureau of prisons, but it took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs because they came to Washington with the understanding that they was going to be, that this was an opportunity for the federal government to acknowledge what they doing, and to pave the way for the various nations to come together and get their own autonomy.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Right, and you’re speaking on what was the Trail of Broken Treaties.

Mansa Musa:

The Trail of Broken Treaties, right. Go ahead, talk about that.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Which, that was a caravan that took place, where thousands of individuals went to Washington D.C. with 21 points to honor, what you were saying, our sovereign indigenous rights as sovereign nations existing here in what we call Turtle Island, which is effectively the United States and Canada. And so, as a sovereign nation, we exist separate from the United States government and the Canadian government. We are effectively our own countries, our own nations, and there are treaties that were signed with the United States government and with the Crown, actually, it’s not the Canadian government. And every single one of those treaties that were signed, which is over 570 in the United States alone, have been broken.

And in those treaties, you can find things all the way from land ownership, to hunting and fishing rights, to the rights to be able to supply our own food, our healthcare, our education. And so, all of these points in these treaties were broken, and so that was the point of the Trail of Broken Treaties was to raise awareness to that effect and to bring that issue to Washington.

And once they arrived, they found that they were not going to be hosted the way that they were originally planned to be.

Mansa Musa:

[inaudible 00:05:26]

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Yep. And so, that was when the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs occurred in Washington D.C.

Mansa Musa:

And we want to acknowledge that when things was articulated about what that actually happened, actually the distortion was that it didn’t have nothing to do with all the aforementioned things. It had something to do with savages coming to District of Columbia, taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But the recognition is that no, this was an organized activity designed around and not getting an acknowledgement of certain treaties that was around it.

But as we move forward, out of this came what we know as the American Indian Movement, because that’s when it became, the organization structure started to take shape. And it’s at this juncture, and I remember it distinctly because I was incarcerated, and I was involved with a collective that was the Black Panthers, and the black Panther papers always keep us abreast of what was going on with different movements during that period. And this was one that was being highlighted, because not only did they do that, they had took over… It was a series of events that took place. They took over the island where the prison was at.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Alcatraz.

Mansa Musa:

They took over Alcatraz, and they started policing. They started providing security for the various reservations where the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their proxies was terrorizing the community. Talk about, like you say, you are a child of AIM. Talk about your views on those things as you know them to be today.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

So the way that I was told is that the American Indian Movement was born in the prison system. Our people are incarcerated at some of the highest statistical numbers. And so what we saw during that time and what we were told is that there was a renewal, a rebirth of our traditional spiritual practices in the prison system. Our men were able to return to the sweat lodge, they were able to return to the drum, and once they had received that traditional healing in the prison system, they came back out on the streets and they brought that back to the people.

And so, Clyde Belcourt, Eddie Benton-Benet, Russell Means, Dennis Banks. These are all co-founders of the American Indian Movement. And here in Minneapolis, police brutality against our people was at a high. And so when they came out of the prisons, they enacted AIM Patrol, which was protecting our people from the Minneapolis Police Department. And that hasn’t gotten too much better today, but that’s a different podcast.

Mansa Musa:

Right, right.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

But specifically in South Dakota, to kind of flip things towards Leonard Peltier, Wounded Knee, the occupation of Wounded Knee happened in 1973. And so, that was led by the American Indian Movement in an attempt to bring attention and awareness to protect the traditional people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that were being attacked, that were being assaulted, that were being murdered by the FBI and non-traditional natives and a corrupt tribal council that had been effectively bought out by the FBI.

So, the occupation of Wounded Knee began a period of time known as the Reign of Terror. So in 1973, it was a three-year period of time known as the Reign of Terror that was led by corrupt tribal chairman, Dick Wilson, the Goon Squad, which is the guardians of the Oglala Nation, and the FBI. And so, what you had during this three-year period of time was intensive local surveillance, repeated arrests, harassments, 64 local murders of natives there on the reservation, and over 350 serious assaults during that time. So you have to understand that context, that atmosphere of violence at that time.

Mansa Musa:

That’s right.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

That the traditional people were experiencing. And so, what happened was they called AIM. They called AIM here in Minneapolis, and they asked for help. They asked for protection. And so, responding to that call were warriors that went there to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to protect their traditional people, so that they wouldn’t be murdered, so they wouldn’t be assaulted.

And so, one of those individuals that responded to that call was Leonard Peltier, that went there to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to protect the people. And ultimately, almost three years later, after the occupation of Wounded Knee, we have what’s known as the Incident, the shootout at the Jumping Bull Camp, which happened in June of 1975.

And so in June of 1975, there was a camp set up of AIM members and traditional people, mostly women and children at the Jumping Bull Residence on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and some of the AIM members who were there setting up camp as well. And on June 26th, two unmarked cars, which were later found to be two FBI agents in civilian clothes, but two unmarked cars followed a van into the complex, and what ensued afterwards was a shootout. And you have to remember the violence that was happening there on the reservation.

Mansa Musa:

Right, right. [inaudible 00:11:58]

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Yep. So a shootout happened, and at the end of that shootout, both agents, later to find out agents, were dead. And one Native American man, Joe Stuntz, whose death has never been investigated, and no one has ever been charged with his murder. But two FBI agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, were both dead at the end of the shootout.

What ensued after that was a manhunt to seek justice for these two FBI agents that have been shot, and for the FBI to make an example out of native people, saying that if you resist, if you stand up, if you don’t go along with this strong arm of the United States government, if you stand on your traditional values and your traditional ways, this is what will happen to you.

Mansa Musa:

Right. And Rachel, we recognize that the Reign of Terror, but right there, they had the lackeys that was from the Bureau of Prison, the lackeys that were responsible for suppressing anybody on the reservation, anybody, any indigenous person, to suppress or repress their, any desire they had to have any type of self-determination. That they was primarily there, when they was trying to get him out, when they was trying to get the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the representative is trying to get him out. This whole thing, FBI, the military came to prop him up, or to solidify their reign, in terms of terrorizing people. But talk about how they wind up identifying Leonard Peltier as being involved in these agents being killed.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

So what ended up happening, so these two agents were originally going in, apparently, to serve a warrant for a pair of stolen cowboy boots.

Mansa Musa:

Two agents for a pair of cowboy boots?

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Yeah, two FBI agents.

Mansa Musa:

Two FBI agents. Right. Okay.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

For a pair of stolen cowboy boots. They were serving a warrant for a man named Jimmy Eagle, and they were following a van in that reportedly had been known to be Jimmy Eagle’s van.

But what ended up happening was, there were arrests made at the end. And so there were three arrests made. There were Bob Robideau, Dino Butler, and Leonard Peltier. But Leonard Peltier was not arrested until later. First it was Bob Robideau and Dino Butler were both arrested, and they were tried in Cedar Rapids, and they were both found not guilty and acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. And then later, Leonard Peltier was arrested in Canada.

But the way that Leonard Peltier was linked to this case is that, on the Kansas Turnpike outside of Wichita, in Wichita Kansas, there was a van that exploded on the turnpike, and magically in this van that exploded… This is a separate date later on, there was an AR-15 found in the van, there was Agent Coler’s .308 rifle found in the van, and some homemade explosives.

And from this van that magically appeared in Wichita, Kansas on the turnpike, they determined that the AR, that specific AR-15 was Leonard Peltier’s AR-15, and that AR-15 was the one used to kill the agents, even though there were multiple AR-15 there at the shootout that day, and to say whose was whose…

Mansa Musa:

Right. Exactly.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

And so…

Mansa Musa:

Go ahead. Go ahead.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Part of the belief that Leonard Peltier was specifically targeted was because of his leadership in the movement, in the American Indian Movement. Because during that time, even outside of Pine Ridge, outside of Wounded Knee, when you look at all of these strategic calls to justice that the movement was doing at the time. You mentioned them, the BIA takeover, the takeover of Alcatraz, standing up against the system. There was a nationwide manhunt for leaders in the American Indian Movement and heavy, heavy COINTELPRO happening in the movement too, to cause division. And so anytime there was an opportunity to place any of the leadership in a situation that could be used against them, it would be used. And so, in this instance, that was the case for Leonard.

Mansa Musa:

And I wanted to bring that point home about COINTELPRO, this is just my philosophy, right? If COINTELPRO is involved in your case, then you ain’t get a fair trial, because their whole design is, this is what their design is, to manufacture evidence, to coerce witnesses, to outright lie, to isolate the individuals, to attack their support base, and at the end, to get a conviction, which is not going to be hard to get under those circumstances. Because like in Peltier’s case, they claim that someone that was supposed to have knowledge of the incident was around when it happened. Later we can say, well, they was coerced. And then when we can say they was coerced, the state and the system say, oh, well, they suffer from some type of mental illness.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

You’re speaking about Myrtle Bear.

Mansa Musa:

If your word can’t be taken on your recantation, how can your… Because of your mental state, if I recant, you’re saying I can’t be trustworthy on my recant because of my mental health, but yet my initial statement has validity? That in and of itself is suspect. But talk about why you think, and you hit on a little bit, why you think they’re so adamant about holding Leonard Peltier, even in the face of overwhelming evidence and information that he was set up by the FBI because of his political involvement with AIM.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

I wanted to touch a little bit on what you just said too, because Myrtle Poor Bear signed, there was two affidavits that were based off of Myrtle Poor Bear’s testimony that was used to extradite Peltier from Canada to begin with. So he should have never even left Canada after he was arrested, to even be brought to the United States to have a trial. He should have stayed in Canada, because the affidavits were based off, of course, testimonies.

But in the big picture of what you’re speaking on, because our people, as indigenous people of Turtle Island, let’s just go ahead and throw South America into indigenous people of North and South America. We have been resisting and fighting colonization and the colonial governments of the United States and Canada and South America for over 530 years, since they first stepped foot here on these lands. And in that genocidal war that we have been in for over 530 years, their genocidal tactics have only shifted faces. Hundreds of years ago… Well, actually less than a hundred years ago, in some instances, they could just outright massacre our people.

And today, because of political environment, they can’t just outright massacre our people, but they can massacre us in other ways. They can massacre us through the justice system. They can massacre our people by not fighting the drugs and alcohol that are plaguing our communities. They can massacre our people by making sure that we don’t have access to healthcare or to education.

There’s different tactics that genocide follows over years. And Leonard Peltier is a piece of that. They’re saying, if you resist our colonial government systems, if you resist colonizing your traditional ways, and you want to stay traditional, and you want to continue to fight the system, this is what will happen to you. And it doesn’t matter if you did it or if you didn’t do it, we’re going to make it look like you did it.

Mansa Musa:

Right. And that’s where I wanted really to emphasize the point, because I said earlier, reparations, if you were saying that you was interned as a Japanese during World War II and you want to be compensated for that, that’s a behavior and an act that was inflicted on you as a citizen of this country. That was an act that was inflicted on you when you was brought to this country as a slave.

But the issue, and I really want to emphasize this issue for our audience, the issue of indigenous people is, this is our land. You on our property. You signed treaties to say that we have the right to sovereignty, to autonomy. And when we seek to exercise that, because now you find out that where we are at is on mineral-rich soil, or where we are at is more important for corporate America or capitalism and imperialism. Now you going to say that, well, we don’t want to give you independence. We want to acclimate you and become an American, and through that process, ignore your rights to have your own autonomy.

And this is why I think that I was asking about why Peltier, because it stands to reason, to be held that long under the most dubious circumstance. Even like Geronimo Pratt. It was obvious he was innocent. It was obvious that they spent all that time to hold onto that fabrication. But at some point, it unraveled. But with Peltier’s case, even in the face of the evidence saying that he’s innocent, even in the face of the evidence saying that he’s being held captive because of his stance on his right to be treated, have a right to self-determination, that that right there seemed like to be, like for the United States of America, a line in the sand. It ain’t even asking him, like to renounce status. They saying, we just going to let you die a dead of a thousand cuts. Do you get that same impression?

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Yeah, no, I do. I was just sitting here listening to what you were saying, and it made me think about just how unfair his trial was. I don’t think we’ve really touched on his trial.

Mansa Musa:

Come on, talk about it.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Because Bob Robideau and Dino Butler were both tried in Cedar Rapids, right? So we touched on that Leonard was extradited from Canada. So he had a separate trial in a separate location. He was brought to Fargo, North Dakota, so he was not tried in the same location as Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, where they were found not guilty on self-defense.

So he was in Fargo, North Dakota. He was with a different judge. All of the evidence and testimonies from Dino and Bob’s trial were not allowed to be in Leonard’s trial. It was found inadmissible. There were coerced testimonies. There was evidence tampering, with the whole AR-Fifteen and the van that exploded in Wichita, Kansas. At the end of his trial, the jury only deliberated for six hours, and at the end of his trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. And so, what he was found guilty of was murder at that time.

Later on… Later, we’re talking decades later, in the year 2000, with the Freedom of Information Act, a lot of information came out about the injustices in his trial. It was proven. And so, through that, his sentencing or his charges actually changed to… They changed it. They changed it to aiding and abetting the murder of Ronald Williams and Jack Coler. But that’s an interesting point in itself, because Bob Robideau and Dino Butler were both acquitted and found not guilty. So who is he aiding and abetting? Himself? Can you aid and abet yourself?

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, aid and abetting. I’m aiding and abetting you in self-defense. You are defending yourself, so I’m aiding and abetting, I’m helping you defend yourself. I’m helping you defend yourself. I’m not doing nothing to the person that’s trying to do something to you. I’m aiding and abetting you in defending. That’s the illogic of this whole thing.

But talk about where we at right now in terms of, because I told you earlier when we came on, how important it is for Real News and Rattling the Bar, how important it is for us to be able to get this information out there and beat this drum constantly about Leonard Peltier there. We don’t want to be in a position where we’re eulogizing our freedom fighters, we’re eulogizing our comrades, because now we holding them up in high esteem because of what they stood for. We want to be able to say that we fought the fight to the end, and no matter what, that’s our position. He’s innocent. He should be let home. So talk about where we at right now with his case and if you have knowledge of it.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

Yeah, I actually, I just talked to Kevin Sharp yesterday. So Kevin Sharp is Leonard Peltier’s lawyer that’s in charge of overseeing his parole hearing that’s coming up, passionate release and clemency petitions. So those are the three paths that Leonard Peltier currently has to being released. And so, I can kind of touch a little bit on each one of those.

Peltier first came eligible for parole in 1993, and so he’s eligible, but on all of those hearings, he was denied parole, obviously. But he is eligible for parole now again this year. So there is that avenue. There is the compassionate release avenue, which there has been three compassionate release petitions filed for Leonard Peltier over the years. There’s a fourth currently being pushed through the system. And then the third opportunity for freedom, it would be clemency through the Biden administration. So those are the three possibilities right now.

And then, in reality, we have to be very real about the situation. Leonard Peltier is 79 years old. He’s going to be 80 years old in September. He has type two diabetes. He has an abdominal aortic aneurysm that is fatal if it ruptures. He’s lost 80% of vision in one of his eyes from a stroke. And what Kevin was telling me yesterday is that he has lost most of his vision now, at this point, and that’s a mixture between cataracts, glaucoma, and his diabetes affecting his eyesight. So if one of these three avenues, the clemency, the parole or the compassionate release, don’t happen, and they don’t happen soon, we will be in a situation where it’s too late and Leonard Peltier will have died in prison.

And in recent years, there has been a really strong push for Peltier. In 2022, myself, I led, along with other members in the American Indian Movement, we led a walk, where we walked from Minneapolis to Washington D.C. It took two and a half months. It was 1,103 miles, and we had rallies along the way. We had rallies in Madison and Chicago and Cleveland, Toledo, Pittsburgh. And we had a rally in D.C. where we met with senators and representatives there to advocate for the release of Peltier.

Just this previous year, there was a caravan from South Dakota to Washington D.C., where it ended in a large rally in front of the White House, where several arrests were made. Several of our people were arrested there, protesting in front of the White House. And we have a lot of support through the National Congress of American Indians, through the Senate, through the House of Reps for clemency, for compassionate release for Leonard.

And so, all of this energy and culmination of history and sacrifice of people and work of people over the decades for Peltier is really coming to this head point now, that if something doesn’t happen now, it won’t happen. And there’s, in several speeches and several times during the walks, during the caravans, during the meetings with representatives, we have made it very clear that they don’t want Leonard Peltier to die in prison. If they want to keep relations with indigenous people and native people in our communities somewhat positive, then they need to let Leonard Peltier go.

Mansa Musa:

Right. And as we close out, tell us about your organization, how we can get in touch with you, and how people can stay abreast of what’s going on now with your organization, with upcoming events around Leonard Peltier.

Rachel Dionne Thunder:

I would say that there are two organizations to follow. One would be our organization, the Indigenous Protector Movement, and we are on all social media handles, and NDN Collective, and that’s the letters N, D and N Collective. They’re based out of South Dakota. They work a lot with Kevin Sharp, working towards the freedom of Leonard Peltier. And so, both of our organizations are heavily involved. We’ll share updates.

And I would say that the biggest ask that anybody could do would be to call your senator, call your local representative, and say that you support the release of Leonard Peltier and that you want their elected official to do the same. Because a lot of this is a political game at this point.

And I’ll just kind of wrap up by saying that, through these stories that I’ve heard growing up of Leonard, of carrying on this fight for Leonard in my life and seeing it come to this point, that by holding Leonard, they’re holding a piece of all of us as indigenous people. That until Leonard is free, none of us are free. And if they can do it to him, they can do it to any of us. And I don’t mean only native people, anybody that resists the long hand of the United States government.

Mansa Musa:

Right. Turtle Island. And thank you, Rachel, for coming in and rattling the bars. You definitely rattle the bars in the spirit of indigenous people, like you say, warriors fighting for the rights that they not asking for. I’m not asking you to acknowledge my rights. I’m asking you to get out of my way while I exercise my right to my freedoms. I’m not asking you to give me nothing. I’m asking you to get out of my way as I go forward and live my life as my ancestors lived their lives. I’m not asking you for no monies. I’m asking you to get off my land so I can cultivate the land and produce the necessary minerals and resources to feed my people and strengthen my people.

And I agree with you. Peltier is all of us, or Angela Davis say, they come for you in the morning, they’ll come for us at night. Well, as long as Peltier remains captive, all of us is captive, and we need to really step forward and let people know. And we encouraging our listeners and our viewers to really look at what Rachel Thunder is saying about indigenous people, and really listen to what she’s saying about Leonard Peltier and the fact that according to this country, you have a freedom of speech and a freedom of thought, but it’s only if you not indigenous or a person of color, do these rights get acknowledged. Thank you for coming in, Rachel. Thank you for rattling the bars with me today.

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