The FBI war on Indian radicals

July 28, 2009

Leonard Peltier, one of the longest-serving political prisoners in the U.S., will go before a parole board July 28 for his first full hearing in 15 years, with activists across the U.S. and around the globe calling for his long-delayed release.

Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two life terms for the murder of two FBI agents in a gunfight on the Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge reservation in 1975.

One of Peltier's co-defendants was Robert Robideau, a fellow leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Robideau was acquitted along with Dino Butler in a separate trial from Peltier, but he devoted himself to winning justice for his comrade.

Robideau died February 16 this year in Barcelona, Spain, at the age of 61. Below is an unpublished interview with Robideau from 2006, conducted by Joe Allen, that describes the AIM struggle and Peltier's role in it.

COULD YOU tell us what were the issues and conditions that gave rise to the American Indian Movement?

AIM WAS born at a time when there was great civil unrest in the United States. The antiwar movement against Vietnam and the Black civil rights movements was the spark that ignited hundreds of thousands of people of all colors to rise up and voice their grievances--against the unjust war in Asia, and racism and prejudice against Black people.

Issues with treaty rights had begun anew with the fishing struggles in the Northwest, and reclamation of Indian lands was in full swing after the Native takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in 1969. This electrifying moment in time and history inspired a small group of urban tribal members to form the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis, to fight racism and police abuse against urban Indians.

The First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the relocation and termination of some tribes brought thousands of tribal Indian people into the large cities of North America. Indian people didn't find the better life that had been painted for them. They discovered racism, prejudice and abuses that were no different then what they had experienced most of their life from whites who surrounded their reservations.

AIM members defend a blockade during the occupation of Wounded Knee
AIM members defend a blockade during the occupation of Wounded Knee

Those who became members of the American Indian Movement formed roving patrols to record the police abuses that went on in their communities. They alerted the media with the hope of generating community support. They began to rally, and hold workshops and teach-ins in an effort to create community consciousness against the abuses and the general attitude of racism.

They were looking for a better life in which to raise families--and were willing to fight to have it.

TWO EVENTS are credited with putting AIM on the map: the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties and the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Can you tell us something about them?

THE TRAIL of Broken Treaties and the takeover and occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 brought AIM into the national arena of Native Indian struggles--and they also brought the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The Trail of Broken Treaties was a national effort participated in by all tribal peoples, tribal organizations and Indian activist groups to voice their grievances against the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and protest the continuation of broken treaties by the federal government. There was hope that our actions and collective voices would be heard in Washington, D.C., and around the world.

The protest march began from many cities on the West Coast and moved across the U.S., converging on the BIA in Washington, D.C. Government officials wouldn't meet with spokesmen of the Trail of Broken Treaties. In the end, the BIA building was occupied, and thousands of important documents were liberated from BIA files.

A confrontation ensued that resulted in the U.S. government paying thousands of dollars for the occupiers to leave. The documents were taken to investigate the fraud and theft--perpetuated by the U.S. government, through the BIA--of Indian lands, programs and tribal governments. This gave the federal government the excuse to set their political watchdogs, the FBI, into motion against the AIM.

The occupation of Wounded Knee was a protest against a corrupt neo-colonial tribal government, which the U.S. government had sent the FBI in to protect. Traditional and progressive Oglala people who challenged Chairman Dick Wilson's iron-fisted methods to maintain his position called in the AIM in a last-ditch effort to unseat him and remove him and the gang of thugs that became known as the "GOONs" (Guardians of the Oglala Nation).

WHY DO you think the FBI became obsessed with destroying AIM with its Counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO)?

ANOTHER RESULT from the occupation of the BIA building and the occupation of Wounded Knee was that the U.S. government looked upon AIM as a serious threat to national security, and it became evident by the actions of the FBI that AIM had been ordered destroyed.

It's clear, from AIM's standpoint, that the real threat we presented was to multinational interests in uranium, oil, natural gas and other natural resources that are accessed cheaply by the U.S. government by setting the rules and regulations under which tribal governments are allowed to exist and or perish. The BIA was created to maintain regulatory powers over tribal governments, and allow easy and cheap access for corporations who had then, and continue today, to target various profit ventures at the many natural resources they know lay under tribal lands.

The same program the FBI had used against the Black civil rights movement and other legitimate protest groups was set in motion against the AIM. COINTELPRO was designed to destroy groups from within through various disruptive methods the FBI had perfected with prior movements.

Douglas Durham became the central disruptive figure for the FBI. He successfully infiltrated AIM at its highest leadership level. The greatest damage he seemed to have done was to begin the chain of events that led to the execution of Anna Mae Aquash [an AIM activist found murdered on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1976].

The FBI set out fabricating a host of FBI reports called "302s" that describes the war readiness of AIM. These 302s falsely reported "dog soldiers"--an elite Indian group of warriors in various places, training for war--"bunkers designed to withstand frontal assaults," etc. There were no trained dog soldiers nor bunkers, nor any other preparations by AIM to engage the FBI or other law enforcement personnel.

WHERE DOES Leonard Peltier's case fit into all of this?

THE FBI began targeting members of AIM shortly after the Trail of Broken Treaties.

Leonard was one of the first to be set up when an off-duty policeman assaulted him in Milwaukee and filed "assault with intent to kill" charges against him. He was later exonerated when the girlfriend of the policeman came forward at trial to testify about the policeman's lies. Such setups were part of the FBI's COINTELPRO tactics to eliminate leaders.

Leonard became a wanted man, forced to go into hiding. He still remained active in AIM. The FBI began receiving reports of Leonard's activities and followed his movements from 1972 to the day of his arrest in Canada. It knew that he had become the leader of Northwest AIM and a central leader in providing security for Dennis Banks [a cofounder of AIM], AIM occupations and large AIM gatherings, including AIM-held sun dances at the spiritual encampment of Crow Dogs on the Rosebud reservation.

As a result of the widespread fear on the Pine Ridge reservation that resulted from a reign of terror of 300 assaults and murders from 1973 and up until the Oglala firefight on June 26, 1975, many communities requested AIM's assistance to protect them. Leonard, with his small group of mostly young men and women, set up an encampment next to White Clay Creek, on Jumping Bull property, about one mile away from a cluster of homes in which various family members lived.

There have been numerous reports uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act that clearly show the FBI kept Leonard under constant surveillance, up until the Oglala firefight. These reports show they knew Leonard was on Pine Ridge, and also had been at the Farmington AIM convention. An informant gave the FBI descriptions of those who had traveled back to the community of Oglala.

We were rag-tag AIM groups that had been asked to protect the communities on Pine Ridge, with little more than our bodies. By falsely criminalizing Leonard in Milwaukee, and criminalizing our activities in AIM, they were able to justify their attack on the Jumping Bull property that resulted in a gunfight in which two of their own died, as well as the death of Joe Stuntz.

In 1975, a large uranium deposit was discovered in the Northwestern corner of the Pine Ridge reservation. On the day of the firefight, tribe President Dick Wilson negotiated the transfer of one-eighth of the Pine Ridge reservation into federal hands. To justify their invasion of the Pine Ridge reservation, the FBI issued a number of reports stating that the Jumping Bull home was a sophisticated AIM military complex, featuring fixed defensive positions such as bunkers.

THE FBI is determined to keep Leonard in prison, despite its well-documented record of misconduct in the case. Why?

WITH THE acquittals of Dino Butler and myself on grounds of self-defense, the FBI issued a memo designed to pave the way for the manipulation of the Justice Department to convict Leonard of an "offense" that, to this day, even prosecutors say they can't prove--that they have no proof of who killed the agents, and under what circumstances they were actually killed.

Leonard's conviction and imprisonment represent another justification for the FBI's actions against the Oglala-Lakota people during this period, which were described as a "reign of terror" by two U.S. civil rights representatives--Shirley DeWitt and William Muldrow.

Despite being condemned by a host of civil rights organizations and members of the Justice Department, including Judge Gerald Heaney of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the FBI is determined to keep Leonard in prison simply because it allows them to publicly argue that they were "acting in the line of duty."

WHAT WOULD you say to younger people today about the continued importance of the Leonard Peltier case and what can they do to help win his freedom?

IT IS the youth who will carry on the struggles that will determine what the quality of life will be for themselves and future generations. To know and understand what has gone on before them is an important prerequisite for knowing what they must prepare for in the circle of life.

The Leonard Peltier case represents a clear warning of the abuses of power by the U.S. government, the Justice Department and affiliated law-enforcement institutions such as the FBI. Leonard Peltier's continued 30-year imprisonment represents the ongoing denial of his rights, but also the erosion of the rights of all. The consent of silence must not be condoned if future generations are to enjoy life's liberties.

To allow Leonard Peltier to remain in prison is to consent to your own loss of rights and protections. Not lending your voice against the injustice of the continued imprisonment of Leonard Peltier is to submit to the unjust and criminal actions committed by the FBI and officers of the U.S. Department of Justice. It is to condone and protect a government gone astray.

Programs such as the COINTELPRO and the Patriot Act, used by the federal government to criminalize legitimate political protest groups and individuals, represent a real and dangerous step toward fascism--some semblance of which existed in the 1970s--and allow the unjust imprisonment of Leonard Peltier to continue.

Further Reading

From the archives