‘We request that Mr. Peltier be immediately released’

Sen. Shendo again petitions Biden administration for AIM leader to leave prison after he caught COVID

By: - February 3, 2022 5:00 am

Mural on the side of the Albuquerque Peace and Justice Center near the University of New Mexico. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

Benny Shendo said it shouldn’t have to be this way. 

The New Mexico state senator from Jemez Pueblo doesn’t like that Native American leaders elected to public office are once again leading the charge to have Leonard Peltier released from federal prison.

“I think his liberation and clemency and release from prison would send a message that this country has come a long way to understand that perhaps we can admit that when it’s wrong,” he said.

Shendo is the chair of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. This week, he wrote a letter to President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland seeking intervention to have Peltier released from the United States Penitentiary at Coleman, Florida. 

“We’re talking about truth, and we’re talking about honesty, and we’re talking about moving this country forward,” Shendo said. “I don’t think you can move this country forward too much, at least from the Native perspective, until things are rectified.”

The situation for Peltier is dire. The 77-year-old political prisoner recently tested positive for COVID-19. He has underlying conditions as a diabetic and an abdominal aneurysm. 

“We request that Mr. Peltier be immediately released to serve the remainder of his sentence in extended home confinement or hospital care, recognizing the increased infectivity of the omicron variant among the general and incarcerated population,” Shendo wrote. 

The letter was also signed by North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo. 

“He’s not any different than our past leaders that fought for what they believed in,” Shendo said. “Whether you’re African American, Hispanic, Native, whether, you know, it’s Chief Joseph or Geronimo, or any of those prominent leaders. All they did was fight for the right to exist on their own homelands. And that’s all we’re doing.”

The struggle to release Peltier is part of a long history of Native American resistance to U.S. colonialism. 

Our incarceration rates, per capita, are the highest of any other group of people in this country. It just speaks to that.

– Sen. Benny Shendo (Jemez)

Peltier was a leader in the American Indian Movement, a liberation group fighting for the rights of Indigenous people in North America. 

In 1975, he made his way to Pine Ridge after time in Shiprock and Farmington, N.M. He was part of a group that was asked to protect people in Wounded Knee in South Dakota. AIM was at war with the tribal chairman and his militia group known as GOONs. Between 1973 and 1976, more than 60 people are believed to have been killed by GOONs, according to accounts. A former member said he was supplied with armor-piercing bullets by the FBI.

Peltier had established camp at the Jumping Bull Ranch in Pine Ridge.

FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams tailed a vehicle to Jumping Bull, saying they were looking for another man. A shootout ensued between people at the camp, the FBI and GOONs.

FBI investigators said they recovered 125 bullets from the scene that would come to be known as the Shootout at Pine Ridge. A Native American named Joseph Stuntz was also killed. 

Although the FBI reported that more than 40 people were involved in the shootout, only three people — Bob Robideau, Darrell Butler and Peltier — were charged with a crime and brought to trial. 

Robideau and Butler were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. 

Peltier wasn’t so fortunate. 

After fleeing to Canada, he was caught and extradited. His trial was rife with inconsistencies. Witnesses who claimed they saw Peltier shoot the FBI agents later recanted their statements. Forensics that pinned the weapon on him turned out to be false. Even the account from the FBI agent of the vehicle that was followed into Jumping Bull Ranch was later changed to match the description of a van Peltier regularly drove, which was also proven to be false. 

The jury in his trial was not made aware of these inconsistencies. 

In the attempt to appeal his conviction, a judge ruled: “There is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government’s case.”

Even with that opinion, the court denied Peltier a new trial. His status as a federal inmate would also be marked with the disproportionate rate of Native Americans that are incarcerated, Shendo said.

“The level of incarceration for Native people in this country is three times higher than anybody else. Our incarceration rates, per capita, are the highest of any other group of people in this country,” he said. “It just speaks to that. I think that’s our frustration.”

Since Peltier started serving time in 1977, Native Americans have called for his release. Non-Indigenous people joined the chorus, including prominent figures such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The United Nations and the European Parliament have also called for his release. 

U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all denied the numerous petitions for clemency. 

Another clemency request is sitting with the Biden administration, penned in October by 24 state lawmakers from across the country. Four New Mexico elected officials signed the letter: Rep. Derrick Lente, Rep. Georgene Louis, Sen. Brenda McKenna and Sen. Shendo. 

Shendo said they have not received a response from the Biden administration.

“We’re suffering even to this day. Look at our land bases. Look at our languages. Look at our schools. Look at our health care. I mean, you know, this government made a lot of promises and still haven’t lived up to that. And we’re fighting every day.”


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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.