From Leonard Peltier to The Holy Land Five: Free All Political Prisoners

Peltier was wrongfully convicted in 1977 for aiding and abetting the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in June 1975. (Photo: Kenny, via Wikimedia commons)

By Benay Blend

In “Palestinians are Native Americans: Time to Correct the Language of History,” Dr. Ramzy Baroud traces the historic bonds between Palestinians and Native Americans, both participants in international Indigenous struggles across the Global South. Because it has been subject to “western imperialism and Zionist settler colonialism,” Palestine serves as a clear example of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, genocide and more recently media-related hypocrisy. For this reason, it rests at the core of anti-imperialist movements around the world.

Baroud’s article could not have come at a better time. November 24, 2022 marks 14 years since The Holy Land 5 (HLF) were wrongfully arrested and imprisoned in the U.S. for the “crime” of sending food and medicine to Palestinian orphans in the Holy Land. Endorsed by Samidoun: Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, Within Our Lifetime (WOL) plans several days of action in order to bring attention to this cause.

Also in November, the American Indian Movement’s (AIM) Grand Governing Council (AIMGGC) announced an action labeled “Leonard Peltier’s Walk to Justice.” From September 1 through November 14, members and their allies, a total of approximately 2000 supporters, walked from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Washington, D.C. to meet with officials from the Senate, House, and various committees with the hope that Peltier will be set free.

Both campaigns are linked together through a shared struggle against imperialism, genocide, and settler colonialism—all aimed at displacing Indigenous people from their land. Peltier was wrongfully convicted in 1977 for aiding and abetting the murder of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in June 1975.

A member of AIM, Peltier participated in the occupation of Wounded Knee, a 71-day siege between the U.S. Marshalls Office, the FBI, Oglala Lakota tribal members and AIM.

According to Akičita Šuŋka-Wakaŋ Ska, the U.S. Department of Justice suppressed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that would have proved Peltier’s innocence, including ballistic evidence in the 1975 shootout at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. His next available hearing won’t take place until 2024, when he will be 79 years old.

It is significant that Peltier was arrested after taking part in Wounded Knee, the site of a massacre in 1890. “Clearly an act with genocidal intent,” writes historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “it is still officially considered a ‘battle’ in the annals of US military genealogy.”

When AIM arrived to occupy Wounded Knee it was responding to political violence. According to Akičita Šuŋka-Wakaŋ Ska,  the FBI had given a group entitled Guardians of The Oglala Nation (Goons) intelligence on AIM members, then ignored crimes inflicted on Native American activists who did not have the support of the FBI-backed tribal government.

“From the colonial period through the founding of the United States and continuing in the twentieth century,” writes Dunbar-Ortiz, settler-colonialism “has entailed torture, terror, sexual abuse, massacres, systematic military occupations, removals of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, forced removal of Native American children to military-like boarding schools, allotment, and a policy of termination.”

Forced removal, massacres, unlawful detention, torture—all of this and more has also been the policy of the Zionist entity. Because of its close relationship with the United States, Palestinians in this country are not safe from the Zionists’ grip.

On November 16, 2018, The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) issued a joint statement with the daughters of the Holy Land Five, and the Coalition for Civil Freedoms on the 10th anniversary of the Holy Land Five’s unjust convictions. Ten years previously, five Palestinians– Shukri Abu Baker, Ghassan Elashi, Mohammed El-Mezain, Mufid Abdulqader, and Abdulrahman Odeh—had been convicted on false charges of “providing material support for terrorism.”

What George W. Bush labeled “terrorist” was a Muslim charity that supported widows and orphans living in Occupied Palestine. Sentenced under fabricated evidence, they were given up to 65 years in prison. Right now, the word “terrorist” is being used again to justify sending arms to Ukraine in its war against Russian forces, labeled terrorists by the US government.

The label has been used to garner support for imperialist invasion since the very first war of extermination against Native people in the US. Different words were used—hostiles, savages, barbarians—but the intent remained the same. The persecution of Leonard Peltier as well as the HLF is an extension of those wars, now used against decolonial movements around the world of which they are a part.

Both are political prisoners who, along with many others, have been used as examples of what can happen to activists in national liberal movements who are caught in the government’s web. While the Zionist state continues to murder Palestinians with impunity, aided by over $3.8 billion in military aid yearly from the U.S., there are no more outright “Indian wars” in the U.S.; the battle has turned to the courts.

At the present time, there are at least five Standing Rock political prisoners who fought against an illegal pipeline running through their homelands. They see their plight as part of a “broader struggle related to collective resistance, indigenous sovereignty, land and water rights, political imprisonment, prison abolition, legal defense for radical movement work, corporate violence, settler colonialism, decolonization, and security culture.”

Indeed, the Federal Government pursued these Water Protectors using the same methods applied to target Peltier: “federal prosecution, incarceration, surveillance, attempts to divide and conquer, and snitch jacketing, as well as provide the context of the continuation of these realities toward indigenous nations that began with settler colonialism on Turtle Island 500+ years ago.”

As Samidoun has noted, specifically in their salute to Abdulrahman Odeh when he was released from prison in December 2020, the “terrorist” label has been used against multiple groups—the Black Liberation Movement, Puerto Rican Independentistas, and Indigenous activists—who fight against U.S. imperialism and settler-colonialism. By using the same tactics that have been used against Palestinians in their homeland, the U.S., Canada, the EU and UK have tried and failed to repress Palestinians in the diaspora from contributing to the struggle in their homeland.

Many Indigenous in this country, too, are in exile too, having been displaced to urban areas during the period of termination in the ‘50s. Nevertheless, it was out of this environment that AIM arose and is today still fighting for the release of Peltier.

“The bonds of shared trauma, shared resistance to settler colonialism and the enduring spirit of defending the land will keep the solidarity between Palestinians and the indigenous people of Turtle Island alive for generations,” writes Marion Kawas.  While it is true that both have endured many decades of generational trauma, they also share a spirit of resistance and resilience that has enabled their survival to this day.

“The objective of US authorities was to terminate their [Native] existence as peoples,” writes Dunbar-Ortiz. Much like Palestinians, they have struggled to “maintain fundamental values and collectivity,” using “modern forms of armed resistance of national liberation movements and what is now called terrorism.” Despite the objective of US authorities to “terminate their existence,” what Dunbar-Ortiz labels “modern genocide,” they have survived, as have Palestinians, due to their resilience and sumoud as peoples.

In 2014, Samidoun expressed solidarity with 39 years of struggle to release Peltier from prison. Connecting the campaign with global resistance to settler colonialism on Indigenous land, the statement declares it “a just struggle which is reflected as well in Palestinian resistance today, and the ongoing and unceasing resistance of Indigenous people to Canadian, US, Australian, New Zealander and other settler colonial projects.”

In “The Native American Model of Palestine’s Future,” writer/activist Steven Salaita expands upon this point.  Indeed, he sees Indigenous Americans as a blueprint for Palestinian “resistance and survival.” They are still around, despite centuries of settler-colonial genocide and displacement.  “As long as we practice anti-Zionist ethics on colonized ground,” he concludes, “we necessarily involve ourselves in the politics of Native independence, whether or not we’re aware of that involvement.”

As anti-Zionists plan actions to free The Holy Land Five, it would be good to remember that nearly 2000 people have walked from Minnesota to Washington, DC in order to demand Leonard Peltier’s release, and vice-versa, Indigenous activists might remember that Palestinians have struggled for generations to decolonize their country, too. Both movements are linked to each other as they are connected as well to liberation struggles around the world.

In a statement denouncing the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), Peltier suggested that “we must unite beyond the boundaries of race, class, belief systems, and age that all too often divide us.” Failure to overcome divisions, he warned, would mean defeat. “We need to develop a global culture that teaches us, as my ancestors did,” he continued, “to think carefully about the impact our actions and policies will have on Mother Earth, on each other, and on future generations before we act upon them. If we can do this, then surely we can win.”

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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