Thursday, January 29, 2009

Leonard Peltier and me

Leonard Peltier and me
by Mike Palecek

My family is from South Dakota. My mother and father grew up in Winner, South Dakota, home of Frank Leahy, the famous Notre Dame coach.

They moved to Nebraska later. That's where I was born. But Nebraska is not that far from South Dakota.

I remember an uncle from Winner visiting us in Norfolk once. He's now the only surviving brother. He served in the Navy, in the Pacific, during World War II.

Once Jimmy was telling a story and as an aside said something about noticing "a dead buck in the ditch."

He didn't mean a deer. He meant an Indian.

And then he went on with his story, and we all just listened. No big deal, I guess.

As a small-town journalist in the early '90s in southeast Minnesota, I was the publisher of a tiny newspaper along with my wife, Ruth, and I assigned myself to drive to Leavenworth, Kansas, to interview Leonard Peltier.

His case was then being reviewed by the federal appeals court in Saint Paul.

I walked up the steps to the penitentiary that I had walked up just months before as a scared, chained prisoner in the rain at midnight.

I talked to Leonard, face to face, with the guard standing close by.

I then drove to Minneapolis to talk to the head of the Midwest FBI office, the same man who had just months before been the head of the Omaha FBI office and had been pursuing me as I was underground after skipping a federal court date for protesting at Offutt Air Force Base in lieu of seeking sanctuary in the Omaha Cathedral, a scheme to try to get the Omaha bishop to speak out against war, nuclear weapons, to no avail.

Okay, I sat with Nick O'Hara in the FBI office, and on the way in, on the wall, were the photos of the two agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler, who were killed at Oglala, supposedly by Leonard Peltier.

I had spent a lot of time studying about the case, read In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, knew something about the ballistics evidence, the shell casings.

I listened to O'Hara tell me point-blank eye to eye, that Peltier did it, that he was a murderer, and that the shell casings found were proof, etc.

I admit that when I left I didn't know who was telling the truth. I talked to FBI agents in Rochester, Minnesota, about eight miles from where we were living and had our newspaper in Byron.

One had been at Wounded Knee, the other in the office was the infamous David Price, but he was not in the office on the day that I visited.

And I called a Goon from Pine Ridge, and interviewed him on the phone. I think his name was David Brewer. Not sure who else I talked to, but it was everyone I could think of.

And I wrote this long, detailed article for our weekly with 1,100 circulation, along with a photo of Peltier that was too light, not the right flash or the right whatever under the enlarger in our basement darkroom.

I received a letter from O'Hara inviting me to his FBI retirement party. Is that weird or what? He had been chasing me months before. In the Omaha World-Herald that I read in a cafe while being pursued, I read that O'Hara had likened me to Charles Starkweather. WTF?

Well, I continued to pay attention, sort of. I traveled to Oglala, to the Jumping Bull Compound where the shootout occurred. I stood in the spot where the agents had died by their car. From my reading I could look around and imagine how it had happened, and where Peltier and Robideux and Butler and the others had miraculously escaped. Very cool.

[I just said "Compound." That's just what the FBI wants us to think, to say. It was a ranch, a farm, their home.]

I later ran for Congress, got the Democratic Party nomination for the U.S. House for my district. I wrote to O'Hara, now working for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension or something-something in St. Paul.

I told him that I thought he was lying, and that if I ever got to Congress I would serve with a very dim view of the FBI.

Why had I decided that he was lying? I don't really know. I guess I just decided. I guess I just decided in my heart that O'Hara was the lying murderer, and that Peltier was the hero freedom-fighter.

That's allowed.

You can just decide what you believe. That's what I did.

He wrote back saying that I had regressed, gone back to my protester-days mentality.

Thank God.

Leonard Peltier is a common man, a good old boy, of sorts, that's my impression. He is also a hero. He fought the FBI, the U.S.A. He fought for the poor, against a government that wanted to bulldoze yet another bunch of nobody's in order to get uranium to make whatever, to make yet more money.

And Peltier and the rest said, uh-huh, not gonna happen.

He puts me to shame, puts us to shame. That's what I think now.

I wonder if or when Leonard Peltier dies in prison how many of us will think "it's just another dead buck in the ditch."


Mike Palecek Lives in Sheldon, Iowa, with his family. He works at a group home. He has been a federal prisoner for peace. He met Fr. Dan Berrigan while in the Catholic seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Berrigan told him things about America and the Catholic Church that changed Mike's life. So, Mike went to jail, went crazy, went home, like that.

And Mike has worked as a reporter, editor, publisher on small-town newspapers in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota. The small newspaper Mike & Ruth owned and operated in southeast Minnesota won the Minnesota Newspaper of the Year Award from the MNA in 1994, and went out of business later that year. Mike was the Iowa Democratic Party nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000. He received 65,000 votes in a conservative district on an anti-military, anti-prison, pro-immigration platform, even after endorsing Ralph Nader over Al Gore.

One thing you might not know about Mike Palecek: He once spent an overnight in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary and did not like it.

Check out the
books Mike has authored and visit Mike's new site The New American Dream at

No comments: