Commentary: Many layers to Leonard Peltier's case

There was a time when Lawrence, Kansas, was pretty much synonymous with global efforts to "Free Leonard Peltier."

Peltier is the imprisoned American Indian activist who has garnered worldwide support from the likes of Amnesty International, the Dalai Lama, government figureheads, celebrities and countless others of influence.

Convicted in 1977 of murdering two FBI agents in a shootout on a South Dakota Indian reservation, Peltier found support that always seemed to stem as much from acknowledgment of the historical abuses of American Indians as it did from Peltier's own issues with whether he got a fair trial.

Much of the Free Peltier effort was generated throughout the 1990s from rented office space in Lawrence.

Then Peltier was transferred from the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth to Indiana and later Pennsylvania. The move was precipitated by Leavenworth's downgrade from a maximum-security to a medium-security prison in 2005. The campaign for Peltier's release faded.

The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee never really took off again quite the way it had in Lawrence, according to the man responsible for establishing it in the college town in the first place.

Until now.

It seems that the change in the White House, an upcoming parole hearing and concern about Peltier's injuries in an attack last month in prison have sparked renewed interest.

All of this is to say, expect to begin hearing more about Peltier, 65.

Care and caution should intercede before blind trust is placed in those who view Peltier as a mythical figure. Peltier's case has grown to encompass so many causes; no one man's story could really cover it all, especially one with so many conflicting accounts.

That much, even Dave Hill acknowledges.

Hill, 65, has been a friend of Peltier since the two were young men, caught up in the 1970s struggles of the American Indian Movement and its actions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the FBI agents were killed.

Hill now lives in a cabin in rural Oklahoma, without a phone or a computer.

But on Friday, which was the 33rd anniversary of Peltier's arrest in Canada, Hill and other longtime Peltier supporters were in Denver for rallies.

Hill’s name is sprinkled throughout accounts of AIM’s involvement at Pine Ridge leading up to the execution-style murders of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams on June 26, 1975. A Native American, Joseph Killsright Stuntz, was killed that day by authorities.

Last July, Peltier contacted his Choctaw friend Hill and once again asked for his assistance. It was Hill who was responsible for moving the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee from Kansas City to Lawrence in the late 1980s.

Hill says interest in Peltier's case recently has gone from "zero to about 75 percent" of what it once garnered.

The Peltier Defense Committee now operates out of Fargo, N.D. Its Web site drew more than half a million hits as word was spread that he had been beaten by other inmates at the federal prison in Canaan, Pa.

Peltier, a member of the Anishinabe and Lakota tribes, has been transferred to another Pennsylvania prison and has recovered, according to a daughter who lives in Los Angeles. Another of Peltier's daughters lives in Lawrence.

It would be idiotic to attempt either refuting or upholding the reams of documents surrounding his case. The documentary movie "Incident at Oglala" and the book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse both are riveting retellings that focus on government intrusions in tribal affairs, Peltier's flight to Canada and the stories of others who were suspected in the agents' deaths but escaped charges or convictions.

But the blood spilled that day took the lives of three young men.

And in subsequent years, the underlying themes of the Peltier drama – the dire facts about the treatment and condition of Native Americans – have not changed: the poverty on reservations (no, casinos have not uplifted everyone), horrific suicide rates, high unemployment.

These issues, more than one man's guilt or innocence, are the reason why the saga of Leonard Peltier has not reached a conclusion.