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Tony Hillerman – a Case of Cultural Appreciation

A classic comes back: Tony Hillerman's Navajo crime novels published by the Swiss Unionsverlag. A white author writing about people on an Indian reservation - is that still acceptable today? In response, a look at the online offerings of the most successful series: DARK WINDS has been running in the U.S. since June, and the series will be launched in German as WIND DES BÖSEN on September 12. The series is based on the novels by Tony Hillerman. Never before has a US film production had such a strong line-up of indigenous participants. Claus Biegert on Tony Hillerman.

Leavenworth, Kansas 1997

The Long Story of Native American Political Prisoner Leonard Peltier – Behind Bars Since 1976

By Claus Biegert

Music: Rabbis Dance Song by Floyd Red Crow Westerman /David Amram


That Monday marked the beginning of a week of anxiety. It was January 16,  2017. In four days, Barak Obama would hand over the presidency to Donald Trump. When our daughter Tara came home from school, her first question was about Leonard Peltier.

Tara was familiar with Leonard’s story. In the years before she started school, I organized a charity auction for Leonard, always in the first week of December, at Ferretti Gallery, on the Isar River near the Deutsches Museum.

“Where are you going, Papa?”

“We’re raising money for an Indian man in prison.”

“What’s his name, Papa?”

“Leonard Peltier, Tara”

In January 2017, Tara was fourteen years old. Leonard’s fate has become part of our family’s story treasure. Any news about his case was discussed at length.

Today, 16 January, our daughter is hoping for good news from Washington. She knows that US presidents, before they leave the White House, can pardon any number of people in custody. There are four days left until the change of presidents.

“Any news, Papa ?”

“Nothing yet, Tara”

Tuesday, January 17. There is indeed news, Leonard’s Defence Committee relayed it to me shortly after midnight: Pope Francis has written to President Obama, asking him personally to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier. It is important to know that Leonard has refused to agree to clemency for many years. He did not want clemency, was his reasoning, he wanted justice. But over the years his health had suffered and he had finally followed the advice of lawyers, friends and relatives and consented.

“Tara, the Pope has written to Obama!”

It seems only a matter of days now, perhaps only hours, then Leonard would be free. The feeling of hope is now giving way to a sense of security.

But Tuesday comes to an end without any new news. I am reminded of the week when President Bill Clinton did his pardons. How sure we supporters had all been, back then in 2001. Clinton had visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota the year before, many Lakota had held up signs at his outdoor speech, “Freedom for Leonard Peltier”, he had also been asked directly about it. “I will look into it”, he had replied. That was diplomatic language, which was to be seen as positive, the lawyers said. The FBI seemed to see it the same way, because they organised a protest in front of the White House. And William Janklow, former governor of South Dakota, asked for a private audience with the president. Clinton, once governor of Arkansas knew Janklow from the National Governors Association, when they were both serving as governors. Janklow was an avowed Indian hater and accused of raping an underage Indian woman. We do not know what was said in private at that meeting. However, the decisive “call” was Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle (also from South Dakota), who argued a pardon would be “destructive“ for the Democratic Party. Supporters who were lobbying in Congressional offices, say that Janklow did  have a definite effect in dampening Clinton’s inclination toward clemency but Dashle poisoned the waters.

Sound effect 

Sixteen years have passed since then.

Sound effect

Tara is already in bed. I stay up, sit in front of the screen, let midnight pass. In all the mails from the USA an anxiety and waiting. The feeling of security gives way again to a feeling of hope.

Wednesday, 18 January. The news agencies announce the pardons by Barak Obama. Most prominent name on his list: Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower charged with treason for leaking a good 800,000 classified military files to Wikileaks. Among them was a video showing US soldiers opening fire on civilians from an attack helicopter during the Iraq war in 2007. At the time, Chelsea was still called Bradley and was an IT specialist in the US armed forces. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison; while in custody, Bradley changed his gender and became Chelsea.

Leonard Peltier’s name is not on Obama’s list.

M U S I C    


I first consciously heard the name Leonard Peltier in November 1975, when I was questioned by the FBI. The US Border Patrol had searched me at the Canadian border because of my expired visa. Since there was a lot of evidence in my luggage that I had spent the last few weeks with Indians – books of Indian resistance, deer skin mokassins, beaded souvenirs, three issues of Akwesasne Notes – my personal data were passed to the FBI and my fingerprints were taken.  The FBI didn’t have a man free that day, so I spent the night in the Franklin County Jail of Malone, a border town of Up-State New York.

I did not sleep well. In the morning, a razor with brush and soap was brought to my cell, but I managed to make it clear to the guard that I had only come to this house for an overnight stay and that I would be picked up shortly. He believed me; I could keep my beard.

The conversation with the FBI agent in the Border Patrol office took place in private. The agent was about mid-thirties, wearing a grey suit and a white-red-black tie, diagonally striped. He did not say Mr Biegert, he said Claus.

The first thing he wanted to know was whether my address in Munich was a house or an apartment. I told him that I lived in an apartment in a big house.

Then he got down to business: “Claus, you must know the FBI is a big family. And two of our uncles got killed.”

Two of their agents had been shot. “Claus, imagine two of your uncles got murdered!” They would catch the culprit, the agent assured me. Now he wanted to read me a series of Indian names and I should say if I knew one of them. Would I be willing to do that? I nodded. He began, “Leonard Crow Dog, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Leonard Peltier, Bob Roubideau, Wallace Black Elk, Carter Camp, Clyde Bellecourt, Oscar Bear Runner, Milo Yellow Hair … beautiful names, aren’t they?” Yes, beautiful names, I had heard them all many times, many were to become my friends in the years to come, so far I had only met Dennis Banks and Russell Means two years before. I said: “I have heard those names, but I do not know them”.

The meeting ended with an offer: “Claus, we could work together, if you hear anything relevant to the death of our agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, just call us.” He shook my hand in farewell.

A young Border Patrol officer drove me to the outskirts of Malone to Highway 30 South at my request. Via Albany I wanted to go to New York City; from there I would fly home to Munich. In a police patrol car to the hitch hiking – I liked that. The police officer let me out at a place where a car could stop well, wished me “a good ride to the big city”, made a U-turn and drove back to Malone.

M U S I C 

I first consciously heard the name Leonard Peltier in Germany. The NGO “Society for Threatened Peoples – Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker” reported his arrest in February 1976.

His story demands a long look back. The conquest of North America is a history of ongoing genocide. The Indian Wars were officially considered over with the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in December 1890, the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry in Washington had been decorated with medals of honor for killing unarmed men, women and children, and the remnants of the tribes had been relocated to prison camps. The Indian problem was considered solved. The internment camps, renamed reservations, would later serve as inspiration for Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, founded in 1824, had already been moved from the War Department to the Home Office. Eradication was now replaced by assimilation. Children were separated from their parents and placed in boarding schools – boarding schools outside the reservations, run by Christian churches or the state. Sexual abuse was common. Those who resisted or were caught speaking their own language faced solitary confinement in chains. Sometimes they became objects of perversity: Cleaning the kitchen floor with marbles under their knees, or fingers being chopped off for each time caught speaking their mother tongue.

MUSIC   School Days (Willie Dunn)

Adolescents who embraced the American way of life were given positions in the new tribal governments established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, now referred to as BIA. In Washington, the traditional chiefs were no longer heard as spokespersons. From now on, two camps existed in the Indian world: Progressives and Traditionals. The Progressives, who distanced themselves from their culture and often married whites, were derisively called Apples by the Traditionalists: Apples: red on the outside, white on the inside. If the US government wanted access to reservation land, it had compliant partners in the tribal governments set up by the BIA: Yes-men, especially when it came to military use and mineral resources. Everything was settled with money.

In February 1973, the system of oppression burst. It burst where the massacre of almost 300 Minneconjou Lakota men, women and children had taken place in December 1890: at Chankpe Opi, the Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The reservation was the former prison camp 344.

The occupation of Wounded Knee was not the first major act of resistance – in 1969 several tribes of the Northwest were involved in a Fishing Rights protest, the same year, members of various tribes had occupied the empty prison island of Alcatraz off the coast of San Francisco to build an indigenous university, in 1972 a tribal caravan crossed the United States from West to East, ending in the takeover of the BIA building in Washington, DC.. But no protest action before has shaken up and united the Indian world as much as that uprising in February 1973. It was the old women of the traditional Lakota people who no longer wanted to accept the racism outside the reservation, the progressive destruction of agriculture on the reservation, the extreme poverty, the unemployment, the high suicide rate, the cultural alienation of the children, the dictatorship of a corrupt tribal government. And last but not least, they wanted to draw attention to the theft of their sacred mountains, the Black Hills – He Sapa in their language. According to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the mountain range still belonged to the united Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes, known as the Greater Sioux Nation. It was the idea of the eldest traditional women to call the American Indian Movement for help.

The idea for the American Indian Movement, or AIM for short, had originated at Stillwater Prison, north of Minneapolis-St.Paul, Minnesota, where Indians were sent in numbers hugely out of proportion with their representation in the state population to serve longer sentences meted out by white judges. Among them were Anishinabe men Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt – two who would later become AIM leaders. Dennis used his prison time, spent largely in solitary confinement, reading about Native American history and the movements protesting against the Vietnam War and for civil rights throughout the country at that time.  He realized that if anything was ever going to change for Indian people, they themselves had to create an organization for Indian rights and an alternative to the existing system. Once Dennis and Clyde were released, they set up the AIM Patrol, equipping their red cars with two-way radios, cameras and tape recorders that monitored police arrests of Indians on the street corners and as they left ghetto bars.  The AIM patrols reduced the number of arrests dramatically. That was 1968. Word of the American Indian Movement’s effective community work swelled their membership in the West. Wounded Knee would then help AIM gain national popularity. The movement’s anthem, a musical signal of resistance, the AIM–Song – is a traditional song from the Northern Cheyenne in Montana. It was given to the family of Raymond Yellow Thunder by the Cheyenne as a gift of empathy and respect. Raymond Yellow Thunder was killed and castrated and hidden in the trunk of a car. One of the many incidents which led to the outbreak at Wounded Knee. Dennis Banks, one of the founders of AIM, introduces the song.

MUSIC  AIM-Song (Dennis Banks)

When the activists marched to Wounded Knee on 27 February 1973, singing and beating drums, they fulfilled all the stereotypical images that Hollywood had ingrained in the minds of Americans: they wore feathers in their long hair, they had fringes on their leather jackets, they sang songs that outsiders could not understand, they had guns, even if some were dummies, and they were determined not to back down.

The math worked out: Oscar Bear Runner, an old Oglala Lakota, stood in front of the first photographer with his rifle, which was barely fit to shoot, and his picture went around the world. It was decided to occupy the area surrounding Wounded Knee’s graveyard and the Trading Post. The Trading Post – a combination souvenir pawn shop, general store and post office – was looted by young AIM warriors, and eventually destroyed by fire, due to an accidentally knocked over lantern. The Trading Post owners, Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve, had a long history of exploiting Indians since they first opened the trading post in the early 1900s. There were many stories of their opening mail and endorsing and cashing the government checks of local Indians, under the guise of collecting debts. Most important, they lived on land that had been taken from the original owners, and thrived off the exploitation of their customers’ poverty. The tribal council set up by the US government in 1934 had given land to half-breed Lakota early on, as well as to mixed marriages. Thus, an Indian racism was established early on that still shows its traces today. The reservation is criss-crossed by barbed wire, and the Oglala Lakota tribe has little land available for communal use.


Hostages would not be bad for the media, said one of the AIM leaders. The Gildersleeve family agreed to act as hostages, eleven of them, in order to prevent by their very presence any rash attacks by the police forces that would soon amass in the area.

In Washington, DC, the protest was classified as an attack on national security, because AIM was considered to have “communist infiltration”. Alexander Haig, vice chief of staff of the US Army, called a special meeting at the Pentagon. We don’t know if General Haig was thinking of the last century on that morning of 28 February 1973 when he picked out two of his best people and assigned them to look into the matter. Colonel Volney Warner of the 82nd Air Division and Colonel Jack Potter of the Sixth Army, both with Vietnam experience. They were, Haig insisted, to be out of uniform for the assignment. Times had changed, the media should not immediately notice that the army was intervening in its own country. For that had not happened since the Civil War; moreover, the legal basis was lacking: there was neither a declaration of war nor a special order from the president, whose name was Richard Nixon. But there was an order from the sixties, entitled Garden Plot and Haig relied on it. Garden Plot was to be used when the social fabric of the USA was threatened by movements within the country. In this case, all defense forces were to work together: Army, Navy and Air Force together with the National Guard, the US Marshals and the Highway Patrol.

The allies on the ground also included the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Bureau wanted to use COINTELPRO, a program of infiltration that had already been used with the Black Panther Party, the Black revolutionary liberation movement. Finally, there were the Indian reservation police forces, as well as a private force appointed by Tribal Council Chairman Dick Wilson, the GOONs. The GOONs – spelled out – saw themselves as “Guardians of the Oglala Nation”, although they in no way represented the interests of the Oglala Nation.

The Pentagon commanders agreed on 17 tanks, plus helicopters and Phantom bombers as needed, 130,000 rounds of M-16 type ammunition, 41,000 of M-1 type, 24,000 flares, twelve M-79 launchers, 600 rounds of tear gas, 100 M-40 type explosive devices.


The military moved in, and with it the media. Perhaps, apart from the two deaths on the Indian side, there would have been more bloodshed if the siege had not been watched by the eyes of the international public. The state of emergency lasted 71 days. It became increasingly clear that the uprising was symbolic in nature and aimed solely at entering into a fruitful dialogue with the US government. On 8 May, the traditionalists who had proclaimed the “Independent Oglala Nation” during their occupation, agreed to leave, with a promise from White House officials that their complaints would be investigated and their demands taken under consideration. AIM leaders who had participated in the occupation and negotiated with the government were arrested.

The subsequent criminal trials of the insurgents in St. Paul, Minnesota, were struck down. When Judge Fred Nichols discovered that all telephone conversations between the defendants and their lawyers had been intercepted by the FBI and that the White House had refused to hand over the transcripts of the Wounded Knee conversations to the court, he stopped the proceedings. Nichols has been known to say that he believed in the American Constitution, the flag and apple pie. All that was left now was apple pie. William Janklow, the governor of South Dakota, was different: he publicly announced that the only solution to the Indian problem was a bullet through the head of the militant Indian leaders.

What seemed like a climax, however, was only the beginning. Washington wanted to make sure that the resistance would not spread like wildfire to the other tribes. Valuable natural resources lay beneath the reservations’ soil: Oil, coal, gold, uranium. Cooperative tribal governments were needed. If the reservations were controlled by Traditionals in the future, unhindered access to the resources would be jeopardized.

So over 30 FBI agents in combat fatigues were stationed on the Pine Ridge reservation and the tribal council’s private police were supplied with beer and ammunition to ensure the image presented to the outside world: An impending reservation war that could only be prevented by the intervention of the FBI. In fact, it was a war between Traditionals and Progressives that the FBI fomented. Over 60 reservation residents died from gunshots during this period, and the murders have not been solved to this day. The terror lasted two years. In those two years, the FBI trained 2000 agents on the reservation. The Indian Civil War served as a realistic stage.

The permanent reminder of this era of fear is Leonard Peltier, who lives in prison since 1976.



Leonard Peltier was involved in a shooting on 26 June 1975, which was triggered by two FBI agents who – according to the FBI’s announcement – wanted to arrest a youth who had stolen a pair of cowboy boots during a robbery. The exact course of events will never be known. At the end of the gun battle, the two FBI agents and a young Indian lay dead on the ground.  Of the three wanted AIM members, two – Bob Robideau and Dino Butler – were caught shortly afterwards in South Dakota; the third – Leonard Peltier – had fled to Canada. If he had stayed in the USA, he would be free today. Robideau and Butler were acquitted at the trial in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; the jury recognised self-defence.

Now Leonard, born on 12 September 1944, was in the crosshairs of the police forces; wanted posters were posted across the continent. In early 1976, he was tracked down in Canada, in the very place I had been three months before: Small Boy’s Camp in the Rocky Mountains in the province of Alberta. An old man named Yellow Bird, who did not know the background, reported Peltier’s whereabouts to the RCMP, Canada’s mounted police.

On the basis of false witness statements written by the FBI itself, the authorities in the USA forced his extradition. The fact that the key witness Myrtle Poor Bear broke down in court in Fargo, North Dakota, and admitted that she did not know Leonard Peltier at all and that she had been forced to sign the statement did not change the course of the trial: In 1977, Leonard Peltier was sentenced to two life sentences, with the addition of “to be served consecutively”.

Peltier was sent to the maximum security prison in Marion, Illinois. In the third year, he was transferred to Lompoc Prison, a prison in California from which it was still possible to escape. He was given a Native American inmate to help persuade him to escape. Peltier saw through the plan – and still dared to break out. He made it, the other was shot by the guards. Perhaps this was also part of the plan. He spent four days at liberty, without food, until a farmer discovered him in a melon field and called the police. The sheriff who took the call knew he was obliged to inform the FBI. He did not do so until he was already on his way to the field – and thus saved Leonard’s life.

When an unknown man came running with his gun drawn, the sheriff had already handcuffed Peltier. “There is no killing in my presence”, he said to the FBI man. “He saved my life,” Peltier recalls when I ask him about it during a visit to the jail in Leavenworth, Kansas.

PELTIER  from the documentary „I’M THE INDIAN VOICE“

In court in Los Angeles, when he was on trial for the escape, the FBI agent revealed himself under cross-examination by the defense as a member of a task force used to avenge FBI agents who died in the line of duty.

None of what was supposed to prove his guilt stood up to scrutiny. Even ballistic calculations had been altered. Myrtle Poor Bear, whose coerced testimony had led to his extradition from Canada, was no longer admissible as a witness. A new trial had been sought by his defense lawyers several times, but had always been denied. Since the charge of double murder could not be sustained or proven, the charges were changed to “aiding and abetting double murder”. With the same punishment! The Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, 57 members of Congress, parliamentarians from Canada and members of the European Parliament, North America’s leading indigenous organizations, even former judges and prosecutors repeatedly insisted on his release in the following decades.



December 2012, New York City, the Beacon Theatre on Broadway. “Bring Leonard Peltier Home” is written in the light box above the entrance. Two American legends – Harry Belafonte (then 85) and Pete Seeger(93) – have invited people to a colorful evening of films, speeches and songs just before Christmas to bring the name of prisoner No. 89637-132 back to consciousness. The first lawyers are no longer alive, the new generation in the editorial offices of the TV stations and newspapers have never heard the name Peltier. About 2000 people have come. Amy Goodman, in their daily news-hour “DemocracyNow!” had announced the event for days. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore raged as he stepped to the lectern: “As long as Peltier is not free, we are all not free,” he thundered into the microphone. Officially, Peltier is to be released in 2040; he would then be 96 years old.

The evening at the Beacon remains unmentioned in the media. The next morning, there was a rampage at a primary school in Connecticut with 28 dead. All the headlines of the following days were already taken.



Leonard Peltier’s spirit is unbroken; he will turn 77 this coming September. But he is greying, stooped, he has diabetes, high blood pressure and suspected prostate cancer. In addition, he is blind in one eye as a result of a stroke. He has to fight for medical care. For years, he could only feed himself with the help of a straw because of a lockjaw. It was only when a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, offered his services for free that he was operated on in 1999. The needed follow-up treatment he is denied. Petitions are received daily at the White House demanding his medical care. The Covid-19 pandemic is an additional danger to his life. Currently, his address is Coleman Maximum Security Prison in Florida. “They are always looking for the furthest possible distance from my relatives on the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota,” he says over the phone.

For decades musicians all over North America have played in concerts to raise funds for his cause. The music we hear comes from singers and songwriters and indigenous musicians who call for his freedom. One of them is David Amram, 90 years old, a veteran of America’s Beatnik era, master of many instruments. He sent his “Song for the Everglades” for this podcast. The Everglades, a unique swampy landscape of Florida, are south of the Coleman Prison complex.

MUSIC  Song for the Everglades (David Amram)

When he has enough colors, he paints. He taught himself to paint, and for a while the sale of his paintings funded the lawyers. He started writing poetry, and for several years he edited the newspaper “Crazy Horse News”; he also published his biography “My Life is My Sundance”. The Sundance dance is the central ceremony in the spiritual life of the Plains tribes: the men dance around the sacred tree and are connected to the trunk by leather cords; these cords pass through loops of skin above the chest. The pain is meditation, concentration on the powers of the earth, which they worship as mother. And a collective suffering for those who become powerless in the face of crises. And not least, compensation for the pain, women endure when they give birth to new life. “My captivity is my sun dance,” Leonard says with a strength that amazes. “It amazes you white people,” he says, “we Indians have learned over centuries to endure pain and loss and still not give up.”

Harassment often prevents him from being creative. In 2015, a 20-dollar note was smuggled into his cell in the mail; when he saw the note, he let it go back, because possession of money is prohibited in the cell. But Leonard was nevertheless cited: unlawful possession of cash. Weeks in solitary confinement followed. The sweat lodge ceremony, for which he had successfully fought for years, has long since been banned again. With the medicine men, who had unhindered access to him as spiritual caretakers, he succeeded in establishing the sweat lodge for Indian prisoners in the eighties. Peltier’s gaze goes into the distance when he speaks of it. “When it goes black around me, and when the water evaporates on the glowing stones, then I am free. My spirit can fly.” His spirit is not allowed to fly. He is not allowed to see journalists or friends besides family members and a medicine man. And when they found out he had friendly ties with Navajo medicine man Lenny Foster, his current spiritual adviser, his visits were cancelled. Reason: Foster was no longer a religious authority, but came as a friend. Lenny Foster retired in 2018  as Program Supervisor for the Navajo Nation Corrections Project in Window Rock, Arizona, where he had worked for 38 years to safeguard prisoner rights, including rights under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, serving  as a volunteer traditional spiritual advisor for American Indian adults and juveniles in state and federal prisons across the United States.



March 2021. As I work on this text, hope germinates again: an unexpected diversity has unfolded in Joseph Biden’s cabinet. The Department of the Interior for the first time in US history is – one cannot believe one’s ears or eyes – under the command of Deb Haaland, an indigenous woman from the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico.

What it shows, as Leonard’s new lawyer Kevin Sharp has pointed out, is that “Indigenous issues are front and center in Washington, DC as never before.”  Sharp of Nashville, Tennessee is a former Judge from the Obama administration, who resigned under Trump and returned to his law firm. He is leading the campaign to “Bring Leonard Peltier Home” –  calling  for Leonard’s clemency, transfer, parole, compassionate release  (based on his age and health in times of the pandemic) under the First Step Act of 2018,  ironically promoted and signed by Donald Trump.

Please, write to the White House and ask for the release of Leonard Peltier.

600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005-0003 , USA

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