Larry Leventhal, a legendary Twin Cities attorney who devoted his career to defending American Indian activists and their causes, died of pancreatic cancer on Tuesday in Minneapolis. He was 75.

“He became one of the foremost experts on Indian treaty rights in the country,” said Bill Means of Rosebud, S.D., co-founder and board member of the American Indian Treaty Rights Council.

For more than 40 years, Leventhal traveled the country representing Indian tribes and activists in battles over water, land, fishing and hunting rights.

“He believed in the treaties, and thought the government should abide by them,” said Clyde Bellecourt, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM).

One of Leventhal’s last political acts before he became bedridden was to narrate a video last fall produced by folk singer Larry Long, in support of a campaign on behalf of Leonard Peltier, an AIM activist who has been imprisoned for more than 40 years for the 1975 murders of two FBI agents in South Dakota. Leventhal believed Peltier was innocent. “It’s time for there to be an effort to pardon Leonard Peltier,” he said in the video.

Leventhal represented AIM in some of its most famous struggles. Bellecourt said that Leventhal was the first lawyer he called after AIM activists occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., site of an 1890 massacre, in 1973.

Leventhal was inside the encampment within days. During the standoff, the town was surrounded by FBI agents and federal marshals. At night, supporters would ferry in supplies in small planes. “We’d get a radio call that a plane was arriving,” Leventhal recalled later. “We’d run out with flashlights and stand in a couple of lines to make a runway for the plane to land.”

Leventhal joined attorneys William Kunstler, Mark Lane, Ken Tilsen and Doug Hall in representing Dennis Banks and Russell Means in a nine-month federal trial in St. Paul for their leadership role at Wounded Knee.

His primary job was to argue that the occupation was legally justified by an 1868 treaty. U.S. District Judge Fred Nichols criticized Leventhal whenever he raised the treaty issue, Bellecourt said, “but toward the end of the trial, he was listening to Larry, and it started making sense to him.” Nichols eventually threw out the charges, citing government misconduct.

A graduate of St. Louis Park High School, Leventhal attended the University of Minnesota, where he spun records at the college radio station, WMMR, and served as its news director. In 1968, just out of law school, he ran into Banks and Bellecourt, who were monitoring the courts, believing Indians were getting short shrift from the system.

Leventhal got involved in their work.

“He incorporated every Indian organization we put together — the American Indian Health Board, the Native American Community Clinic, Little United Tribes housing project, Heart of the Earth Survival School in Minneapolis and the Little Red School House in St. Paul,” Bellecourt said.

Over a 48-year legal career, Leventhal’s clients were frequently in the headlines. Among them were Charles Lone Eagle and John Boney, two Indian men who were picked up by Minneapolis police officers for intoxication, thrown in the trunk of a squad car and taken to Hennepin County Medical Center. Leventhal and an associate, Gary Bergquist, sued Minneapolis over their treatment, and a jury awarded the two men $100,000, plus legal fees.

Leventhal was one of the attorneys, including Kunstler, who represented Qubilah Shabazz, daughter of black activist Malcolm X. She was charged in Minneapolis in 1995 with plotting the murder of the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The indictment was eventually dismissed.

Kunstler was amazed at Leventhal’s work ethic. “He works all the time,” Kunstler once said. Indeed, Leventhal often slept in his office.

Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, Minnesota’s former chief federal judge, called Leventhal “one of the finest constitutional lawyers in this country.

“He was a zealous advocate for all his clients, respectful to the court and to the opposing counsel,” Davis said. “What we need is 1,000 more Larry Leventhals.”

Leventhal had a softer side. He served as a member of the Blockheads, a Laurel and Hardy fan club that met monthly. “We show old-time comedy films, have dinner and clown around,” Leventhal once recalled. “I get ripped about some of the cases I have going on. I am always being introduced as a prominent Minneapolis attorney. In unison, everybody yells, ‘Who cares!’ ”

Boyish in his looks even as he aged, Leventhal had the air of a consummate innocent in the courtroom. “He disarms so many opponents,” Vine Deloria Jr., an American Indian attorney and author, once said of Leventhal. “He comes across as the bumpkin. Then all of a sudden you’re on the canvas, asking, ‘Who was that masked man?’ ”

In an interview 21 years ago, Deloria described Leventhal as one of the top five lawyers in the country on Indian treaty issues. And, Deloria said, “He’s the only one who is white.”

Leventhal is survived by a sister, Paula (Bob) Maisel of St. Louis Park, his significant other, Vicki Schraber of Minneapolis and two grandsons. His daughter, attorney DeGalynn Wade Sanders, died of cancer last May.

His funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at Temple Israel, 2323 Fremont Av. S., Minneapolis. Shiva will be at 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at Temple Israel.

 

Twitter: @randyfurst