Leonard Peltier (Lakota and Anishinabe, b. 1944) is an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist who has served three decades of two consecutive life sentences in the federal prison system following his conviction for killing Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams on the Pine Ridge Reservation during a shoot-out in June 1975. Many people believe that Peltier was wrongly convicted on falsified evidence, and he is widely considered a symbol of aboriginal peoples' political struggles worldwide, especially in the United States and Canada. Peltier also has become an artist and author while in prison.
Peltier is considered a political prisoner by Amnesty International and other human-rights advocates around the world. The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Dalai Lama, and the European Parliament, among others, have all called for his release ("The Case of Leonard Pelitier . . ., " n.d.).
His struggles began early, growing up in poverty on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He witnessed U.S. government policies that forced Native families off their reservations and into cities and that caused the withdrawal of essential services from those who chose to remain. In this climate, Peltier became active in organizing and protesting for the rights of his people. By the early 1970s, he was strongly involved with the American Indian Movement.
In 1972, Peltier took part in the Trail of Broken Treaties, a demonstration requesting the U.S. government to investigate treaty violations over the last 100 years. When met with a negative response from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the demonstrators occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs Washington, D.C., headquarters for a week. The result was the promise of a hearing on AIM-initiated grievances. Another result was intense FBI scrutiny of the occupation's leaders, including Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Peltier.
Through AIM's activites, Peltier came to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where the 1975 shoot-out occurred. By the time AIM activists arrived, circumstances on the Pine Ridge Reservation included extreme poverty, violence, and fear.
Richard Wilson had been elected tribal chairman on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1972 and had since been in conflict with the traditional Oglala people. Wilson represented big business, and he ignored demands and rights of traditional people on the reservation. Wilson's policies reduced the people to extreme poverty and fear. He enforced his regime and economic policies by misusing federal money to employ a personal police force, which he trained, armed, and deployed to control the residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation. This force called itself Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or the GOON squad. This squad committed violent acts of intimidation, violence, and outright murder against the traditional Indian people on the reservation. Despite the presence of FBI agents on the reservation at that time, the murders went largely uninvestigated. Appeals to the Bureau of Indian Affairs also were ignored. In fact, the U.S. federal government provided funding for the GOON squad.
In 1973, traditional people at Pine Ridge asked AIM for help, and approximately 300 traditionals, AIM members, and supporters occupied the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in protest of Wilson and his GOON squad. The background to this occupation included the historical relevance of the site, where in 1890 the U.S. Cavalry massacred 300 people, including many women and children. Under siege by the FBI and BIA, the occupiers of Wounded Knee in 1973 lasted seventy-one days, until U.S. government officials agreed to investigate conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The investigation never occurred, but many AIM members were charged with various legal offenses related to the occupation.
Between 1973 and 1976, at least sixty-six people died violently at Pine Ridge (other deaths may not have been documented). The FBI is charged with investigating major crimes on U.S. Indian reservations, but these deaths were only lightly investigated, if at all. The majority of victims were members or supporters of AIM and the traditional Oglala people. During this time, the murder rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation was the highest in the country (Johansen and Maestas, 1979, 97–120; Messerschmidt, 1983, 6).
In 1974, Means ran for tribal chairman against Wilson. In a climate of stress and fear, with allegations of rampant fraud, Wilson narrowly won the election. The BIA refused to oversee the election or to investigate it for irregularities and fraud.
In this context, the traditional council of chiefs asked AIM to provide protection, alleging a lack of legal protection from Wilson and the GOON squad. A small group of AIM members responded, including Peltier, who arrived in March 1975. The AIM activists and local traditionalists set up a spiritual camp on the property of Cecilia and Harry Jumping Bull, who had been constantly under threat from the GOONs (Clark, 1999, xvi).
A month before the shoot-out occurred at Jumping Bull's, the FBI, aware of AIM's presence, increased its own presence in and around the reservation. On June 26, 1975, FBI Agents Williams and Coler entered the Jumping Bull compound following a red pick-up truck, and gunfire erupted. During the firefight, the agents were killed. A Native American man, Joe Stuntz, also died that day; his murder was never investigated. By the end of the day, FBI and other law enforcement agencies had occupied the reservation and the AIM members involved, including Peltier, had fled the area.
Two months later, a car carrying Michael Anderson, Rob Robideau, Norman Charles, and others exploded. The FBI found a gun in the wreckage that it claimed was the murder weapon used against Coler and Williams. In November 1975, Dino Butler, Rob Robideau, Peltier, and a youth, Jimmy Eagle, were indicted for the murders of Williams and Coler. At this time Peltier was in Canada fighting extradition. Butler and Robideau were tried together and acquitted. The jury concluded Butler and Robideau acted in self-defense against the paramilitary assault on Pine Ridge by the FBI. Charges against Jimmy Eagle were dropped, and the full force of governmental prosecution was then directed at Peltier, who was later extradited from Canada, to stand trial before an all-white jury in U.S. District Court, Fargo, North Dakota, in April of 1977.
Preparing its case against Peltier, the FBI coerced Myrtle Poor Bear into signing three false affidavits that directly implicated him in the killing of the two agents. Later, the FBI admitted that Poor Bear was not even on the scene the day of the killings (Clark, 1999, xviii).
Peltier was found guilty of two counts of murder and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. The trial, presided over by Judge Paul Benson, was based on false evidence in the Poor Bear affidavits, on a bullet that was incorrectly connected to the alleged murder weapon, and on testimony given by other witnesses under coercion from the FBI.
At the trial, the prosecution presented fifteen days of evidence, and the defense was limited to six days. Peltier's defense team had the same evidence as was presented in the Bulter and Robideau trial indicating FBI misconduct but was not permitted to present most of it to the jury. Peltier also was not allowed to assert self-defense. Peltier's appeals to the Eighth Circuit Court and the U.S. Supreme Court were both denied. In 1993, even in the face of evidence of FBI misconduct and the admission of one of the prosecutors that the government does not know who killed the agents, the Eighth Circuit Court denied Peltier's appeal a second time.
With the assistance of Bobby Garcia, Dallas Thundershield, and Roque Dueñas, Peltier escaped from Lompoc federal prison in July of 1979. Thundershield was killed during the escape, and Garcia and Peltier were captured six days later. At his escape trial, Judge Lawrence Lydick prohibited Peltier from presenting evidence of his reasons for fleeing prison, and Peltier was sentenced for the maximum of seven years for escape and possession of a weapon. Garcia was sentenced to five years. Garcia was found dead in his cell a year later, and Roque Dueñas disappeared in a fishing accident (Messerschmidt, 1983, 139).
Many who have studied the Peltier case claim to this day that Peltier was wrongly convicted and is thus a political prisoner. He is considered an important American Indian leader who fought to protect the rights of his people, as well as a symbol of the ongoing oppression of American Indian people at the hands of the U.S. federal government.
Apted, Micheal. 1992. Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story. Film produced by Robert Redford. "Case of Leonard Peltier: Native American Prisoner." No date. Available at: www.freepeltier.org. Accessed March 30, 2005.; Clark, Ramsey. 1999. "Preface." In Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance. By Leonard Peltier, xiii–xxii. New York: St. Martin's Press.; Johansen, Bruce, and Roberto Maestas. 1979. Wasi'chu: The Continuing Indian Wars. New York: Monthly Review Press.; Matthiessen, Peter. 1992. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI's War on the American Indian Movement. New York: Penguin.; Messerschmidt, Jim. 1983. The Trial of Leonard Peltier. Boston: South End Press.; Peltier, Leonard. 1999. Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance. New York: St. Martin's Press.