Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist who currently sits in federal prison, serving two life terms for the murders of two FBI agents. For the last four decades, Native Americans across the country have petitioned the out-going president to pardon him. With Obama leaving office in January, fresh calls to “Free Leonard Peltier” are rising.
On June 26, 1975, two federal agents were investigating the theft of a pair of cowboy boots on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. This led them to the Jumping Bull property near the town of Oglala in search of a young man named Jimmy Eagle. A shootout ensued in which the two agents were killed, apparently executed at close range. This, in and of itself, begs for additional background information, as petty theft anywhere, much less on an Indian reservation, is not normally a case for the FBI.
The context that explains this unusual investigation over a pair of cowboy boots is critical to understanding the Peltier case– and is largely unknown to most Americans. From the establishment of the reservations, first as concentration camps in the late 1800s thru the mid-1970s, they were largely run by the federal government via the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Tribal governments had to be approved by BIA officials, who established all rules and policies. More significantly, the BIA also helped the US government manage reservations as de facto “banana republics”, contracting with large corporations to mine coal, uranium, oil, or whatever else was available. In return the tribes got minimal royalties (which were massively mismanaged and essentially lost by the BIA, resulting in the nation’s largest lawsuit in the 1980s); tribal leaders fared better, as they were bribed and bought off, essentially becoming puppets of the BIA. In a context of poverty and unemployment, tribal governments became a primary employer on many reservations (in addition to low-wage jobs working for the resource-extraction companies). Nepotism was rampant; it paid to be connected to the reservation government.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the civil rights era swept across Indian Country, especially among disaffected young Indians who had been shipped off to boarding schools and then re-settled in urban areas. The Red Power movement led to the creation of several Native rights organizations. One, the American Indian Movement (AIM), sought to assert old treaty rights and tribal sovereignty, challenging the BIA. They quickly found themselves in direct conflict with the puppet dictators entrenched on some reservations.
Of all the intra-tribal conflicts, none was more violent than that at Pine Ridge. The reservation has a storied history. Created in the aftermath of Custer’s Last Stand and the taking of the Black Hills, it was the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. To this day, Pine Ridge is among the poorest areas in the world and has a life expectancy slightly lower than that of Haiti (49 years). In 1973, AIM activists occupied the hamlet of Wounded Knee to protest the US’s taking of the Black Hills and violation of the Treaty of 1868 (a battle the Sioux eventually won in the US Supreme Court). AIM also demanded the removal of Pine Ridge Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson because, they asserted, “this degenerated human being is financed and wholly supported by the FBI, CIA, BIA, U.S. Justice Dept., and the U.S. Marshals, it is virtually impossible for any Oglala to voice any kind of opinion which may run contrary to this puppet government without being arrested or beaten.”
In the ensuing two years, Wilson ramped up his reign of terror. In a situation recalling a US-supported dictatorship in Latin America, Wilson created a personal security force called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or “Goons”. Political opponents were expelled from the reservation. Others were hunted down by aircraft and assassinated at point blank range, hanged, or chopped up with an ax. Homes were shot at, or burned. Mourners who attended funerals were gunned down. Children were caught in the crossfire or killed when cars they were in were run off the road. The BIA building in Pine Ridge was protected by snipers behind sandbag bunkers. It became unsafe to venture outside, even in daylight, unarmed. Hundreds were killed, all unsolved murders if they were considered murders at all. Autopsies failed to notice gunshot wounds in the skull and listed cause of death as “frostbite”. In the outside world, a few white liberals took note. A team of white lawyers flew to the reservation, where they were assaulted at the airport and their plane shot too full of holes to fly again. They escaped, bloodied, in a car with its front windshield bashed in. Needless to say, residents described Pine Ridge as a “war zone”.
It was in this context that the elders in the community of Oglala, an anti-Wilson enclave, invited AIM activists to come live with them for protection and support. Harry and Cecelia Jumping Bull, an elderly couple, permitted AIM to establish a camp on their property. Among the leaders were Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, and Leonard Peltier. They established a community garden, provided counseling to alcoholics, held ceremonies twice a day in a sweat lodge, and did basic home and car repair for members of the local community. They also prepared to defend their camp from any attack by the Goons or their federal allies.
The federal government viewed AIM much like they viewed the Black Panthers or other “subversive” groups; they were a threat to the status quo. It was in this context that the FBI was investigating the theft of a pair of cowboy boots, apparently a pretext for doing reconnaissance at the Jumping Bull property.
When the two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ron Williams, in unmarked cars, followed a red truck onto the property on the morning of June 26, 1975, no one knew who they were. They assumed they were associated with Dick Wilson, possibly his Goons or members of a local white militia. The vehicles came to a stop in a valley below some ranch houses and rifles were brandished in warning from a distance. After that, the first shot rang out, probably in warning. Each side claims the other fired first. Regardless, a shootout ensued between the two federal agents and perhaps dozens of men encamped at the Jumping Bull property, who assumed they were under attack. There is no question that Butler, Robideau, and Peltier were present and participated in the shootout, though from cover at long range. It is not clear if they ever shot either of the two agents. They certainly did not fire the final fatal shots at close range. Peltier said his first instinct was to protect the women and children present in the houses, and to get them out of there. Eventually, it became apparent that the agents were injured and the shooting died down. At this point, the men in the red truck (not Butler, Robideau, or Peltier) turned around and drove down to the injured agents, still not knowing who they were, why they had come on the property, and why they had engaged them in a shootout. According to one of the men in the truck, who remains to this day anonymous, he got out of the truck and walked to within a few feet of Agent Williams. Williams then lifted his gun and managed to fire a shot into the ground. The anonymous man reacted instantly, shooting from the hip and hitting Williams once and Coler twice, killing each of them instantly. He then ran back into the truck and fled the area. Butler, Robideau, and Peltier approached the agents several minutes later and discovered they had been killed. With other law enforcement responding and closing in, all of the Indians on the property managed to elude the roadblocks and escape into the nearby hills on foot. From the evidence left behind, it appeared that Coler and Williams were deliberately executed at close range.
Butler and Robideau were eventually arrested and tried for the murder of the two agents, but were found not guilty by reason of self-defense. The jury found that they lived under such a reign of terror on the reservation from extra-judicial killings that they had reason to fear for their lives when the two strange white men entered the Jumping Bull property. The jury also found that much of the witness testimony in support of the FBI’s case had been coerced.
Peltier had fled to Canada because he felt he could not get a fair trial. He was captured and extradited back to the US, where he was tried separately and found guilty. In Peltier’s trail, the judged dismissed all testimony from the first trial, all discussion of witness coercion by the FBI, and any mention of the political violence at Pine Ridge. It was all considered “irrelevant”. The FBI’s witnesses were free to contradict statements they made at the first trial. Crucial evidence regarding the murder weapon turned out to be fraudulent, but the ballistics test results were hidden from the defense.
In this trial, Peltier was found guilty of killing both of the FBI agents and, on June 1, 1977, sentenced to two consecutive life terms in federal prison. Fifty congressmen petitioned for a new trial, Amnesty International listed him as a political prisoner, and the “Free Leonard Peltier” movement began. Robert Redford produced a documentary about him, Incident at Oglala, which can be seen here. Another documentary about AIM and Leonard Peltier is on YouTube. Had Peltier been tried alongside Butler and Robideau in the first trial, he likely would have been found not guilty.
Today Peltier is completing his 39th year in prison. He remains a symbol of Native self-reliance and sovereignty.
There are several on-line petitions urging President Obama to grant clemency to Peltier. Here are some of them:
And Free Leonard Peltier Facebook groups here and here, which have additional information. The most well-known, and probably the most thorough, book on the subject is In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen.