Leonard Peltier (born September 12, 1944) is a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). In 1977 he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for first degree murder in the shooting of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents during a 1975 conflict on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Peltier’s activism began after his move to Seattle in 1965, where he had worked in automotive body repair. Peltier had great success in his chosen career and eventually owned his own shop. During the early 1970’s, he became an activist in a variety of causes which supported Native American civil rights and fair treatment by the US government. He eventually joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) whose primary goal is to address American Indian sovereignty, treaty issues, spirituality, and leadership, while simultaneously addressing incidents of police harassment and racism against Native Americans forced to move away from reservations and tribal culture by the 1950s-era enforcement of the U.S. federal government-enforced Indian Termination Policies originally created in the 1930s.
Early in his AIM involvement, Peltier had become aware of tensions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota between supporters of then tribal chairman (1972), Richard Wilson, and tribal traditionalists. Wilson and his formed militia group, Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON), had began taking action against any opponents to Wilson’s seat or any seen as a threat to their organization. Fighting over the attempted impeachment of Wilson by the Oglala Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) soon led to the February 27th, 1973, take over of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Oglala and AIM activists controlled the town for 71 days while the United States Marshals Service, FBI agents, and other law enforcement agencies cordoned off the area. The activists chose the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre for its symbolic value. Both sides were armed and shooting was frequent. A Cherokee and an Oglala Lakota were killed by shootings in April 1973. Ray Robinson, a civil rights activist who joined the protesters, disappeared during the events and is believed to have been murdered. Due to damage to the houses, the small community was not reoccupied until the 1990’s.
Peltier, however, spent most of the occupation in a Milwaukee jail charged with attempted murder. When Peltier secured bail at the end of April, he took part in an AIM protest outside the federal building in Milwaukee and was on his way to Wounded Knee with the group to deliver supplies when the incident ended. The takeover did not end Wilson’s leadership, the actions of the GOONs or the violence; over sixty murders of AIM members and their supporters occurred on Pine Ridge during the next three years. In 1975 Peltier traveled to the Pine Ridge reservation as a member of AIM to try to help reduce the continuing violence among political opponents. At the time, he was a fugitive, with a warrant issued in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It charged him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for the attempted murder of an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, a crime of which he was later acquitted.
On June 26, 1975, Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were on the Pine Ridge Reservation searching for a young man named Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for questioning in connection with the recent assault and robbery of two local ranch hands. Eagle had been involved in a physical altercation with a friend, during which he had stolen a pair of leather cowboy boots. At approximately 11:50 a.m., Williams and Coler, driving two separate unmarked cars, spotted, reported, and followed a red pick-up truck which matched the description of Eagle’s.
Not long after their initial report on the vehicle, an intense shootout broke out between the agents and unknown assailants. The agents requested back up and informed dispatch that they would not be able to hold out long. Soon after agents began arriving, they were immediately under the same intense fire. Williams was already hit and Coler was dead from two shots to the head. Williams soon succumbed to his wounds and perished as well.
Fighting continued throughout the afternoon between the assailants and members of the Bureau of Indian Police, the FBI, and local law enforcement. At 6:30 that same evening, law enforcement stormed the Jumping Bull houses where they discovered the body of Joe Stuntz, an AIM member, who was earlier fatally injured by a member of the BIA. Upon the recovery of his body they found him wearing one of the FBI agents green coat. He had apparently stripped it from one of the agents after their initial shootout.
On September 5, 1975, Williams’ handgun and shells from both agents’ handguns were found in a vehicle near a residence where Dino Butler was arrested. On September 9, 1975, Peltier purchased a Plymouth station wagon in Denver, Colorado. The FBI sent out descriptions of the vehicle and a recreational vehicle (RV) in which Peltier and associates were believed to be traveling. An Oregon State Trooper stopped the vehicles and ordered the driver of the RV to exit; but, after a brief exchange of gunfire, the driver escaped on foot. Authorities later identified the driver as Peltier. Coler’s handgun was found in a bag under the front seat of the RV, where authorities later reported finding Peltier’s thumb print. On December 22, 1975, Peltier was named to the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
On September 10, 1975, a station wagon exploded on the Kansas Turnpike near Wichita. A burned AR-15 rifle was recovered, along with Agent Coler’s .38 Special revolver. The car was loaded with weapons and explosives, which apparently ignited when placed too close to a hole in the exhaust pipe. Injured in the blast were Robert Robideau, Norman Charles, and Michael Anderson, who were all members of AIM.
Peltier fled to Hinton, Alberta, where he hid in a friend’s cabin. On February 6, 1976, he was arrested and extradited from Canada based on an affidavit signed by Myrtle Poor Bear, a local Native American woman. She claimed to have been Peltier’s girlfriend at the time and to have witnessed the murders. But, according to Peltier and others at the scene, Poor Bear did not know Peltier, nor was she present at the time of the shooting. She later claimed that she was pressured and threatened by FBI agents into giving the statements. Poor Bear attempted to testify about the FBI’s intimidation at Peltier’s trial; however, the judge barred her testimony on the grounds of mental incompetence.
Peltier fought extradition to the United States, even as Bob Robideau and Darrelle “Dino” Butler, AIM members also present on the Jumping Bull compound at the time of the shootings, were found not guilty on the grounds of self-defense by a federal jury in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Peltier returned too late to be tried with Robideau and Butler, and he was subsequently tried separately.
Peltier’s trial was held in Fargo, North Dakota, where a jury convicted Peltier of the murders of Coler and Williams. Unlike the trial for Butler and Robideau, the jury was informed that the two FBI agents were killed by close-range shots to their heads, when they were already defenseless due to previous gunshot wounds. They also saw autopsy and crime scene photographs of the two agents, which had not been shown to the jury at Cedar Rapids. In April 1977, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Upon hearing the appeals case on February 11, 1986, Federal Appeals Judge Gerald W. Heaney, concluded, “When all is said and done … a few simple but very important facts remain. The casing introduced into evidence had in fact been extracted from the Wichita AR-15.”
In his 1999 memoir, Peltier admitted that he fired at the agents, but denies that he fired the fatal shots that killed them.
Leonard Peltier provided numerous alibis, to different people, about his activities on the morning of the attacks. In an interview with the author Peter Matthiessen (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, 1983), Peltier described working on a car in Oglala, claiming to have driven back to the Jumping Bull Compound about an hour before the shooting started. In an interview with Lee Hill, he described being woken up in the tent city at the ranch by the sound of gunshots. To Harvey Arden, for Prison Writings, he described enjoying a beautiful morning before he heard the firing.
Several people have since come forward claiming to have been coerced by the FBI to provide false testimony against Peltier. Many claim that they were told that someone had to pay for the killings and it would be Peltier or them. None of their recants have been allowed as evidence in his pursuit of exoneration.
Peltier’s indictment and conviction have been the subject of much controversy; Amnesty International placed his case under the “Unfair Trials” category of its Annual Report: USA 2010.
Peltier’s conviction sparked great controversy and has drawn criticism from a number of sources. Numerous appeals have been filed on his behalf; none of the resulting rulings has been made in his favor. Peltier is considered by the AIM to be a political prisoner and has received support from individuals and groups including Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama), Zack de la Rocha, the European Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Peltier’s supporters have given two different rationales for overturning the conviction. One argument asserts that Peltier did not commit the murders, and that he either had no knowledge of the murders (as he told CNN in 1999), or that he has knowledge implicating others which he will never reveal, or (as told in Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, 1983) that he approached and searched the agents but did not execute them. The other rationale holds that the murders (no matter who committed them) occurred during a war-like atmosphere on the reservation in which FBI agents were terrorizing residents in the wake of the Wounded Knee Incident in 1973.
Peltier is incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary, Coleman in Florida. Peltier’s next scheduled parole hearing will be in July 2024. Barring appeals, parole or presidential pardon, his projected release date is October 11, 2040.