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Leonard Peltier - Native American Political Prisoner

Updated on February 15, 2015

He is controversial. Some consider him a murderer; others say he is a political prisoner. He has been incarcerated since 1976. On September 12, 2014 he will be 70 years old and his release date is 2041. Any rational mind can do the math and understand that he was virtually sentenced to die in prison.

Leonard Peltier is a father and a grandfather. He is of Chippewa/Lakota/French ancestry and grew up on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. He was schooled in Indian boarding schools.

As an adult, Leonard Peltier became involved in the American Indian Movement. The early 70's were tumultuous times for American Indians, especially on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The political climate was heated both on and off the reservation. The Lakota tribe was being divided by a political battle between the traditionalists and a more progressive candidate named Dick Wilson. Violence was commonplace and many of the Elder traditionalists were being threatened and intimidated by a group of Wilson supporters. The atmosphere of fear was so palpable that many of the Elders feared for their life and became prisoners of their homes. Too afraid to even go outside to collect firewood, they invited assistance from members of the American Indian Movement. Leonard was one of many who responded to the call.

As the violence escalated, an incident occurred on the reservation and when it ended, two FBI agents and a young Indian boy were dead. All died from gunshot wounds. This is where the story unfolds as one of an imperfect system of justice.

  • Only those who were there on June 26, 1975 really know what happened but if you study the case, you know that it was a tragedy. No one should have died that day, not Agent Ronald Williams, not Agent Jack Coler, and not young Joe Stuntz. The circumstances that prompted the shoot out are well documented in the following sources and will not be repeated here.
  • DVD: Incident at Oglala (watch on line)
  • DVD: Incident at Oglala (purchase from Amazon)
  • Book: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (purchase from Amazon)

To hear what the other side (the FBI side) has to say, you might also read the book :"American Indian Mafia:An FBI Agent's True Story about Wounded Knee, Leonard Peltier, and the American Indian Movement (AIM".

I will not attempt to tell the story in detail here. It is best understood by reading the book or watching the video. To leave out any detail would be a discredit to the case. There are facts about Leonard Peltier's case that only an irrational mind would not question. This is a story that should strike at the heart of each of us. For if it can happen to one of us, it can happen to any one of us.

Suppose for a minute that you were involved in trying to help your family in a country where fighting between government factions raged all around you. In the early hours of morning, you hear gunshots and see a car racing across the landscape. You grab your gun, fearing that your loved ones will be harmed. There is an exchange of gunfire from both directions and from several guns. When the shooting is over, three are dead.

In almost any court in America, this would be called "self defense". But this is where the Leonard Peltier case begins its remarkable journey into the world of racism, opporession and injustice.

Case Facts

  1. According to FBI documents, more than forty people participated in the shoot out that occurred on Pine Ridge Reservation on June 26, 1975. Three individuals were charged with the death of FBI Agents Coler and Williams. Those individuals were Bob Robideau, Dino Butler, and Leonard Peltier. No one was ever charged in the death of Joe Stuntz. a young Indian boy from the area. Robideau and Butler were tried together. Fearing that they would not get a fair trial, their defense team asked that their trial be moved from the State of South Dakota and they were tried in Cedar Rapids, IA by a predominantly white jury. Both were acquitted: the exchange of gunfire was deemed "self defense".
  2. Leonard Pletier fled to Canada and was tried separately (after extradition) in Fargo, North Dakota. Judge McManus who presided over the Robideau/Butler trial, claims he was astonished when he was removed from the schedule to try the Peltier case. Peltier was convicted of murdering the two FBI agents and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
  3. Ballistic tests that confirmed that the shell casing that killed the agents did not match the gun associated with Leonard Peltier were withheld from evidence presented at the trial.
  4. The government withheld over 140,000 pages of documentation from Leonard Peltier's defense attorneys prior to his trial.
  5. Trial witnesses later testified they had been paid or coerced to testify against Leonard Peltier.
  6. In a post-trial appeal, the government attorney admitted they do not know who fired the fatal shots that killed Agents Coler and Williams. He did say however that Leonard Peltier is equally guilty for his participation in the shoot out.

Unanswered Questions

  • For some, there are many unanswered questions in the case of Leonard Peltier but some things just don't add up.
  • Three charged. Two acquitted. One convicted.
  • No proven identity of the shooter. No confirming ballistics.
  • Witnesses flip-flop.

Clearly the evidence did not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Leonard Peltier was the shooter. If it could happen to Leonard Peltier, it could happen to you, or someone you love.

One must ask, what caused the wrongful conviction of Leonard Peltier?

  • Was it racism? We can't forget that a predominantly white jury convicted Peltier in a state where racism against Native Americans was the norm.
  • Was it personal vengeance for the death of two agents. Was it more important to convict someone than it was to convict the right one?
  • Was it an attempt by the government to cause dissension and disrupt the American Indian Movement, an organization that was gathering momentum in the fight for Native American rights?
  • Why was no one ever held accountable for the death of young Joe Stuntz? This is a question that still haunts.

Public Opinion

Leonard Peltier has had the support of many individuals and organizations over the years. The activity surrounding his case waxes and wanes as attorneys come and go, appeals are filed and denied, supporters burn out, funds dry up, and personalities conflict.

Leonard Peltier has been recognized as a political prisoner of the U.S. government by individuals and organizations around the world. An example of the varied support for Leonard Peltier is seen in this partial list. :

  • Amnesty international
  • Archbishop Demond Tutu
  • The Dalai Lama
  • Dr. Helen Caldicott
  • Ramsey Clark (former US Attorney General)
  • National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  • The European Parliament
  • Kris Kristopherson
  • Jane Fonda
  • Robert Redford
  • Jessie Jackson
  • The late Coretta Scott King

Why Is Leonard Peltier Still In Prison?

Why Do I Care? Why Should You?

I care about Leonard Peltier because no one should be imprisoned unless the evidence proves their guilt beyond doubt. I care because I believe our judicial system failed in this case. If it can happen to one, it can happen to any one.

Some will say I've been brainwashed; that I am so vulnerable that I fell for the tainted stories of misconduct by our judicial system. Some will say that I am just plain nuts or that I'm one of those radical thinking Indian lovers. I prefer to be thought of as a somewhat rational person that wants desperately to live in a world where justice really does apply to every one. I am desperate to live in a country where I can trust my government to protect me and my inalienable rights. And I am desperate to live in a country where the color of ones skin or their racial, gender, or religious affiliations are not the factors that determine ones value to society.

Twenty years or more ago, I spent three months transcribing the court transcripts from the Leonard Peltier trial. The digital documents were made available to supporters who wanted to learn about the case. What i read and transcribed, scared me. It sickened me. I cried over the death of three people, not just two. I cried with joy that two were exonerated and grieved for the one who was convicted without proof. It saddens me even now, as I rehash those same feelings once again. But I am reminded that we cannot stop caring until justice is served.

Leonard Peltier cannot regain the 39 years he has been incarcerated, kept from watching his children grow up, and now his grandchildren are growing up with him. At the very least, Leonard Peltier deserves to be paroled. At 68 years old, he has serious health issues. He is no threat to anyone. To keep him locked up until his next parole hearing in 2024 is as criminal as his original conviction.

Leonard Peltier is a human being who may have made some bad choices in his youth but he must be credited for the good he has done, even as a federal prisoner - a political prisoner. Leonard Peltier has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1992 he established a scholarship at New York University for Native American students seeking a degree in law. Leonard Peltier, from the isolation of prison, sponsors an annual Christmas gift drive for the children of Pine Ridge Reservation and has initiated emergency food drives for the People of Pohlo, Mexico. He has received many awards such as:

  • 1986 Human Rights Commission of Spain International Human Rights Prize
  • 2011 Mario Benedetti Foundation (Uruguay) - First International Human Rights Prize.
  • 1993 North Star Frederick Douglas Award
  • 2003 Federation of Labour (Ontatio, Canada) Humanist of the Year Award
  • 2009 First Red Nation Humanitarian Award
  • 2010 Fighters for Justice Award

Who among us can claim such accomplishment? Leonard Peltier may not be a hero, but his story could be yours, or, mine. We must make his voice heard until there is justice for even the least of us. And, we must never forget that on that fateful day, three men lost their lives. The lives of those who loved them changed forever. Regardless of your opinion of this case, the truth is - everyone involved that day was doing their job. Agents Coler and Williams were doing their job. Leonard, Bob, Dino, Joe, and all the others were doing their job. They were taking care of their Elders. From a distance, all was well. And then, someone made a move that changed the lives of many. I am reminded of how our actions can change the destiny of others. Perhaps that alone is reason enough to care.


Submit a Comment
  • BuffaloGal1960 profile image

    T. Clifton 

    6 years ago from Buffalo, Missouri

    IRC: I just mentioned you in an answer. I hope you don't mind.

    This post was written exceptionally well. I read it some time back and must have gotten distracted about the time I was going to comment. That happens when you're a mom. :) Voted up, been sharing and will share until he's freed. Thank you for caring about Leonard Peltier.

  • BuffaloGal1960 profile image

    T. Clifton 

    6 years ago from Buffalo, Missouri

    Dear IRC. I just read your article and you did a fine job presenting it.

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and tasteful presentation.

    I've only been a hubber for a couple of months, but have read many and this is my favorite to date.

    Voted up. I will pin this to my Pinterest page if you don't mind. :)

  • lrc7815 profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Crist 

    7 years ago from Central Virginia

    Mr Trimbach, I will not fight with you here. I tried to have a resonable dialogue with you. I did indeed read your book and found some of your sources to be questionable. I did not look for an opportunity to publicly assault you. I respect your right to an opinion. Personaly, I have a higher purpose here and that is to become a better writer. As for my heroes, you will see hubs written on them such as "Daddy's Ties and the Quilt" or "Mom, Do You Believe in Angels". They, are my heroes. I bid you farewell and wish you well. If you continue to harrass, I will flag you and let the staff decide if you are worthy of participating in this community of good people.

  • jamesimon500 profile image

    John Trimbach 

    7 years ago

    Ah, no, it makes you wrong, since the facts I quote are from court records; your claims appear to come from the very twisted mind of your hero in jail, and his lackeys. And, sorry, but we doubt you read the book.

  • lrc7815 profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Crist 

    7 years ago from Central Virginia

    PS jamesimont00 - I have read your book and I think you have some facts twisted. Does that make me right? People who live in glass houses....

  • lrc7815 profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Crist 

    7 years ago from Central Virginia

    jamesimont00 - I hear you but I don't think you heard me. I would ask that you read my hub again. Nowhere in it do I NOT ACKNOWLEDGE the sad loss of life of THREE people. Nowhere in this hub did I claim that Leonard was innocent. I expressly said that justice was not his and I stand by that. If three people were charged with the same crime and two were acquitted in the name of "self defense", why wasn't the third? Why...was there no justice for Joe Stuntz murder? It was a murder, wasn't it?

    As for the material I referenced, it is the only material that is available to the public. It is a good place to start, if one is to understand the climate on Pine Ridge at the time. Whatever you believe about this case, the fact remains that it happened on Indian land. The Indians didn't drive into town on public land and start shooting. There was a catalyst for this event and it was the unexpected arrival of an unmarked car on Indian land where gunshots were becoming more normal than not. The fear was met with a defensive action that resulted in a tragic ending - for many people.

    As I said, if you were not there, did not witness the event, it is impossible to know the truth. I thought I made that perfectly clear. The other thing I made perfectly clear is my opinion that NO ONE SHOULD HAVE DIED. Did you miss that?

    My point in this hub was not to tell others how to think. It was to create awareness. I expected criticism and insult. You did not disappoint. But I would ask you again, to re-read, with an open mind. I think you will find me equally emypathetic for all involved.

  • jamesimon500 profile image

    John Trimbach 

    7 years ago

    Glad to hear you care about Leonard but your "facts" come from the old AIM playbook of lies, hate and propaganda, and the now thoroughly discredited ITSOCH and Robert Redford’s equally distorted and falsified film. How about genuinely caring about Leonard's victims and their surviving family members? If you want the unvarnished truth, skip the LPDOC talking points and reference the legal record which you seem to have forgotten. That would include the long series of Leonard’s appeals, all refuted in court because the judges don’t buy his constantly changing alibis, his frivolous attempts to exploit his native ancestry, and his "I'm the victim" con job he successfully peddles to a dwindling number of fans. As we now know as the result of the Anna Mae Aquash murder trials, Leonard bragged about shooting Ron Williams, as he sat wounded and helpless, begging for his life. No, Leonard’s story could not have happened to anyone, unless we are also of the mind to shoot federal agents in the face at point-blank range. Shame on you for falling victim to another one of Peltier’s scams and torturing us with distortions and falsehoods about this double-murder case.

  • lrc7815 profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Crist 

    7 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi Mhatter99! Thanks. It's one more sad story that should be told. It is hard to condense in the form of a hub so I hope I provided enough information to lead readers to learn more.

  • Mhatter99 profile image

    Martin Kloess 

    7 years ago from San Francisco

    Wow, how fascinating. This is the first, understandably, I have heard of this. Thank you for bringing it to light.


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