ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)