The way Leonard Peltier tells it, he was a criminal the day he was born — but not by choice. The seventy-eight-year-old Anishinaabe and Dakota elder says his “aboriginal sin” was being born Indian in a country founded on Indians’ forced disappearance.
Recent investigations by the US Department of the Interior into the federal Indian boarding school system have confirmed Peltier’s version of history and what Native people have been saying for generations: that the boarding system was a horrific, sprawling network, encompassing more than four hundred schools across thirty-seven states or then-territories and targeting countless Native children. For more than 150 years, government officials stole Native children from their families, and many never returned home. Federal agents punished, and sometimes imprisoned, recalcitrant parents for keeping their children away from schools where their languages, their sense of self, and sometimes their very lives were taken from them. The child removal policy aimed to destroy Native families and weaken resistance to land seizures.
Peltier was nine years old when a government agent snatched him and his sisters away from their grandmother and placed them at the Wahpeton Boarding School in North Dakota. He remembers his grandmother crying, barely understanding the words of the person taking her grandchildren. He recalls parents singing “that way they do when someone has passed” as their children were loaded onto buses. “Maybe that day was my introduction to this destiny I did not choose,” Peltier wrote last year about his harrowing first day of boarding school. That episode, which he called “one of horror,” has haunted Peltier for life.
Last month marked Peltier’s forty-eighth year behind bars, locked away in a federal penitentiary in Florida, far from his family and homelands, and serving two consecutive life sentences for killing two FBI agents on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in June 1975, a crime he says he did not commit. His supporters consider his life of incarceration a collective punishment for indigenous people’s long history of defiance against US government policies. He is the longest-held indigenous political prisoner in the United States.
A nearly five-decade-long campaign to free Peltier has drawn the support of millions, including many Native nations, politicians, activists, celebrities, and world leaders. In the 1980s, more than seventeen million Soviet citizens sent petitions to Washington calling for Peltier’s release. Their government granted him political asylum and sent him a physician to examine his ailing eyes. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, where Peltier is enrolled, has urged President Joe Biden to free its elderly citizen and has prepared for his return home. Even a former federal prosecutor who helped keep Peltier in prison has petitioned for his clemency. Last year, United Nations experts recommended Peltier’s immediate release after finding that his imprisonment was so excessive it amounted to arbitrary detention.
Despite all appeals, the FBI remains the most outspoken opponent of freeing Peltier. “Retribution seems to have emerged as the primary if not sole reason” for Peltier’s continued imprisonment, Coleen Rowley, a retired FBI agent who was close to his case, wrote in a letter to Biden last December urging Peltier’s release. She called the FBI’s near half-century campaign an “emotion-driven ‘FBI family’ vendetta” against Peltier and the American Indian Movement.
Peltier, AIM, and the Fight for Native Rights
Born in 1944, Peltier joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the group’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. AIM had been formed in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, partly to end Native family separation and police violence. Two studies from 1969 to 1974 found that 25 to 35 percent of all Native children had been separated from their families and placed into institutions, foster care, or adoptive families. Many of AIM’s founders, like Peltier, had survived boarding schools only to face racism and inner-city poverty, incarceration, or the threat of having their families broken apart. AIM’s purpose was to build an alternative to this grim reality and to fight for Native rights.
Post–World War II Indian policy in the United States sought to formally end relations between the government and American Indian nations. “Termination policy” abolished more than one hundred tribes and removed millions of acres of land from federal trust status, opening them up for privatization and resource extraction. “Relocation policy” aimed to finish what termination had started by inducing hundreds of thousands of Native people to leave their reservations to find employment in far-off urban centers like Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Urban poverty and discrimination replaced rural, reservation poverty. These assimilationist policies gave rise to the Red Power movement in the 1960s.
Urban Native activists began occupying abandoned federal property to dramatize their demands, famously taking over the Alcatraz prison island in San Francisco Bay in 1969. AIM followed suit, leading a nationwide takeover of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) offices in 1970 in protest of discriminatory hiring practices that privileged white employees over American Indian employees. The actions helped transform AIM from a local Twin Cities, Minnesota organization into a national movement.
By 1972 AIM had chapters in every region of the United States, and the same year, Peltier formerly joined AIM. He followed the movement to Washington, DC, taking over BIA headquarters during the Trail of Broken Treaties, which sought to reestablish treaty-making and nation-to-nation relations with the United States.
That action drew the ire of tribal leaders in the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation, located largely in South Dakota, who banned AIM leaders from the reservation. Dissident Oglalas called on AIM to take a stand at Wounded Knee, abolish the tribal council, and reinstate the validity of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and the traditional Lakota government. They obliged — for seventy-one days, beginning on February 27, 1973, Oglalas and members of AIM occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Following the highly publicized takeover, violence and terror gripped the Pine Ridge. Dick Wilson, the autocratic tribal president, led a vicious crackdown on reservation dissidents, who sought to overturn a corrupt tribal council system that catered to outside economic interests and the assimilationist policies of the BIA. AIM allied itself with the “traditionals,” those who defended Lakota spirituality, sovereignty, and treaty rights. Elders, like Celia and Harry Jumping Bull, called upon Peltier and AIM for protection from Wilson’s vigilante “goon squad” and the FBI, who were waging a low-intensity dirty war against AIM and its supporters in the aftermath of Wounded Knee.
Two months before the firefight that would change Peltier’s life — and following the 1974 acquittal of AIM leadership involved in the Wounded Knee takeover — the FBI issued an internal position paper entitled “FBI Paramilitary Operations in Indian Country,” a how-to plan for confronting AIM in a battlefield-type situation. The report referred to an area outside the village of Oglala as having bunkers that would require a paramilitary force to overtake. The month before the firefight, FBI personnel, mostly SWAT team members, swarmed the Pine Ridge Reservation. One FBI map of the Jumping Bull property identified “bunkers” that turned out to be crumbling root cellars. Tensions were high, and the FBI appeared ready for war.
On June 26, 1975, FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler wore plain clothes and drove unmarked vehicles into the Jumping Bull ranch — outside Oglala on the western side of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — while supposedly serving a warrant for assault and theft of a pair of cowboy boots. The agents never identified themselves, and a firefight erupted, catching a family with small children in the cross fire.
The shooting roused Peltier and his AIM group, which included Native youths, some of whom returned fire. One hundred fifty FBI agents, BIA police, and local vigilantes surrounded the property shortly after the shooting started. Peltier, his group, and local residents barely escaped through a barrage of bullets.
When the shooting stopped, three lay dead. The FBI claims Williams and Coler were shot in the head at close range. Joe Stuntz, a twenty-three-year-old member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, was also killed. An unknown police agent shot Stuntz in the head. No one was ever prosecuted for his murder.
Meanwhile, Peltier and his group split up. Some of the youngsters returned to pay their respects at Stuntz’s funeral. Peltier and the others went underground. But the FBI, leading one the largest manhunts in its history, eventually caught up with them, eager to mete out its version of justice.
The circumstances surrounding the June 1975 firefight — which a US Commission on Civil Rights investigation described as part of an FBI “reign of terror” against AIM and its supporters — were enough to convince an all-white jury in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1976 to acquit Peltier’s codefendants of murder charges on grounds of self-defense.
Bob Robideau and Dino Butler’s defense offered evidence of the FBI’s history of misconduct, which had recently been revealed during high-profile Senate hearings spearheaded by Idaho senator Frank Church. Church himself testified at the trial that “certain groups” — like the Communist Party, the Black Panthers, and the antiwar movement — “were targeted for surveillance [by the FBI] at least in part because of political attitudes.” AIM, too, faced its share of FBI harassment: disruptive informants, bad-jacketing campaigns, and paranoia-inducing surveillance.
The evidence presented was so damning that Peltier would be free today if he had been tried alongside Butler and Robideau. But he was prosecuted separately, with the government selecting a less sympathetic judge and less favorable venue (Fargo, North Dakota).
Peltier had fled after the shoot-out to Canada, where he was arrested and extradited to the United States based on false affidavits given by Myrtle Poor Bear, who claimed to be Peltier’s girlfriend at the time and an eyewitness to the agents’ killings. She was neither, nor had she ever met Peltier before his trial. Poor Bear later recanted her story, claiming she was coerced and threatened by FBI agents to provide false testimony. Other witnesses said FBI agents also threatened them or coerced their testimony.
FBI bullying of witnesses, however, was not allowed to be presented as evidence to the jury, nor was the climate of fear the FBI had created on the reservation. The prosecution withheld important ballistics evidence, it was later revealed, that could have been exculpatory. And one juror openly admitted to the court that she was “prejudiced against Indians” yet was allowed to remain on the jury.
In April 1977, the jury found Peltier guilty, and the judge sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences. “I have done nothing to feel guilty about,” Peltier told the judge. “The only thing I am guilty of and which I was convicted for was of being Chippewa and Sioux blood and for believing our sacred religion.”
On appeal, the government was forced to drop its theory that Peltier personally shot the agents due to lack of evidence. It instead pivoted to an accusation of aiding and abetting their murder. When asked whom Peltier was aiding and abetting, US Attorney Lynn Crooks answered, “whoever did the final shooting.” He added: “Perhaps aiding and abetting himself.”
Putting aside the absurdity of aiding and abetting oneself, Peltier could not have aided and abetted his codefendants, because aiding and abetting self-defense is not a crime. And according to the government’s own account, his codefendants were the only people close to the agents’ bodies during the firefight.
The theory upon which Peltier’s conviction now rests “is that he was guilty of murder simply because he was present with a weapon at the Reservation that day,” former US Attorney James Reynolds wrote in a 2021 letter to President Biden asking for Peltier’s clemency. Reynolds worked on Peltier’s prosecution and appeals cases, but believes today that his prosecution and continued incarceration “was and is unjust.” The prosecution was “not able to prove that Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation.”
In a phone interview, Peltier told me that the facts of his case prove his innocence — but that the truth alone has not set him free.
Freedom for Peltier
Three days before the Jumping Bull shoot-out, the Church Committee decided to investigate FBI surveillance of AIM. But the decision was hushed up the day after the firefight. The International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee and Oglala members have been calling for a congressional investigation into the murders, rapes, and beatings that went uninvestigated or unsolved during that reign of terror.
According to Coleen Rowley, the former FBI agent, the bureau “indoctrinated” new agents at Quantico in the prosecution’s version of Peltier’s case in the 1980s. While FBI agents have restricted First Amendment rights, they made an exception for Peltier, she said, encouraging agents to write op-eds against his release and even marching in front of the White House during the final days of the Clinton administration to oppose a possible presidential pardon. Rowley is a rare dissenting voice as a retired FBI agent once close to Peltier’s case.
But there are more unanswered questions about Peltier’s case and uncertainty about his freedom. In a recent message to supporters, he spoke about his fear of never getting out of prison, or of only having a limited amount of time with his family before he leaves this world for the next.
February marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation, but the wounds of the past have not been healed. The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which aimed to reverse the Native family separation that took away Peltier and countless others, is on the chopping block at the Supreme Court. And the Biden administration has been silent about Peltier’s clemency application — his only legal chance at freedom.
“I live in the nation’s fastest-growing reservation in the United States,” Peltier once said about his predicament in federal prison.
But in a recent statement to supporters, Peltier expressed hope and encouraged them to teach their children “to plant a food forest or any plant that will provide for them in the future.”
“Plant a tree for me,” Peltier said.