12 minute read

Indian Territory

LEONARD PELTIER HAS BEEN called a modern-day warrior and a martyr for the indigenous cause by Native American special interest groups. He’s been called a political radical, a liar, and a murderer by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He’s been the subject of a best-selling biography, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, and an awardwinning documentary, Incident at Oglala. He’s been convicted of two murders and has spent more than forty years in federal penitentiaries. Petitions have been circulated all over the world demanding his release and every president since Jimmy Carter has considered and rejected his plea for clemency.

There hasn’t been a Native American surrounded by this much controversy since the end of the Indian Wars and resettlement of the indigenous peoples on reservations, but if you’re a mainstream EuroAmerican you probably have very little idea what all the fuss is about.


On September 12, 1944, Leonard Peltier was born into a family of thirteen children on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation near Belcourt, North Dakota. He is a citizen of the Anishinabe and Dakota/ Lakota Nations. His parents divorced when he was four years old and he was raised by his paternal grandparents until he reached the age of nine. That’s when a government car came and took him to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school at Wahpeton, North Dakota.

“I consider my years at Wahpeton my first imprisonment,” Leonard Peltier wrote in his book, Prison Writings—My Life is my Sun Dance. “And it was for the same crime as all the others: being an Indian. We had to speak English. We were beaten if we were caught speaking our own language.”

That was his first brush with government authority, but it was not his last. A fairly large minority of the world population thinks he shouldn’t be there.

His supporters include names that won’t surprise anyone—Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Willie Nelson— as well as a number of individuals and organizations that aren’t quite so predictable—Oliver Stone, Amnesty International, The National Congress of American Indians, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Coretta Scott King.

Leonard Peltier also has a number of supporters who don’t typically take positions on political matters within the United States: Robin Williams, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William Stryon, E.L. Doctorow, the European Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, the Italian Parliament, The Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama), Ramsey Clark (former U.S. Attorney General), and Daniel K. Inouye (the late Democratic Senator of Hawaii).

Numerous petitions have been circulated demanding the release or retrial of Leonard Peltier. By 1995, 750,000 Americans and 25 million people worldwide had signed them. So many are circulating today that they are almost impossible to tabulate but the numbers are staggering.

Peltier’s case is complicated. There are legal transcripts and FBI documents going back as far as 1973 and historical issues that go back much further. But the crime that led to his sentence to two consecutive life terms began on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. It has come to be known as The Incident at Oglala, after the award-winning documentary that deals with the case.


Two years before Peltier’s life changing ‘incident’, there was a seventy-one-day standoff between traditional members of the Oglala nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation and Federal agents, including U.S. Marshals, the FBI, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A couple of hundred traditional Sioux along with some AIM (American Indian Movement) activists occupied some commercial buildings in the little town of Wounded Knee to protest the actions of Tribal President Richard Wilson.

Wilson had already organized a paramilitary organization who called themselves the GOONs (Guardians Of the Oglala Nation) to put down political dissent and keep members of the American Indian Movement off the reservation.

The FBI considered AIM to be a radical organization similar to the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party, and threw their support behind the GOONs. They armed the vigilante group, deputized them, trained them and gave them tactical support.


After the standoff ended, courts ruled U.S. government operatives had no jurisdiction to come onto the reservation to settle political disputes. Federal agents disarmed the traditional protestors before they withdrew but left the GOONs’ organization intact and armed.

During the two years that followed there were sixty murders on the sparsely populated reservation (approximately 20,000 tribal members). More than three hundred people went missing. Most were never found and were presumed to be dead by the tribe. In response to the violence, the government once again increased its presence on the reservation, but they were perceived by traditional tribal members as being aligned with the GOONs. During their stay on Pine Ridge, federal agencies did not actively investigate the paramilitary group’s role in missing tribal members other than to search for mass graves. That two-year period is still known as ‘The Reign of Terror’ among the residents.

Traditional Sioux requested AIM come to the reservation to help them. Seventeen people, including Leonard Peltier did. Those defenders and their supporters set up a so-called tent city on the property of Celia and Harry Jumping Bull. It was on the Jumping Bull property the ‘incident’ occurred.


On June 26, 1975, Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams entered the Jumping Bull compound driving separate unmarked cars. They were searching for a red pickup truck that belonged to Jimmy Eagle, an AIM member, who had allegedly stolen a pair of cowboy boots. The agents reported seeing a suspicious truck enter the property. Soon after his initial report, Williams radioed into local dispatch that he and Coler had come under high-powered rifle fire from the occupants of the vehicle. In some of the radio-exchanges the vehicle was described as a red and white van rather than a red pickup truck. This was significant because Leonard Peltier had been seen on the reservation driving a van of that description.

Williams radioed they’d be killed if reinforcements did not arrive soon. He next radioed that he was hit. FBI Special Agent Gary Adams was the first to respond to Williams’ call for assistance. He also came under intense gunfire and was unable to reach Coler and Williams. When the gun battle ended, both men were found dead.

Later that day authorities used teargas and stormed the Jumping Bull houses. Most of the AIM activists had scattered but agents recovered the body of a Native American, Joseph Stuntz, who had been killed by a BIA rifleman. Stuntz was wearing Coler’s green FBI Jacket.

The government quickly fixed the blame for the killings on four AIM members: Jimmy Eagle, Darrelle (Dino) Butler, Bob Robideau, and Leonard Peltier. All these men were in the Jumping Bull Compound at the time of the shooting. All of them were armed, and all of them were firing weapons.

Leonard Peltier was already wanted by the FBI. He had jumped bail for attempted murder of a policeman in Wisconsin in order to come to Pine Ridge and had crossed state lines to get there. It should be noted that the attempted murder charge against Peltier was dismissed when he finally came to trial. It was determined he had been set up by two off duty policemen, one of whom, Ronald Hlavinka, had shown a picture of Peltier to his girlfriend and told her, “he was going to help the FBI get a big one.”

There is no doubt the FBI wanted to build a case against Leonard Peltier. He had participated in the takeover of Ft. Lawton, an abandoned military installation in Seattle, and had gotten off with a trespassing charge. He was among the AIM activists who occupied BIA headquarters in Washington D.C. during the Trail of Broken Treaties protest. While they occupied BIA facilities, AIM activists conducted what has been described as the biggest document heist in history, including the names of FBI informants and proof of forced sterilizations of Native American women. Peltier was never charged in those incidents, but his name was circulated among government agencies and local police departments.

Charges were dropped against Jimmy Eagle for lack of evidence, but AIM activists Butler and Robideau were taken into custody. They were charged with first degree murder and tried together in federal court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both defendants were found not guilty by reason of self-defense.

While all this was going on, Leonard Peltier fled to Canada where he hid out in a supporter’s cabin in Alberta. Had he been captured and tried along with Butler and Robideau, there is little doubt he would have also been found not guilty. Instead, he was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List.


Peltier was extradited based on FBI documents that Canada’s Solicitor General would later state contained false information. Witness statements proved to be incorrect, and forensic data was presented as conclusive when it was little more than speculation. Those things are more typical than they should be in extradition proceedings, but in Peltier’s case the FBI also provided testimony by a woman, Myrtle Poor Bear, claiming she was Peltier’s girlfriend and that he had confessed the murders to her when she was at the Jumping Bull compound.

In fact, Myrtle Poor Bear had never met Leonard Peltier and was never at the compound. She later claimed she was pressured by the FBI to testify. When it appeared her testimony might actually support Peltier’s case at his trial she was excluded on the basis of mental incompetency.

Peltier was tried in Fargo, North Dakota, rather than in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the other two men charged in the murders were found not guilty by reason of self-defense. Trial judge, Paul Benson, made public prejudicial statements against the defendant before and after the proceedings and did not permit Peltier’s attorney to use the self-defense strategy that had been successful in Cedar Rapids. The jury was all white (ten men and two women) and were sequestered, which gave them the impression the defendant was a danger to them personally.

Peltier was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. The prosecution team presented ballistic evidence which was later found to be fabricated. They showed the jury a rifle they claimed was the murder weapon and stated it belonged to Leonard Peltier. The FBI later admitted the weapon could not be connected either to the murder or to Leonard Peltier.

Prosecuting attorneys told the jury Peltier killed both agents at close range and in cold blood, based on evidence provided by the FBI. After the trial, the agency admitted they had no idea who actually killed the agents, or what weapons were involved.

No evidence of the hostile conditions on the reservation at the time of the murders was permitted as part of the defense, nor was the acquittal of the other two defendants in the case.

Subsequent appeals were unsuccessful, even though the government changed its prosecutorial theory to ‘Aiding and Abetting’ rather than ‘Premeditated Murder’ after the guilty verdict. Years after the trial, the U.S. Parole Commission stated there was lack of direct evidence Peltier directly participated in the killings.

In spite of this, he is still serving the two consecutive life sentences based on the original charges.


Leonard Peltier was last eligible for parole in 1993. He will next be eligible in 2024. His supporters have brought petitions for pardons or clemency to every president since his incarceration. Each one has been denied.

It was widely believed that Bill Clinton was giving serious consideration to pardoning Peltier during the last months of his administration. Whatever his inclination, he denied clemency after he was visited by the former governor of South Dakota, Bill Janklow, and after hundreds of FBI agents marched in front of the White House protesting the possibility.

Two groups representing 15,000 active and former FBI agents wrote an open letter to Clinton, warning him that Peltier is “playing on sympathy. Don’t let him get away with it.”


We know for a certainty that Peltier was at the Jumping Bull Compound on the day special agents Williams and Cole were killed. He has admitted being armed and to firing his weapon. What we cannot know, and what the FBI now admits it does not know is whether he had anything to do with the actual murders.

Federal prosecutors did not try Leonard Peltier on the charge of Aiding and Abetting. It is doubtful they would have achieved a verdict of two consecutive life sentences if they had. The government excluded from the trial any mention of violence on the reservation at the time of the incident. It introduced evidence which has proven subsequently to be false. It prevented Peltier from offering self-defense as a defense strategy. Government agencies have intervened in his attempt to take his case to the president of the United States.

Former U.S. attorney Ramsey Clark wrote the following statement in the preface to Peltier’s Prison Writings: “I think I can explain beyond serious doubt that Leonard Peltier has committed no crime whatsoever. Even if he had been guilty of firing the gun that killed two FBI agents—and it is certain that he did not—it would have been in self-defense and in the defense not just of his people but of the right of all individuals and peoples to be free from domination and exploitation.”

The late senator Daniel K. Inouye wrote in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno in July of 1993: “As long as the {FBI} misconduct issues in this case are left unresolved, it will be difficult for Native Americans to trust that the U.S. judicial system will accord them with the same justice it accords to other citizens.”

Inouye has since endorsed clemency or some other legal mechanism to gain Peltier’s release, such as reducing his sentence to time already served. I have to agree with him.

—John T. Biggs is the author of six novels and hundreds of short stories. His writing is so full of Oklahoma that once you read it, you’ll never get the red dirt stains washed out of your mind. John lives in Oklahoma City with his wife, and they travel extensively throughout the world with their family.