© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Leonard Peltier


Leonard Peltier has become larger than life since receiving back-to-back life sentences for the murders of two FBI agents in a shootout in Pine Ridge, SD nearly 30 years ago. It was on this date in 1977 that his trial before Federal Judge Paul Benson began in Fargo.

Peltier was born in Grand Forks on September 12, 1944, to Leo and Alvina Reabeduex. His parents moved around, finding work in copper mines and logging camps, but when they separated, Peltier was enrolled in the Indian Boarding School in Wahpeton. Later, he returned to live with his mother in Grand Forks, but by age 14, he was out and on his own.

Peltier moved to Washington State, where he became part owner of an auto body shop. In 1964, he got drawn into a fishing rights conflict between Northwest Indian tribes and the U.S. government. It was a high-profile struggle during which comedian Dick Gregory and actor Marlon Brando were arrested while “helping some Indian friends fish” on the Puyallup River.

It was a time of precedent-setting social upheaval in America, including the civil rights movement, Vietnam war protests, Black Panthers and women’s rights... for Peltier, it was the American Indian Movement, or AIM, which he joined in 1970.

On February 27, 1973, things took a really bad turn when members of AIM joined a number of other Native Americans at Wounded Knee, SD, to protest injustices against their tribes, treaty violations, and abuses and repression against their people. The U.S. government responded with a military style assault, and the FBI surrounded the town in a 71-day standoff. Finally, officials promised to hold hearings on local conditions and treaty violations, but these never materialized.

Peltier’s legal team writes, “Throughout the next three years – long referred to by local Native Americans as the ‘Reign of Terror’ – the (FBI) carried out intensive local surveillance, as well as repeated arrests, harassment and bad faith legal proceedings, against AIM leaders and supporters. The FBI also closely collaborated with and supported the local tribal chairperson, Dick Wilson, and his selected vigilantes – the Guardians Of the Oglala Nation (GOONs). Mr. Wilson was notorious for his corruption and abuse of power.

“During this ‘Reign of Terror,’” the team continues, “some 64 local Native Americans were murdered. Three hundred people were harassed, beaten, or otherwise abused. Virtually all of the victims were either affiliated with AIM or their allies, the traditional tribal members. The FBI had jurisdiction to investigate major crimes, yet these deaths were never adequately investigated or resolved. Nor did the FBI agents take any measures to curb the violence of the GOONs...”

AIM leaders Dennis Banks & Russell Means were brought to trial after the siege ended, and the prosecution produced a Mr. Moves Camp as a witness. Moves Camp’s testimony was shown to be fabricated and seriously implicated the FBI of misconduct. The judge dismissed the case against Banks and Means, saying “… the waters of justice have been polluted.” The New York Times reported, on Sept. 26, 1974, that jury members in the case asked the U.S. Attorney General to not appeal the case.

Unfortunately, the situation at Wounded Knee was far from resolved. In May of 1975, the FBI began a sizable buildup of agents and SWAT teams on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The murder rate continued to climb, and tensions ran extremely high on all sides. Tune in tomorrow for more on Leonard Peltier’s story.

Written by Merry Helm