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

Leonard Peltier, Part 2


Twenty-eight years ago today, the trial of Leonard Peltier was in its second day. Peltier, an Ojibwa-Lakota tribal member, was an activist involved in the American Indian Movement or AIM and, in 1972, took part in a 71-day standoff with FBI agents at Wounded Knee. Finally, officials promised to hold hearings on the tribe’s grievances, and the siege was ended. The hearings never took place.

AIM members were engaged in conflicts with non-traditional Native Americans led by Pine Ridge Tribal Councilman, Dick Wilson, and were convinced he was working with the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stop their activism on behalf of Native Americans. AIM members and their supporters say that following the standoff, Wilson and others subjected them to a 3-year “reign of terror” during which more than 60 unsolved murders took place on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

By June 1975, the number of FBI agents and SWAT forces at Pine Ridge had increased, and tensions were high on all sides. FBI personnel included Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, from the Minneapolis base of operations. Around noon on June 26th, Coler and Williams drove onto the grounds of the Jumping Bull Ranch where a number of AIM activists, including Leonard Peltier, were staying. Coler and Williams drove in separate, unmarked vehicles and were following up on a tip that a wanted man, Jimmy Eagle, was seen driving a red pickup onto the property. The situation escalated into a shootout that left both agents, as well as an AIM member, dead.

The FBI officially states: On November 17, 1975, Leonard Peltier, along with Darrelle Dean “Dino” Butler, Robert Eugene Robideau, and James “Jimmy” Eagle were charged in a federal indictment with two counts of first-degree murder and aiding and abetting. During the summer of 1976...Butler and Robideau were both acquitted at trial before the U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Charges against Jimmy Eagle were voluntarily dismissed by the government. Peltier was in custody in Canada fighting extradition. Peltier was eventually extradited back to the United States. Following a five-week jury trial before the U.S. District Court in Fargo, North Dakota, he was convicted on April 18, 1977, of two counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced on June 1, 1977, to serve two consecutive life terms in prison.

The case has generated a tremendous amount of finger pointing from both sides. For example, in “FBI Secrets: An Agent’s Expose,” M. Wesley Swearingen writes, “I was an FBI agent in Los Angeles when Leonard Peltier was convicted, and I know from FBI documents that I read, and from statements made by fellow FBI agents, that Peltier was wrongfully convicted... because the agents investigating the case wanted someone to pay for killing the two FBI agents. I know, for a fact, that the FBI is also covering up its culpability in the death of the two FBI agents.”

Federal prosecutors maintain quite the opposite is true. But, statements like Swearingen’s have contributed to a broad base of support for Peltier.

Appeals continue to be filed on his behalf and, among many organizations and individuals, Amnesty International have called for his release. Among Peltier’s supporters are eight Nobel Laureates, including the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, the late Mother Teresa, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

After 28 years in prison, Peltier is now a great-grandfather, a writer, and an accomplished artist whose work is collected by many. He continues to push for social and cultural justice and uses his earnings and influence to create and support programs aimed at bettering the lives of American Indians. In 2004, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Written by Merry Helm