Go to main menu Go to main content Go to footer

Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Don’t forget Leonard Peltier

BY Will Nicholls Mar 16, 2024

Leonard Peltier is the longest imprisoned Indigenous person in the United States. Even after almost 47 years behind bars he is considered a political prisoner by Amnesty International, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev. Jesse Jackson, among many others who believe he should be immediately released. 

Shortly before leaving office, US presidents routinely grant pardons based largely on personal preference and political awareness. Seven presidents, beginning with Jimmy Carter, have come and gone since Peltier has been in prison. 

Peltier was convicted for the deaths of two FBI agents who died in a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was the culmination of a series of events that began with the Wounded Knee occupation of 1973. 

This three-year period of political violence turned Pine Ridge into an armed camp. The tribal chairman hired vigilantes; the infamously self-titled “GOONS.” It was their job to rid the reservation of American Indian Movement (AIM) activity and sentiment. This they did ruthlessly. More than 60 traditional tribal members and AIM activists were murdered, and many others were brutally assaulted. 

Despite a large FBI presence, nothing was done to stop the violence even though evidence indicated GOON responsibility in most of the crimes. For the FBI, attacking AIM served their purpose as they considered the organization as a radical threat. The FBI involvement included supplying the GOONS with intelligence on AIM members.

AIM leader Leonard Peltier was asked by traditional people at Pine Ridge to support and protect those being targeted for violence. They set up a camp on a ranch owned by the traditional Jumping Bull family. On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents in unmarked cars followed a pick-up truck onto the Jumping Bull ranch. The families immediately became alarmed and feared an attack. Shots were heard and a shoot-out erupted. More than 150 agents, GOONS, and law enforcement officers surrounded the ranch. 

When the shoot-out ended, two FBI agents and one Native American lay dead.

According to FBI documents, more than 40 Native Americans participated in the gunfight, but only AIM members Bob Robideau, Darrell Butler and Leonard Peltier were brought to trial. A federal jury acquitted Robideau and Butler on grounds of self-defence.

Peltier was arrested in Canada on February 6, 1976. The United States presented the Canadian court with affidavits signed by Myrtle Poor Bear stating that she was Peltier’s girlfriend and allegedly saw him shoot the agents. 

In fact, Poor Bear had never met Peltier and was not present during the shoot-out. Soon after, Poor Bear recanted her statements and said the FBI threatened her and coerced her into signing the affidavits. Three teenaged Native witnesses also testified against Peltier. As with Poor Bear they all later admitted that the FBI forced them to testify. Still, not one witness identified Peltier as the shooter.

The US Attorney prosecuting the case claimed that the government had provided the defense with all FBI documents concerning the case. To the contrary, more than 140,000 pages had been withheld in their entirety. An FBI ballistics expert testified that a casing found near the agents’ bodies matched the gun tied to Peltier. However, a ballistic test proving that the casing did not come from the gun tied to Peltier was intentionally concealed.

The jury, unaware of those facts, found Peltier guilty. Judge Benson sentenced Peltier to two consecutive life terms.

Following the discovery of new evidence obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Peltier sought a new trial. The Eighth Circuit ruled, “There is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government’s case.” 

Still, the court denied Peltier a new trial. Almost half a century later, we should not forget this man, who will turn 80 in September. His story is a symbol of centuries of injustice.

LATEST ᒫᐦᒡ ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐ

Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.