Leonard Peltier: Silence Screams

Leonard Peltier turned 63 on September 12, 2007. He has spent more than 31 years in some of the cruelest prisons in the United States, unjustly condemned to a double life sentence for the shooting death of two FBI agents in 1975. His situation is now aggravated by health problems. 

Nevertheless, from his cell in federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Peltier keeps on struggling for the rights of indigenous people. He’s contributed to the establishment of libraries, schools, scholarships, and battered women’s shelters, among many other projects. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and again in 2007. 

In his autobiography My Life Is My Sun Dance, Peltier explains that his bloodline is mainly Ojibway and Dakota Sioux and that he was adopted by the Lakota Sioux and raised on their reservations “in the land known to you as America…but I don’t consider myself an American…. I know what I am. I am an Indian—an Indian who dared to stand up to defend his people. I am an innocent man who never murdered anyone nor wanted to. And, yes, I am a Sun Dancer. That, too, is my identity. If I am to suffer as a symbol of my people, then I suffer proudly. I will never yield.” 

Peltier tells us that when he was nine-years-old a big black government car drove up to his house to take him and the other kids away to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school in Wahpeton, Dakota del Norte. When they got there, they cut off their long hair, stripped them, and doused them with DDT powder. “I thought I was going to die…that place…was more like a reformatory than a school…. I consider my years at Wahpenton my first imprisonment, and it was for the same crime as all the others: being an Indian.” 

He goes on to say, “We had to speak English. We were beaten if we were caught speaking our own language. Still, we did…. I guess that’s where I became a ‘hardened criminal,’ as the FBI calls me. And you could say that the first infraction in my criminal career was speaking my own language. There’s an act of violence for you…. The second was practicing our traditional religion.” 

When Peltier was a teenager, President Eisenhower launched a program to eliminate the reservations and move the people off, giving them a small payment. Peltier remembers that the words “termination” and “dislocation” became the most feared words in the people’s vocabulary. The process of fighting against dislocation was his first experience as an activist. 

During the 1960s, he worked as a farm worker and, later, in an auto body shop in Seattle. At that time he got his first taste of community organizing. At the beginning of the 1970s, he joined the American Indian Movement (AIM), initially inspired by the Black Panthers. In 1972 he participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties, a march/caravan from Alcatraz in California to Washington, DC and also in the occupation of the BIA in the nation’s capital. He became a target of the FBI program to “neutralize” AIM leaders and was jailed by the end of the year. 

Wounded Knee Occupation 

O At the beginning of the 1970s, AIM was getting together with the Lakota Indians who wanted to hold on to their culture and their lands. The BIA, worried about AIM’s growing influence in the area, imposed Dick Wilson as tribal chair on the reservation, running roughshod over the will of the traditional elders and chiefs. The puppet Wilson hated the AIM militants and allied himself with the FBI to destroy the movement. Wilson’s paramilitary group, known as the GOONS (Guardians of the Oglala Nation), committed a long chain of abuses against the people. 


AIM’s boldest actions was the occupation of the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the place where, in 1890, the U.S. Army carried out its infamous massacre of 300 Lakota people. 

On the night of February 27, 1973 around 300 Lakota and 25 AIM members occupied the town of Wounded Knee, joined by several Chicanos, Black, and white supporters. They opposed the murders of Native Americans on the reservation, the extreme poverty that the people lived in, and the corrupt tribal government. They demanded that the government respect the ancient treaties signed with native peoples to protect their territory and autonomy. 

The next day, General Alexander Haig ordered an invasion. According to Ward Churchill and Jim Vander- wall in their book Agents of Repression, “In the first instance since the Civil War that the U.S. Army had been dispatched in a domestic operation, the Pentagon invaded Wounded Knee with 17 armored personnel carriers, 130,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 41,000 rounds of M-1 ammunition, 24,000 flares, 12 M-79 grenade launchers, 600 cases of C-S gas, 100 rounds of M-40 explosives, helicopters, phantom jets, and personnel, all under the direction of General Alexander Haig.” 

The operation also relied on 500 heavily armed police, federal marshals, and BIA and FBI agents. They surrounded Wounded Knee and set up barricades all along the road. The occupation lasted 71 days and ended only after the government promised to investigate the complaints, something that never happened. The next three years were known as the “reign of terror” on Pine Ridge. More than 300 people associated with AIM were violently attacked and many of their homes were burned. During these years more than 60 Native American people were killed by paramilitaries armed and trained by the FBI. There was also an increase of FBI SWAT team agents on the reservation.  

It’s now known, as a result of a suit based on the Freedom of Information Act, that AIM activities on and off the reservation were under FBI surveillance and that the FBI was preparing paramilitary operations on Pine Ridge a month before the shootout at Oglala. 

The Fatal Shootout 

WoundedKnee-Cops In a worsening situation, the Council of Elders on the Jumping Bull ranch near the town of Oglala asked AIM to come back to the reservation to protect them. Peltier, along with many other AIM members and non-members, responded to the call and set up camp on the ranch. 

On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ron Williamsen, followed a red pick-up truck onto the Jumping Bull ranch. They were supposedly looking for young Jimmy Eagle, who was said to have stolen a pair of cowboy boots. A shootout began between the FBI agents and the people in the pick-up, trapping a family in the crossfire. Several mothers fled the area with their children while others fired in self-defense. More than 150 FBI agents, SWAT team members, BIA police, and GOONS surrounded approximately 30 AIM men, women, and children and opened fire. Peltier helped a group of young people to escape the gunfire. When the shootout ended, AIM member Joseph Kills- right Stuntz was found dead, shot in the head. (His death has never been investigated.) Coler and Williamsen were wounded during the shootout and then killed at point blank range. 

According to FBI documents, more than 40 Native Americans participated in the shootout, but only 4 were charged with killing the 2 agents: 3 AIM leaders—Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, and Leonard Peltier— and Jimmy Eagle.  

Butler and Robideau were the first to be arrested and at their trial they stated that they had fired in self-defense. The jury believed the act was justified due to the atmosphere of terror that prevailed at Pine Ridge at the time. They were both found innocent. The FBI, furious about the verdict, dropped the charges against Jimmy Eagle, according to their memos, “…in order to direct the full weight of the prosecution on Peltier.” 


Meanwhile, Peltier went to Canada, believing that he would never have a fair trial. On February 6, he was arrested and then extradited to the United States on the testimony from Myrtle Poor Bear, who said she had been his girlfriend and had seen him shoot at the agents. As a matter of fact, she had never known him and was not present at the time of the shootout. In a later statement, she said that she had been coerced into giving false testimony by FBI agents. 

Two Life Sentences? 

The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee has cited a number of examples of the injustice at the trial:

  • The case wasn’t brought before the judge who had presided over the trial of Robideau and Butler, but instead before another judge with a reputation for making decisions favorable to the prosecution. 
  • Myrtle Poor Bear and other important witnesses were forbidden to testify about FBI misconduct. 
  • Testimony about the “reign of terror” on the Pine Ridge Reservation was severely limited. 
  • Important evidence, such as conflicting ballistic reports, was deemed inadmissible.  
  • The red pick-up was suddenly described as Peltier’s “red and white van.”  
  • The jury was isolated and surrounded by federal marshals, making jurors believe that AIM was a security threat to them. 
  • Three young Native Americans were forced to give false testimony against Peltier after FBI agents arrested and terrorized them. 
  • The prosecutor couldn’t produce a single witness to identify Peltier as the shooter. 
  • The government said that a cartridge found near the bodies was fired from the presumed murder weapon and alleged that this was the only pistol of its kind used during the shootout and that it belonged to Peltier. 

As a result of the Freedom of Information Act suit, FBI documents turned over to the defense showed that:

  • 1. More than one weapon of the type attributed to Peltier had been present at the scene. 
  • 2. The FBI intentionally hid the ballistics report showing that the cartridge could not have come from the presumed murder weapon. 
  • 3. There was no doubt that the agents followed a red pick-up onto the territory, not the red and white van driven by Peltier. 
  • 4. Strong evidence against several other suspects existed and was withheld.  

None of this evidence was presented to the jury that found Leonard Peltier guilty. He was given two consecutive life sentences. 

Bill Clinton Serves The FBI 

Peltier-ArrestedThe Leonard Peltier Defense Committee sought a new trial after several of these abuses came to light. During one hearing, the federal prosecutor admitted that “…we can’t prove who shot the agents.” The court realized that Peltier could have been found innocent if the evidence hadn’t been unduly withheld by the FBI, but a new trial was denied on the basis of technical errors. 

The Committee says that, “In 1993, Peltier requested Executive Clemency from President Bill Clinton. An intensive campaign was launched and supported by Native and human rights organizations, members of Congress, community and church groups, labor organizations, luminaries, and celebrities. Even Judge Heaney, who authored the court decision [denying a new trial], expressed firm support for Peltier’s release. The Peltier case had become a national issue. 

“On November 7, 2000, during a live radio interview, Clinton stated that he would seriously consider Peltier’s request for clemency and make a decision before leaving office on January 20, 2001. In response, the FBI launched a major disinformation campaign in both the media and among key government officials. Over 500 FBI agents marched in front of the White House to oppose clemency. On January 20, the list of clemencies granted by Clinton was released to the media. Without explanation, Peltier’s name had been excluded.”  

The efforts of the defense team are now focused on obtaining more than 6,000 documents still retained by the FBI and on urging Congress to investigate FBI misconduct at Pine Ridge between 1973 and 1976. 

In a recent letter Peltier said: “If my case stands as it is, no common person has real freedom. Only the illusion until you have something the oppressors want…. In the spirit of Crazy Horse, who never gave up.” 

Carolina Saldaña is a freelance writer and activist in Mexico.