Leonard Peltier is an American Indian activist, a celebrated leftist icon, and a member of the radical American Indian Movement (AIM). He was convicted of slaying two FBI Agents on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975.
Born to Leo and Alvina Peltier on September 12, 1944 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Leonard Peltier is a Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indian. He was raised by his paternal grandparents, Alex and Mary Peltier, who took him for a brief period to Butte, Montana, where his grandfather was employed in the logging and copper mining industries. Eventually the family settled in North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, where Peltier lived until he was nine years old. At that time, he was enrolled in Wahpeton Indian School which was located some 150 miles from his home. Peltier left school after the ninth grade but later earned his equivalency degree. He thereafter went on to become a welder, a laborer, and an artist, but is best known for his work as an American Indian rights activist.
Peltier was part of the “hired” violence that AIM brought into South Dakota in the 1970s, when inter-tribal conflict was at its worst. Peltier was already a fugitive, having unlawfully fled to evade trial for the attempted murder of a Milwaukee police officer. AIM asked Peltier to help defend its members against Pine Ridge tribal leaders who wanted AIM terrorists removed from the reservation. In turn, those tribal leaders asked the FBI to intervene, and thus the circumstances were created that led to Peltier’s 1975 murders.
On June 26, 1975, FBI agents Ronald A. Williams and Jack R. Coler were investigating an assault and robbery on the Pine Ridge Reservation that had them in pursuit of a pick-up truck. The agents radioed that they had come under high-powered rifle fire from the occupants of the vehicle and asked for backup. At 4:30 that afternoon, authorities recovered the bodies of Williams and Coler at their vehicle, which had been pierced by some 125 bullets; FBI investigators later concluded that the agents had been murdered at close range by a .223 caliber rifle.
With the FBI on his trail, in September 1975 Peltier fled to the Northwestern U.S. where he was stopped by an Oregon State Trooper who noticed that the vehicle Peltier was driving matched an FBI description. Following an exchange of gunfire with the trooper, Peltier ran from the scene. Law-enforcement authorities who later examined Peltier’s abandoned car found Agent Coler’s handgun in a bag that had Peltier’s fingerprints on it.
In 1975 one of Peltier’s fellow AIM members, Arlo Looking Cloud (an Oglala Lakota), participated in the brutal murder of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a Mi’kmaq Indian from Canada. Journalist Paul DeMain has reported that the motive for her killing was “her knowledge that Leonard Peltier had shot the two [FBI] agents.” In testimony delivered at the trial of Arlo Looking Cloud, Ka-Mook Banks, wife of AIM leader Dennis Banks, stated that she had heard Peltier admit to killing the agents. “The ‘MF’ was begging for his life,” she quoted Peltier as having said. “But I shot him anyway.”
Peltier was apprehended by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on February 6, 1976 in Hinton, Alberta, Canada. In March 1977 he was convicted of double homicide in a Fargo, North Dakota federal court. He admitted that he had shot his gun at the FBI agents, but denied having fired the fatal bullets.
Peltier has become a celebrated writer, artist, and icon of the left, which commonly associates him with other “political prisoners” and “victims” of American “racial injustice” such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. Among those who view Peltier in this light are Amnesty International, the National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. All of these contend that Peltier is innocent and should be released from prison immediately.
In 2000, the anti-war/social justice organization Global Exchange began a “Free Faxes to Free Peltier” campaign, in which activists were urged to place phone calls and to fax letters (via a toll-free number) to the White House urging President Bill Clinton to grant clemency to Peltier. (Clinton ultimately elected not to pardon him.)
In 2002, Peltier filed a civil rights lawsuit against both the FBI and specific FBI agents who had launched their own counter-campaign against Peltier’s clemency petition in 2000. In 2004, the suit was dismissed.
In the summer of 2004, California’s Peace and Freedom Party, which has always used American Indians to front for its political agendas, nominated Peltier as its candidate for U.S. President. PFP’s nomination of Peltier was more than a symbolic act of protest; it was an act of intentional insult and mockery. Because it detests America, the party sought to exalt an enemy of the United States as its proposed Commander-in-Chief.
Also in 2004, Peltier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. On July 6 of that year, Jim Fulton, a former member of the Canadian Parliament, wrote a letter to the Norwegian Nobel Institute to support Peltier’s nomination. The letter read, in part, as follows:
“I wish to be on record in support of this nomination…. Leonard Peltier is a political prisoner…. He was illegally arrested. Illegally extradited. And is immorally held. The similarities between the injustice of incarceration of Nelson Mandela and Leonard Peltier [are] striking. The Nobel Peace Prize is in my view the only key that can fit the lock to release Leonard Peltier. The freedom of the aboriginal peoples of the Americas awaits his release.”
In 2008 a coterie of celebrities drafted a petition asking the federal government to grant clemency to Peltier. Signatories included Bryan Adams, Giorgio Armani, Bono, Naomi Campbell, Cher, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Dustin Hoffman, Jeremy Irons, Bianca Jagger, Elton John, Calvin Klein, Kris Kristofferson, Yves Saint Laurent, Jude Law, Yoko Ono Lennon, Annie Lennox, Madonna, Helen Mirren, Kate Moss, Ozzy Osbourne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Kevin Spacey, Sting, Oliver Stone, Desmond Tutu, and Raquel Welch. Most prominent among the organizational endorsers of the petition was the American Friends Service Committee.
In 1991 Robert Redford and Michael Apted produced a sympathetic documentary about Peltier, titled Incident at Oglala. The following year, Apted directed the fictionalized feature film Thunderheart, loosely based on the 1975 shootout in which Peltier had murdered the two FBI agents. In 1999 Peltier wrote his memoirs, Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance, which quickly found its way into the multicultural curricula on college campuses across America.
Peltier remains incarcerated at the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.