United States: The railroading of Leonard Peltier

Wounded Knee occupation, 1973.

By Mike Ely

Join in demanding freedom for Leonard Peltier, so that at long last simple justice be done for him and the Indigenous peoples of North America. Sign this petition urging his release. Petitions are also being circulated urging clemency and urging US Congress to investigate FBI misconduct on Pine Ridge and the “reign of terror” that existed between 1973 and 1976. This article was first written in 1998.

It is infuriating that, today, more than 10 years later, this freedom fighter is still locked in prison, instead of walking the streets among us. It was originally published in the Revolutionary Worker, issue #949. It has been updated and re-edited by the author and posted at Kasama Project website in 2009. It is posted with permission at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal to mark the 35th anniversary of the "shootout at Oglala" on July 26, 1975.

* * *

For over 36 years the Indian freedom fighter Leonard Peltier has been a target of government attack. He’s been set up by FBI Cointelpro “dirty tricks”, attacked by federal SWAT teams on Indian land, subjected to a national manhunt, illegally smuggled across international borders, railroaded with manufactured evidence, denied religious rights, targeted for assassination in prison, denied basic medical attention and tortured with extreme isolation.

Leonard Peltier has now spent 33 hard years in prison – for the “crime” of defending Indian people from violent government attack. Though it was proven that the FBI manufactured the “evidence” that convicted Leonard of the death of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation, each court appeal ended in new denials and new insults.

The US government insists that there are, officially, no political prisoners in its dungeons. (Just as they insist “The US does not torture.”)

The US insists there are no political laws that target and punish speech, political activity, dissidents and rebels. But the truth is that the US government has always targeted those who rise up against injustice — they massacred the Native people relentlessly, they assassinated key Native leaders, they have framed and persecuted those who dare to rise up and speak. And this story of Leonard Peltier is a living example of the techniques used to protect this system from exposure, resistance and revolution.

FBI wanted poster of Indian activist Leonard Peltier

FBI wanted poster of Indian activist Leonard Peltier.

Leonard recently wrote:

“If my case stands as it is, no common person has real freedom. Only the illusion until you have something the oppressors want.”

In December 1993, at Peltier’s first parole hearing, the Parole Board deliberated for only 10 or 15 minutes and then announced that Peltier must wait another 15 years until his next hearing in 2009. It is now 2009. That hearing will be on July 27, 2009.

The military conquest of the Great Plains

The story of Leonard Peltier takes us back to Wounded Knee.

More than a hundred years ago, on December 28, 1890, the great resistance wars of the Plains Indians ended with a brutal massacre. On windswept flats of South Dakota, at the town of Wounded Knee, 500 soldiers of the US 7th Cavalry used artillery and rifles to massacre 350 Sioux.

For 20 years, the Plains Indians had fought the US government to hold on to their land. Led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, they defeated Custer at the famous battle of Little Big Horn. But the forces of rising industrial capitalism and its armed enforcers proved too strong.

The US government carried out a vicious genocide: they deliberately wiped out millions of buffalo to destroy the food base of the Great Plains Indian cultures. They assassinated or imprisoned the great war leaders of the Plains people. US cavalry attacked Indian villages in mid-winter – killing the people by destroying their shelter and food supplies. Soldiers disarmed the people. Government agents criminalised Indian culture, including the great Ghost Dance rituals. And the government finally herded one Indian people after another onto tiny reservations – stealing their land and breaking many treaties.

Wounded Knee was supposed to be the final shot. The murdering soldiers received 20 Medals of Honor to celebrate the massacre. The Indian people were now decisively conquered – it was said. Now they were supposed to disappear from the land and from history. During the 20th century, official America treated the Native peoples as “relics of a dying past”.

In towns surrounding the reservations, sheriffs and Klan-like rednecks enforced anti-Indian discrimination with murderous violence. They were always backed by state and federal authorities. Missionary programs stole Indian children and suppressed the Native languages. Indian people lived in bitter poverty.

Big Foot, among the many dead at the Wounded Knee Massacre, 1890

Big Foot, among the many dead at the Wounded Knee Massacre, 1890.

But the struggle continued. Some Native people, called “traditionalists”, pulled back into distant rural pockets to keep their ways alive. Others drifted into urban ghettos where they mingled with proletarians of other nationalities.

And finally, after generations, a new opportunity for combative mass struggle arose. In the 1960s, Black people started shaking the United States with powerful rebellions. In Oakland, the Black Panther Party picked up the gun to challenge the system’s pig police. A new generation of Indian youth woke up and formed the American Indian Movement (AIM). Like the Panthers, they worked day and night to bring hot, radical, anti-system politics out to new sections of the people. Urban Indian radicals linked up with the rez youth and whole communities of “traditionalist” people.

Leonard Peltier was a leading activist in that radical new generation.

In the spirit of Crazy Horse

“I don’t consider myself an American.”
-- Leonard Peltier, My Life Is My Sun Dance

Leonard Peltier was born on Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota in 1944. His family came from the Anishinabe (Chippewa) and Lakota (Sioux) peoples.

“During harvest season, …my whole family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children – would migrate from Turtle Mountain to the Red River Valley to work in the potato fields. In those days, potatoes were picked by hand, and Indians would be hired to pick spuds at three to four cents a bushel, while Mexican Indians worked the sugar beets. When I was old enough to go into the fields, I would work ahead of the pickers, shaking the potatoes loose, which made it faster.”

The young radical activist Leonard Peltier

The young radical activist Leonard Peltier.

Carolina Saldaña writes:

“Leonard 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.”

Leonard remembers:

“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… 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.”

As a teenager he went to live with relatives in the Pacific Northwest, far from his home reservation.

In 1970, a group of Native people in Seattle occupied an abandoned army base, Ft. Lawson. Peltier joined the action and then he joined the newly formed American Indian Movement. Meanwhile, AIM was growing quickly by answering the many outrages surrounding the reservations with struggle – they organised people to militantly confront the rednecks, cops and courts in towns surrounding the reservations.

In the mid-1960s, I spent part of a summer bailing hay on a Montana ranch, not far from the Missouri River. One of things most stark and shocking to me was the raw racism toward Indian people expressed by the ordinary ranchers I met. Several of them I talked to felt, without a blink, that it was necessary to crush any expression of Indian culture, language and religion — and that Indian people should not have the right to simply wander around off the reservations, go freely into town,or hang out. One guy my age, who I just met at a coffee counter, explained soberly,

“You have to understand, and they have to understand, that they are a conquered people. We beat them. And we now get to decide.”

And reflecting those ugly views and those unjust power relationships, the cops of the towns ringing the reservations routinely brutalised and arrested Indian youth — for just being there, for just being Indian.

When I interviewed Leonard in 1994, he talked about the conditions that brought his generation into AIM,

“Poverty, discrimination. The injustices that people were receiving in the courtrooms. The violations of the Indian treaties made between two sovereign nations–the United States government and Indian nations. The bigotry that exists around Indian territories. The unemployment which brings in the high alcoholism rate and disease rate of the reservations. In them days, it was just still not illegal to kill an Indian. If you killed an Indian, you’d be very unfortunate if you got probation–most of them were released immediately.”

By 1972, AIM felt ready to take on the federal government. Peltier was prominent in the week-long occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington D.C.

At that point, the FBI decided to destroy AIM by any means necessary. Their COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) targeted leading activists of AIM for jail and assassination. Infiltrators worked to gather information about AIM’s organisation, to create divisions in the organization, and to set up its activists for “neutralisation”. One FBI document recommended that “local police put leaders under close scrutiny, and arrest them on every possible charge until they could no longer make bail”.

Peltier was one of the activists targeted after the BIA takeover. He was attacked in a restaurant by two off-duty cops, badly beaten and charged with attempted murder. One cop’s girlfriend testified that, before the incident, the cop had waved around a picture of Peltier, saying his job was “catching a big one for the FBI”.

Wounded Knee 2 and the need for armed self-defence

On the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations in South Dakota, the AIM movement had developed deep roots among the masses who were hungry for change.

In opposition to AIM, tribal chair Dick Wilson, with federal backing, organised vigilantes and reservation police into a secret Klan-like force called the GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation). Wilson banned political meetings on the reservation. Anyone who opposed the system risked death from the GOONs. The people call these times “The Reign of Terror”.

The masses and AIM activists rose up in struggle. In February 1973, hundreds took over the buildings at Wounded Knee to publicise their grievances. They were blockaded by GOONs and federal forces – including US Marshals, FBI SWAT teams, troops, armored vehicles, sharpshooters and even some phantom jets. The firefights lasted over two months and brought AIM’s struggle worldwide attention.

After a negotiated “settlement”, the FBI flooded their agents into the area. And by 1975, western South Dakota had the highest ratio of agents to citizens in the U.S.

The people faced a death-squad campaign – presided over by the FBI. During the 36 months after Wounded Knee, more than 60 AIM supporters died violently on or near the Pine Ridge reservation. People simply showed up dead on the side of the road or died in sudden shootouts at nighttime GOON roadblocks. Over 300 Native people suffered violent physical assaults. The per capita rate of state murder on Pine Ridge Reservation was as high as in Chile – where a CIA-military coup was conducting a famous bloodbath.

William Janklow, then South Dakota deputy attorney general, said:

“The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to American Indian Movement leaders’ heads and pull the trigger.”

The FBI, which occupied the reservation like an army, did not solve even one of these murders. But they compiled more than 316,000 separate investigative file classifications, including on all Native people with military training. Agents arrested 562 AIM members and supporters for participating in Wounded Knee. Another 600 people were charged with supporting the defenders. There were 185 indictments. One of the army’s commanders at Wounded Knee later wrote, “AIM’s most militant leaders are under indictment, in jail or warrants are out for their arrest… the government can win, even if no one goes to jail.”

These attacks after Wounded Knee 2 brought Leonard Peltier onto the Pine Ridge Reservation.

With many of Pine Ridge’s core activists on the reservation underground, in jail or dead – elders asked AIM members to organise self-defence camps to protect the people from GOON killers. In the spring of 1975, the Northwest AIM group, including Leonard Peltier, set up a defensive camp near the town of Oglala, a strongly pro-AIM area. Their camp was on the land of elders Harry and Cecilia Jumping Bull.

A secret June 6, 1975 FBI memo says:

“There are pockets of Indian population that consist almost exclusively of American Indian Movement (AIM) and their supporters on the Reservation. It is significant that in some of these AIM centers the residents have built bunkers which would literally require military assault forces if it were necessary to overcome resistance emanating from the bunker.”

The shootout at Oglala

Oglala on the Pine Ridge reservation, site of the FBI shootout

Oglala on the Pine Ridge reservation, site of the FBI shootout.

On July 25, 1975, two FBI agents, Coler and Williams, arrived at the Jumping Bull compound. They said they were seeking a young Indian who had stolen some boots. One AIM member summed up: "The agents showed up to serve a warrant they didn’t have, on someone who wasn’t there, for a crime outside their jurisdiction."

By the next morning, July 26, it was clear these feds had been scouts for a military operation. Combat-armed police started massing near Oglala village – GOONs, BIA police, state troopers, US Marshals and FBI SWAT teams. Warned, the Indians, including Leonard Peltier, prepared to defend themselves. FBI documents claim 35 activists were involved.

Around noon on July 26, the same two FBI agents – Coler and Williams – drove past the Jumping Bull family buildings and straight for the AIM camp. It is not clear how the shooting started. Agents Coler and Williams got out of their car and began firing. Members of the AIM camp fired back. Coler and Williams called for reinforcements – it was the prearranged signal for all-out federal assault.

Three Indian youth, hiding behind trees and houses with .22 squirrel rifles, shot out the tyres of the first reinforcements. The whole police assault froze. Coler and Williams were caught in their own trap.

AIM rifles kept the feds at bay all afternoon – as the people of the camp, including Peltier, slipped away through the brush of White Clay Creek. After the firing stopped, the feds gathered enough courage to storm in. The place was abandoned. Their pointmen, Coler and Williams, lay dead. An Indian, Joe Stuntz Killsright, was also dead. Everyone else had escaped into the vastness of Indian Country.

The authorities went berserk after this shootout at Oglala. They unleashed a massive manhunt over the whole region – the largest in FBI history. The FBI created a “task force” of 180 SWAT-trained agents, supported by GOONs and BIA police. They launched military sweeps across Pine Ridge, equipped with full combat gear, jungle fatigues, assault and sniper rifles, grenade launchers, plastic explosives, helicopters, spotter planes and tracking dogs. For three months, this federal “task force” ran amok–storming into homes, holding people at gunpoint and ransacking everything.

Norman Zigrossi, the FBI’s assistant special agent in charge, explained the FBI actions repeated almost the exact same words I had heard over coffee in Montana:

“They are a conquered nation. And when you are conquered, the people you are conquered by dictate your future. This is a basic philosophy of mine. If I’m part of a conquered nation, I’ve got to yield to authority.”

Even an official US commission would later say this was “an overreaction which takes on aspects of a vendetta… a full-scale military invasion”.

This vendetta failed to capture anyone. A series of grand juries was convened in Rapid City – hoping to force Indian to testify against Indian. The loyal media spread FBI lies about so-called “AIM terrorism”.

In the middle of this hysteria, the authorities charged three Northwest AIM members – Leonard Peltier, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler – with killing the two FBI agents. They wanted to portray the whole AIM movement as a plot by “violent outside agitators” stirring up local Indians.

The making of a railroad

Peltier fled to Canada, where he continued to organise. Meanwhile, Butler and Robideau were tried in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in July 1976. An all-white jury found them not guilty, saying they had acted in self-defence. The all-white jury was shocked to hear of the large-scale FBI and GOON terrorism facing people on Pine Ridge.


Leonard Peltier seized in Canada and illegally smuggled into the US.

After this setback, a 1976 FBI memo called for directing “full prosecutive weight of the federal government…against Leonard Peltier”. Peltier was captured and illegally smuggled back into the United States by orders of then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

The trial was moved to the anti-Indian community of Fargo, North Dakota. The trial judge announced:

“Leonard Peltier is on trial, not the FBI. I will hear nothing derogatory about the FBI.”

The authorities had no evidence linking Peltier to the killing of the FBI agents. So they manufactured it. And the trial judge stopped the defence from exposing the prosecution lies.

The FBI used gestapo tactics to frame Peltier. One Indian woman, Anna Mae Aquash, was pressured by the FBI to betray the movement. When she refused, she was found dead from a bullet wound. The FBI showed Anna Mae’s severed hands to a mentally ill woman, Myrtle Poor Bear. This so badly frightened Poor Bear that she signed three different (and contradictory) statements implicating Peltier. In fact, Poor Bear didn’t know Peltier and had not witnessed anything.

At Peltier’s trial, an FBI agent swore that he had personally seen Peltier near the two dead agents. FBI lab experts claimed a shell casing at the scene came from Leonard Peltier’s AR-15 rifle. FBI witnesses claimed that this was the only AR-15 rifle in the shootout. All these “facts” were deliberate lies. The Court of Appeals later wrote: “[The prosecution's] theory, accepted by the jury and the judge, was that Peltier killed the two FBI agents at point blank range.”

Leonard Peltier was convicted of two counts of first degree murder on April 18, 1977. Judge Benson immediately ruled that Leonard should serve two life sentences consecutively. It was a complete railroad.

The government case unravels — the railroad continues

“As warriors of our nation we must show our people the spirit of Crazy Horse so they may rise off their knees… Raise up with me and resist the terrorist attacks of genocide against our nation!”
Leonard Peltier from prison, 1978.

In 1979, the FBI tried to assassinate Peltier in prison – pressuring other Indian prisoners to participate in their plot. One of those prisoners, Standing Deer – who suffered from extreme spinal pain – was denied medical treatment unless he helped to set up Peltier. Standing Deer exposed the plot at great personal risk. He was transferred to a prison hospital for surgery, after an FBI agent threatened him, saying,

“What you need is a good lobotomy.”

Revenge was not the only reason the FBI wanted Peltier dead. Secret documents were being forced into the open – proving that the FBI manufactured the “evidence” against Peltier. A secret 1975 memo to the FBI director revealed that the firing pin of the AR-15 rifle connected to Peltier had not matched any shell casing supposedly found at the scene.

By the late 1980s, even prosecutor Lynn Crooks was forced to admit that the government did not know who shot the two FBI agents. Crooks said,

“We did not have any direct evidence that one individual as opposed to another pulled the trigger… What we argued to the jury was quite simply that this man was a guilty participant in a murder….The facts available did not give us direct evidence as to who did the coup-de-grace…. there was no direct evidence upon which we could make a factual argument. We argued inferences…but that’s not the same thing as saying that we had direct evidence…that Mr. Peltier was the one that squeezed off the final rounds.”

In other words, the government never had any evidence that Peltier shot anyone.

Free Leonard Peltier

Free Leonard Peltier!

However, after years of hearings, the court system has still not released Leonard Peltier from his unjust imprisonment. On October 5, 1987, the Supreme Court refused to review the case. In 1993 the federal courts denied Peltier’s appeal again. They argued that even if there’s no evidence of “close-up killing”, Peltier was guilty of “long-range aiding and abetting”. A few months after the December 1993 hearing where the parole board denied his parole and said he would have to wait until 2009 for another hearing. Leonard told me over the phone from Leavenworth:

“The government has admitted in two courts of law at the Appellate Court level that they don’t know who killed the agents….And now the government on their most recent decision is claiming that I am an `aider and abettor.’ Basically, that was their theory–I was aider and abettor at 15 to 20 feet or 200 yards, about two football fields away. They don’t know where I aided and abetted–but I was on the reservation.”

In other words, the federal court says Peltier must spend life in prison for being present as the AIM encampment defended itself. The system believes that someone has to pay for the armed resistance at Oglala.

The system has tried to make Peltier a symbol of government revenge and power. They have failed. Instead, Leonard Peltier has continued the struggle –with his words, his paintings and his organisng efforts. The support of literally millions of people all over the world has made Leonard Peltier a symbol of today’s Native resistance and US government injustice.

Free Leonard Peltier!