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On June 26, 1975, two plainclothes F.B.I. agents assigned to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, were tailing a red pickup on Highway 18. When the truck pulled off the road and onto Harry and Cecilia Jumping Bull’s ranch, Coler and Williams followed.
What happened next is a matter of intense dispute.
Either the passengers in the lead vehicle jumped out brandishing rifles and began firing at the agents. Or the agents shot first.
But by noon, Coler and Williams were dead. So was a Native American by the name of Joe Stuntz. And nearly 50 years later, with heart trouble and early-stage lung cancer, Leonard Peltier sits in the Coleman Penitentiary serving out the first of two consecutive life terms for his presence at the shootout.
In a 1991 interview for 60 Minutes, host Steve Kroft asked Peltier about his role in the deaths of Coler and Williams.
Kroft: Did you kill them?
Peltier: No. I never killed those agents.
Kroft: Did you fire at those agents?
Peltier: Yes. I fired at them.
Peltier: Because they were firing at me. And I fired back.
Kroft: Are you guilty of anything?
Peltier: The only thing I’m guilty of is trying to help my people.
Peltier was initially convicted of murdering Coler and Williams in April, 1977 — largely on two pieces of evidence: a sworn affidavit from Myrtle Poor Bear, claiming that she saw Peltier execute the agents; and the testimony of an F.B.I. ballistics specialist who performed tests on a .223 shell found near the agents’ vehicle.
Peltier had access to an AR-15 — which fires a .223 round — but the gun had suffered serious damage in a fire. It was impossible, the expert testified, to test the weapon’s firing pin. However, he was able to analyze the mechanism that discharged the spent casings. Markings on the shell found at the scene, alleged the specialist based on his lab results, could only have been ejected from Peltier’s rifle.
Twenty-three years later, though, a Freedom of Information Request revealed that the ballistics expert had lied on the stand. He had, in fact, been able to test the firing pin. The impressions didn’t match Peltier’s gun.
And Myrtle Poor Bear later admitted that the F.B.I. had pressured her into inventing her eyewitness account. But when she attempted to correct her statement during Peltier’s trial, Judge Paul Benson barred her on “grounds of mental incompetence.”
“The first time I met Leonard,” Poor Bear tells Steve Kroft in the same 60 Minutes segment, “was when he went on trial in Fargo.”
“You’d never met him before that?” asks Kroft.
“No,” Poor Bear says. “I’d never met him before.”
A single mother who worked at an elementary school, Poor Bear maintains that the F.B.I. intimated she’d lose her daughter and her job if she didn’t cooperate.
“They said, ‘You’re gonna testify against him in court,” she says. “And we’re gonna tell you everything about him.”
“So, they wrote this up?” Kroft asks, holding up a copy of her affidavit. “And you signed it?”
“Yes, I did,” says Poor Bear.
“It’s really hard to break through the misinformation,” says Kevin Sharp, the former United States District Judge for the Middle District of Tennessee who’s been petitioning the Trump administration to grant Peltier clemency. “Even people who want to support Leonard talk about this in the wrong way because everyone’s confused. ‘You know, he was convicted of shooting and killing two F.B.I. agents.’ No he wasn’t.”
“They were gonna lose on appeal,” Sharp explains, if the F.B.I. “stuck with that cockamimie story that they had created. It was over. Likely the Court of Appeals would’ve said, ‘We’re going to set this conviction aside. Go retry it.” But, Sharp adds, there was no reason to retry the case on either Myrtle Poor Bear’s original account, or the theory that the .223 casing found at the crime scene had been fired from the rifle investigators claimed belonged to Peltier.
“They had zero evidence of it,” says Sharp. “By the time it comes out that the ballistics test — what we’d refer to as exculpatory evidence — was hidden, it’s a Brady violation. It should be over.”
In his 60 Minutes piece, Kroft also spoke with Lynn Crooks, the lead prosecutor in Peltier’s trial. The Freedom of Information Act request hadn’t yet revealed the suppression of the exculpatory ballistics report, but Kroft asks Crooks directly if he’s troubled that he built his prosecution around Poor Bear’s fraudulent affidavits. And Crooks defends his tactic without qualifications.
“Doesn’t bother my conscience,” says Crooks. “If everything they say is right on that, doesn’t bother my conscience one bit. Man’s a murderer. He got convicted on fair evidence. Doesn’t bother my conscience one whit.”
“The Lynn Crooks interview with Kroft,” says Sharp, “is really frightening. When he looks into the camera and says, ‘Doesn’t bother my conscience one bit.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, how can it not?
“A lot of people,” Sharp adds, “just go, ‘This is Native Americans. This has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with you. It has everything to do with all of us. Because if they will do that to a minority group, or dissenting voice, you know, at some point, your voice is the dissenting voice. Everybody’s got to be protected. The same laws, the same Constitution, has to apply to all of us.”
In 2000, as he was preparing to leave office, President Clinton considered granting Leonard Peltier clemency. But Louis Freeh, director of the F.B.I. at that time, wrote a letter to Clinton imploring him to reconsider. Freeh’s argument for denying clemency, though, is more emotional than factual. Freeh writes:
Mr. President, there is no issue more deeply felt within the F.B.I. or more widely shared within the law enforcement community than the belief that this attack by Peltier was nothing less than a complete affront to our cherished system of government under the rule of law. The inevitable haziness brought on by the passage of time does not diminish the brutality of the crimes or the torment of the surviving families.
“He’s not mentioning the ballistics test that was withheld,” Sharp points out. “He’s not mentioning that these witnesses who say they saw Leonard heading down the hill have all recanted. He’s not mentioning that the F.B.I. made up a statement for Myrtle Poor Bear to sign. None of that’s in there.”
Instead, Freeh writes that “[W]e in the law enforcement family respectfully ask that you look beyond the actual crimes to what these remorseless acts represent.”
But what do the “actual crimes” represent?
No admissible testimony, no physical evidence, ties Leonard Peltier to the killing of agents Coler and Williams. So Peltier, Freeh seems to be insinuating, remains in prison because he represents a dual threat to the justice system that prosecuted him. First, to admit Peltier’s innocence implies deliberate misconduct by the F.B.I. And second, granting him clemency acknowledges the legitimacy of political movements, past and future, that openly repudiate violence committed by the state against its people.
A decade before the Pine Ridge shootout, and one-hundred years after the Civil War had ended, America was in the throes of a second major reckoning with its colonialist past. Even though neither law would ever live up to its potential, the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts had addressed segregation and voter suppression of African Americans in the South.
But there were no Indian-only drinking fountains in Minneapolis or Chicago. Disenfranchisement of Native Americans was just as brutal as the oppression of Black Americans; it just wasn’t as visible. The misery of the indigenous peoples was mostly hidden from public view — out on the reservations.
So in the summer of 1968, to put their misery in plain view, a group of Native American activists in Minneapolis founded A.I.M.: the American Indian Movement. Much like the Black Panthers — or Black Lives Matter half a century later — A.I.M. was created to bring attention to police brutality and endemic poverty in indigenous communities.
Police were killing unarmed people of color in Minneapolis in 1968. And they’re still doing it fifty years later.
Leonard Peltier joined A.I.M. in 1971, but he didn’t become active with the group until he took a job on the Navajo Nation. In a 1991 interview with the filmmaker Michael Apted, Peltier described an encounter with police in Arizona that galvanized his support for the movement.
“I rented a whole room in this hotel where a lot of the Indians stayed,” Peltier remembers.
And one day I was sitting in the window and this Indian comes walking into the parking lot. A police car pulled up. I was sitting there watching it, you know? And the guy didn’t look drunk; he wasn’t staggering or nothing. But they started talking to him. They started getting into an argument. And they beat the hell out of him. I mean literally with batons, right? I mean they were really, really working on him. So I hollered out the window, I says: “Hey, I’m a witness to this. And that’s police brutality.’
Apted then asks Peltier about what had attracted him to A.I.M.’s politics. “A.I.M. wanted to get the government to honor the treaties,” Peltier answered. “To stop the dual justice system. Because I’ve experienced that all my life, observed it, witnessed a lot of brutality by law enforcement agencies, businesses — everything.”
And in 1975, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota was the most brutal place in America for indigenous people. In fact, per capita, it was the most violent region in the country. Between 1973 and 1975, at least 64 people were killed out of a population of 10,000. To put that number in perspective, so many people met violent deaths on Pine Ridge in 1974 that it’s like if, in 2019, 14,000 people were murdered in Los Angeles.
The vast majority of the dead were members or sympathizers of A.I.M. And the vast majority of the killers were deputies of Dick Wilson’s GOON squad.
In 1972, Dick Wilson — a plumber who’d been living in Arizona in 1971 — was elected Tribal Council Chairman of Pine Ridge. “Wilson received quiet federal support in running Pine Ridge as a personal fiefdom,” writes indigenous scholar Ward Churchill in a 1992 Yale Journal of Law and Liberation article, “Death Squads in the United States: Confessions of a Government Terrorist,” “as a quid pro quo for his cooperation in casting an appearance of legitimacy upon an illegal transfer of land to the federal government.”
Years earlier, prospectors had discovered large deposits of molybdenum and uranium in the Sheep Mountain Gunnery Range on Pine Ridge. And as a matter of “national security,” the Federal Government wanted control of the land containing the metals. But the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 forbade any requisitioning of Lakota land without the consent of “three quarters of adult males.”
Three quarters of adult males living on Pine Ridge in 1972, though, had no interest in handing over the Sheep Mountain Gunnery Range — between an eighth and a quarter of the reservation’s territory — without fair compensation.
And the Federal Government had no intention of paying.
So to allow for the illegal transfer, explains Edgar Bear Runner, an Oglala Lakota tribal historian, “Our own chairman kept us in the dark. We had no idea he gave a hundred and thirty-three thousand acres of tribal lands rich in minerals — oil, gas, uranium, and other precious metals. The government took over this land, took it away from us. And while doing so, a lot of people died through violence.”
“Today the minority white people who are ranchers,” continues Bear Runner, representing just 7.6% of the population, “own over 51% of the land.”
As Dick Wilson was circumventing the Fort Laramie Treaty and selling off territory to non-Lakotas, members of A.I.M., including Leonard Peltier, traveled in to provide protection for the “traditionals” who opposed the Wilson Administration.
And that’s when Dick Wilson’s GOONs — the Guardians of the Oglala Nation — funded by a Bureau of Indian Affairs grant and re-appropriated federal highway monies, began their “Reign of Terror”: the systematic, extrajudicial murder of more than 60 A.I.M. members and supporters intended to quash dissent against the tribal government.
As an example of the kind of frontier justice being meted out on Pine Ridge, just three months before the shootout on the Jumping Bull ranch that would send Leonard Peltier to prison, Edith Eagle Hawk — a defense alibi witness for an A.I.M. member named Jerry Bear Shield who stood falsely accused of killing a GOON named William Jack Steele — was driving between Scenic, South Dakota and Rapid City when another driver rammed her car off the road.
Eagle Hawk, her four-month-old daughter, and her three-year-old grandson were all killed. The driver of the car that caused the accident — Albert Coomes, a white rancher who’d been deputized as a GOON by Dick Wilson — died, too.
Eagle Hawk’s nephew, Eugene, who survived the wreck despite major injuries, also identified a second man in Coomes’ car who’d survived and escaped before police arrived at the scene: Mark Clifford, another well-known GOON. Eugene gave a statement to investigators. But neither the F.B.I. nor the Bureau of Indian Affairs reports about the accident mention Clifford.
The crash was eventually ruled an accident. And no charges were ever brought.
If you supported the American Indian Movement on Pine Ridge, and if you did something the GOONs didn’t like — or had information the GOONs didn’t want you to have— they knew they could target you with impunity. They might ambush you with a shotgun like they did Pedro Bissonette. They might shoot you with a sniper rifle like they did Jeanette Bissonette. They might poison you with carbon-tetrachloride like they did Julia Pretty Hips. They might stab you like they did Hilda Good Buffalo. They might beat you and run you over like they did Jancita Eagle Deer. They might beat you, shoot you, and run you over like they did Hobart Horse. Or they might just disappear you in the middle of the night and leave your body to rot in a field like they did Anna Mae Aquash.
Because they knew no one would investigate.
“If I was born a white American,” Chase Iron Eyes, the American Indian activist, attorney, and politician, said recently, “I’m bred, and steeped, in a mythology where I’m the victor, I’m the conqueror, I’m the colonizer. There’s a lot of that infused into our justice system.” The more the Oglala Lakota are able to share what happened to their land and their culture — and likewise the land and culture of all indigenous peoples on what is now U.S. soil — the easier it is to understand how Leonard Peltier ended up in prison.
“Leonard was defending Indian sovereignty,” Iron Eyes continues, “but he’s also doing the time of those who have an interest in defending our constitutional freedoms as well. In our country, we shouldn’t have political prisoners. We shouldn’t have an Edward Snowden, a Chelsea Manning.”
We shouldn’t have a Leonard Peltier behind bars, either.
President Clinton had an opportunity to grant Peltier clemency and didn’t. Peltier’s daughter, Kathy, implored President Obama to release her father. And Obama refused.
“Biden isn’t doing it,” says Peltier’s lawyer, Kevin Sharp. “He’s certainly not doing it in his first term. And if he doesn’t do it in his first term, Peltier’s 80 years old. End of his second term? Leonard’s 84 years old. Prison years are hard. He’s dead.”
“Leonard Peltier dies in prison,” adds Sharp, “if Trump doesn’t do it.”
We awoke from the coma of COVID-19 to the crack of gunshots, to the sound of a man gasping for breath and calling for his mother.
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (and Elijah McClain, Rashard Brooks, Oluwatoyin Salau, Malcolm Harsch, Robert Fuller, Andres Guardado…) are some of the latest victims of a judicial (and extrajudicial) system that has behaved for centuries as if it weren’t accountable to the most vulnerable people it purports to serve.
If Leonard Peltier dies in the Coleman Federal Penitentiary, he will be one more name on that despicable list.
But the President could free him with the stroke of a pen. It wouldn’t undo the damage already done. It wouldn’t save the lives of Leon Swift Bird, Lydia Cut Grass, Edward Means, Jr., Byron DeSersa, Anna Mae Aquash, Lena Slow Bear, Edward Standing Soldier, Martin Montileaux, Hobart Horse, Stacy Cortier, Edith Eagle Hawk and her babies, Cleveland Reddest, Jeanette Bissonette, Richard Eagle, Hilda Good Buffalo, Jancita Eagle Deer, Priscilla White Plume, Frank Clearwater, Roxeine Roark, Buddy Lamont, Betty Jo Dubray, Marvin Two Two, Julia Pretty Hips, Ben Sitting Up, Sam Afraid of Bear, Kenneth Little, Kevin Hill, Leah Spotted Elk, Clarence Cross, Joseph Stuntz Killsright, Betty Means, James Briggs Yellow, Julius Bad Heart Bull, Sandra Wounded Foot, Randy Hunter, Dennis LeCompte, Howard Blue Bird, James Little, Jackson Washington Cutt, Robert Reddy, Melvin Spider, Philip Black Elk, Aloysius Long Soldier, Phillip Little Crow, Pedro Bissonette, Olivia Binas, Janice Black Bear, Michelle Tobacco, Delphine Crow Dog, Elaine Wagner, Allison Fast Horse, John S. Moore, Carl Plenty Arrows, Sr., Frank LaPointe, Floyd S. Binals, or Yvette Loraine Lone Hill.
But it would end one injustice. It would restore some of the dignity we’ve stripped from one man. It is part of the healing. It is part of the dismantling of our racist, colonialist past.
And then see you back in the streets.
To hear more of Leonard Peltier’s story, tune into LEONARD: Political Prisoner, a new podcast series about America’s longest-serving political prisoner. And to find out how to join the movement and help get Peltier released from prison, visit whoisleonardpeltier.info.