Title

The Leonard Peltier Trial

Document Type

Article

Abstract

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in Minnesota in 1968 to promote traditional Native American culture and instill pride in the Native American community. AIM's targets included both the federal government, with whom it had a long list of grievances (especially focused on its record of many broken treaties) and progressive Indians, who they believed undermined native traditions and solidarity.

In February 1973, AIM instigated a seventy-one day takeover of the site of a famous 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The massacre had resulted in the deaths - at the hands of the United States Calvary - of several hundred Sioux women and children. In response to the AIM protest, the United States sent troops and tanks. The standoff ended with two deaths and a series of trials of AIM leaders.

In the two years that followed, the Pine Ridge Reservation came under the control of the progressives and elected tribal leader Dick Wilson. Wilson proved to be a vicious and unscrupulous leader, using his power to attack traditionalists. He enforced his will with the aid of a vigilante force called GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation). In the years between 1973 and 1975, called The Reign of Terror by AIM, the Reservation saw over sixty unsolved murders and had the highest murder rate in the United States. More people were killed at Pine Ridge, with a population of about 12,000, than in the rest of the entire state of South Dakota.

In 1975, traditionalists at Pine Ridge asked AIM leaders to send members to the Reservation to protect against further GOON attacks. Among the AIM members to respond to the call was thirty-year-old Leonard Peltier who, at the time, was wanted in Wisconsin on charges of assault and attempted murder of a police officer. AIM established a base of operations at Oglala, the town in the Pine Ridge Reservation with the highest concentration of traditionalist Indians. Hostility toward the federal government and cooperating progressives ran high at Oglala.

Around 11 a.m. on June 26, 1975, FBI agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams entered the Jumping Bull compound in Oglala intending to serve an arrest warrant on Jimmy Eagle, a young Indian accused of kidnapping and armed assault, who they believed might be driving a red pick-up truck. The agents began following a red and white van that they believed contained Jimmy Eagle. In fact, the vehicle contained Peltier and two other AIM members. Gunfire erupted and the agents soon found themselves pinned down amidst crossfire and were wounded.

Did Leonard Peltier, at close range with his AR-15, execute two FBI agents who had entered the Pine Ridge Reservation? Peltier's prominent supporters, including author Peter Matthiessen (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse) and Hollywood director and film star Robert Redford (Incident at Oglala), suggested in their accounts suggest that Peltier was the innocent victim of unscrupulous government law enforcement agents and prosecutors. On the other hand, the federal law enforcement community and - most importantly - a federal jury in Fargo believed that Peltier committed first-degree murder on that June day in South Dakota. Peltier's defenders, both inside and outside the American Indian Movement, consider him to be America's foremost political prisoner. To many others, however, Peltier is nothing more than a brutal killer who deserves to spend the rest of his days in a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. What really happened on June 26, 1975? Did Peltier get a fair trial? Is it time to free Leonard Peltier?

Publication Date

2007

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