Published on June 27, 2012 by Amy
Leonard Peltier (born September 12, 1944) is a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). In 1977 he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for first degree murder in the shooting of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents during a 1975 conflict on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
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Peltier’s indictment and conviction is the subject of the 1992 documentary Incident at Oglala, a film directed by Michael Apted. Peltier has been identified as a political prisoner by certain activist groups. Amnesty International placed his case under the “Unfair Trials” category of its Annual Report: USA 2010, citing concerns with the fairness of the proceedings. His murder conviction has survived appeals in various courts over the years.
In 2002 and 2003, Paul DeMain, editor of News From Indian Country, wrote that sources had told him that Peltier had said he killed the FBI agents; DeMain withdrew his support for clemency. At the trials in 2004 and 2010 of two men indicted for the murder of Anna Mae Aquash in December 1975 at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, prosecution witnesses testified that Peltier had told them and a small group of fugitive activists, including Aquash, that he had shot the two FBI agents. Peltier issued a statement in 2004 accusing one witness of perjury for her testimony and being a sellout. The two men charged in the murder of Aquash were convicted.
Peltier is incarcerated at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, Florida. His projected release date is October 11, 2040. His last parole hearing was in July 2009; his request for parole was denied. Peltier’s next scheduled hearing will be in July 2024.
Peltier was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the eleventh of thirteen children, to Leo Peltier and Alvina Robideau. His father was three-fourths Chippewa and one-quarter French, and his mother was Lakota Sioux on her mother’s side and Chippewa on her father’s. Peltier’s parents divorced when he was four years old. At this time, Leonard and his sister Betty Ann were taken to live with their paternal grandparents Alex and Mary Dubois-Peltier in the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa near Belcourt, North Dakota. In September 1953, at the age of nine, Leonard was enrolled at the Wahpeton Indian School in Wahpeton, North Dakota, an Indian boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). He graduated at Wahpeton in May 1957, and attended the Flandreau Indian School in Flandreau, South Dakota. After dropping out in the ninth grade, he returned to the Turtle Mountain Reservation to live with his father.
In 1965, Peltier relocated to Seattle, Washington. He worked for several years and became the owner of an auto body station. In the city, Peltier became involved in a variety of causes championing Native American civil rights, and eventually joined the American Indian Movement (AIM).
In the early 1970s, he learned about the factional tensions at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota between supporters of Richard Wilson, elected tribal chairman in 1972, and traditionalist members of the tribe. Wilson had created a private militia, known as the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs), whose members were reputed to have attacked political opponents. Protests over a failed impeachment hearing of Wilson contributed to the AIM and Lakota armed takeover of Wounded Knee in February 1973, which resulted in a 71-day siege by federal forces, known as the Wounded Knee Incident. They demanded the resignation of Wilson. The takeover did not end Wilson’s leadership, the actions of the GOONs or the violence; at least 50 murders were reported on Pine Ridge during the next three years.
In 1975 Peltier traveled to the Pine Ridge reservation as a member of AIM to try to help reduce the continuing violence among political opponents. At the time, he was a fugitive, with a warrant issued in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It charged him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for the attempted murder of an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, a crime for which he was later acquitted.