The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located in the southwest corner area of South Dakota near the Black Hills and is home to 15,000 Oglala Sioux.
In the early 1970s, the Pine Ridge Reservation broke out into a War. Local tribal leaders were ruthless in dealing with their people. Indian activists from around the country, such as members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), entered the fray.
In February of 1973, AIM warriors seized the village of Wounded Knee, resulting in a 73-day siege by federal and state authorities.
Leonard Peltier, a Chippewa Sioux from North Dakota, joined the action in Pine Ridge. He owned a red-and-white Chevrolet van and was accompanied by Bob Robideau and Dino Butler. They set up camp in a gully on the Jumping Bull Ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
On June 26, 1975, two FBI Agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, were searching for a man on the Pine Ridge Reservation named Jimmy Eagle who had been involved in a fight with a friend and stole a pair of cowboy boots.
Driving in separate unmarked cars, Coler and Williams spotted a red pickup truck that matched one of Jimmy Eagle's vehicles and followed it to the Jumping Bull Ranch.
Soon, the two agents were under gunfire from the occupants of the vehicle.
Other law enforcers arrived, but they spent much of the afternoon pinned down on Route 18, waiting for other law enforcers to launch a flanking attack.
At 12:15 PM, one (or more) of the gunmen approached the vehicles and executed Coler and Williams.
At 2:30 PM, a BIA rifleman shot and killed one of the perpetrators, Joe Stuntz.
At 4:30 PM, the bodies of Coler and Williams were recovered near their vehicles. They had been shot at close range execution style. A total of 125 bullet holes were found in their vehicles.
At 6:00 PM, law enforcers stormed the Jumping Bull compound. They discovered Stuntz's corpse in Coler's FBI field jacket.
The others involved had slipped away into the hills, launching a nationwide manhunt that lasted eight months.
On September 5, 1975, Dino Butler was arrested in a raid on an AIM encampment in South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation. Agent Williams' handgun was found in a vehicle near a residence where Butler was arrested.
On September 10, 1975, a station wagon exploded on the Kansas Turnpike near Wichita, Kansas. It was carrying explosives that ignited accidentally. A burned-up AR-15 was recovered at the scene. Among those in the vehicle at the time was Bob Robideau, Peliter' cousin.
In November of 1975, an Oregon State Trooper stopped an RV based on FBI descriptions. After a brief exchange of gunfire, Peltier escaped on foot. Among other weapons in the vehicle, Agent Coler's handgun was found in a paper bag containing Peltier's fingerprint.
On December 22, 1975, Leonard Peltier was named to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
On February 6, 1976, Peltier was apprehended by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police near Alberta, Canada.
Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, members of AIM, stood trial on federal charges in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Peltier, who had also been present at the Jumping Bull Ranch at the time of the incident, had fought extradition from Canada and arrived too late to be included as a defendant in the proceeding. He would be tried separately on a later date.
Butler and Robideau were found not guilty by a federal jury on the grounds of self-defense.
Peltier stood trial in federal court in Fargo, North Dakota, where he was convicted of murdering Coler and Williams. In April of 1977, Peltier was sentenced to two life sentences, to be served consecutively.
In July of 1993, after a series of appeals, Peltier's conviction was upheld by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
A woman named Myrtle Poor Bear, used in the affidavit to win Peltier's extradition from Canada, enhanced her "firsthand" knowledge of the incident with each telling and was eventually deemed to be utterly incompetent to appear in court.
An FBI Agent testified that Coler and Williams had followed a pickup truck onto the scene of the incident. He later changed his account of events to describe a red-and-white van (Peltier's vehicle). According to the FBI, these radio conversations between FBI Agents were not recorded at the time. According to Peltier's attorney, the FBI did indeed record the radio conversations but deliberately suppressed this evidence.
An FBI teletype stated that the firing pin on Peltier's weapon did not match the shell casings at the scene, thus proving Peltier's AR-15 rifle was not the murder weapon. However, the marks made by the rifle's extractor matched the recovered weapon. The FBI theorized that the firing pin must have been replaced after the killings.
There were contradictory field reports by the authorities suggesting the FBI had gone out of their way to link Peltier to the murders.
Three witnesses testified they saw Peltier approach the victim's vehicles. They later recanted their testimony, claiming that the FBI threatened and forced them to testify.
In 1990, Peter Matthiessen, author of IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE, interviewed a man who claimed to have been the actual killer of the two FBI Agents. A videotape of that unidentified (disguised) man was aired on the TV show 60 MINUTES in 1991.
The unidentified man stated that it was his pickup truck that Coler and Williams followed onto the Jumping Bull Ranch that day, as he and another AIM member attempted to deliver a load of goods to Peltier and Butler. When one of the agents opened fire, he and his passenger fired back. Soon, Peltier and others scrambled up from the gully where they had been camping and began firing at the agents.
At about 2:15 PM, the unidentified man attempted to flee, returning to the area where Coler and Williams were pinned down. Hopping out of the truck, he approached the wounded men, hoping to persuade them to surrender. One of the agents fired a shot from a pistol. "At that point I did not give him a chance to fire again," said the unidentified man who then executed both agents.
The unidentified man hopped back into his pickup truck, with his passenger, and sped away from the ranch. "I did not choose to take their lives. I only chose to save my own," he explained.
Leonard Peltier is not a hero. He had a history of petty crimes and was an active militant within the American Indian Movement. The basic question is whether or not the FBI framed Peltier for killings he may not have committed.
The FBI had extradited Peltier from Canada using affidavits they knew to be fraudulent. Much of the evidence they presented has been shown to be misrepresented or fabricated, and witnesses (who later recanted their testimony) were intimidated.
For 8 years, the FBI blocked the publication of IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE, by Peter Matthiessen.
In 1985, the Justice Department acknowledged they did not know who killed the Agents.
In 2000, near the end of Bill Clinton's presidency, rumors circulated that Clinton was considering giving Peltier clemency. This led to a demonstration outside the White House by 500 FBI agents and their families who wanted their pound of flesh for the murders of one of their own. Clemency was not granted.
Amnesty International has declared Peltier to be a political prisoner.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark has joined Peltier's defense team.
Peltier has received support from the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, the European Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mendela and many others.
As part of the settlement of a lawsuit in 2003, Paul DeMain, publisher of NEWS FROM INDIAN COUNTRY, issued a statement where he wrote, "I do not believe that Leonard Peltier received a fair trial in connection with the murders of which he was convicted. Certainly he was entitled to one."
It all started with a pair of stolen cowboy boots, which led to the death of two FBI Agents, which led to the death of Joe Stuntz, which led to Leonard Peltier being confined to a cage for the remainder of his life, followed by the remainder of another life.
But it really began when a small group of Anglo Europeans landed somewhere on the east coast and declared it to be a discovery. Through Manifest Destiny, the notion that the Anglo Europeans were entitled to hold dominion over the new land, the native residents were conquered and isolated and eventually presided over by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose purpose was to sequester the ignorant natives in undesirable locations and train them to adapt to Anglo customs.
The American Indian Movement did not start in a vacuum. It was a manifestation of decades of dominance of a race of people who desired to live a certain way of life by another race of people who wanted everyone to live by their way of life. It's a flaw in human behavior that has been continually repeated since the Dawn of Man.
The caretakers of Mother Earth were the residue of Manifest Destiny, an inconvenience to progress. They are the Trails of Tears, Ghost Ridge, Baker's Massacre, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, Chief Joseph, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Black Elk, Red Cloud, Cochise, Big Bear, Jim Thorpe, Ira Hayes and Leonard Peltier.
Every American contains a drop of Indian blood. What was done to them is slowly being done to us.
Leonard Peltier was a Chippewa Sioux in the Sovereign Nation of Lakota Sioux. He was engaged in a gun battle with enemy combatants from another nation, known as the USA, created by Anglo Europeans whose ancestors arrived by boat, conquered the land and subjugated the indigenous people into squalor.
The Trail of Tears continues to haunt this land today.
Quote for the Day – "We will forever be known by the footprints we leave behind." Lakota
Bret Burquest is a former award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and the Spirit of Crazy Horse. www.myspace.com/bret1111