The Tragedy of Leonard Peltier vs. the US

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Bettmann/Corbis
Leonard Peltier being extradited from Canada to the US in December 1976

On July 27, 2009, I drove west from New York to the old riverside town of Lewisburg in central Pennsylvania, the site of the federal penitentiary where early the next morning I would make an appeal to the parole board on behalf of the American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier in his first parole hearing in fifteen years. On this soft summer evening, a quiet gathering of Peltier supporters from all over the country had convened in a small park near the Susquehanna River. Despite his long history of defeats in court, these Indians and whites sharing a makeshift picnic at wood tables under the trees were optimistic about a favorable outcome. Surely a new era of justice for minorities and poor people had begun with the Obama administration, and anyway, wasn’t Leonard’s freedom all but assured by the Parole Act of 2005, which mandated release for inmates who had spent thirty or more years in prison?

Leonard Peltier, an Ojibwa-Lakota from Turtle Mountain, North Dakota, was one of the three young Indians who were among the participants in a shoot-out with the FBI at Oglala on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation on a hot dusty day in June 1975. They were later charged with the deaths of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams. Ostensibly searching for a suspect in a recent robbery case, the agents had been warned by tribal police not to enter the property where the AIM Indians had their camp. Their intrusion apparently provoked a warning that led to an exchange of gunfire. Understandably outraged by the deaths of Coler and Williams and in particular by the fact that an unknown “shooter” had finished off both wounded men at point-blank range, their fellow agents would also suffer intense frustration and embarrassment when a dozen or more of the Indians involved, using a brushy culvert under a side road, escaped a tight cordon of hundreds of agents, Indian and state police, national guardsmen, and vigilantes who had the area surrounded.

More galling still, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, two of the three AIM suspects in the killings arrested during the FBI’s huge “ResMurs” (Reservation Murders) investigation, were acquitted a year later in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on a plea of self-defense, as the third and last suspect, Leonard Peltier, would certainly have been as well, had he not fled to Canada. He was arrested there in February 1976, extradited back to the US, and tried separately. Though originally indicted with the others on identical evidence, he was barred by a hostile new judge, Paul Benson, from presenting the same argument based on self-defense that had led to Robideau and Butler’s acquittal. Furiously prosecuted as the lone killer and convicted for both deaths on disputed evidence, Peltier was sentenced in February 1977…


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