Leonard Peltier: Native American Activist, Writer and Prisoner

Posted By Jeanette Centeno June 27th, 2021 Last Updated on: January 25th, 2022

Leonard Peltier has been called everything from an activist, militant, warrior and hero to a criminal and murderer.

His legacy is as controversial as it is murky.

Who is Leonard Peltier?

Born Sept. 12, 1944, Peltier grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He is of Dakota, Lakota and French descent. He is also an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, a Native American tribe of Ojibwa and Métis peoples.

Peltier became a key member of the American Indian Movement. He worked to end police brutality, racism, and provide the community—especially elders—with assistance, food, and supplies. AIM was officially founded in Minneapolis in 1968.

However, in the 1970s, Peltier’s life took a turn for the worst.

Why did Leonard Peltier go to jail?

Factional tensions at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota between traditional and non-traditional tribal members caused many within the community to live in fear. Richard Wilson led the militia called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (Goon Squad), who were known to attack political opponents and community members. 

In 1973, AIM and other Lakota tribal members took over Wounded Knee which led to a 71-day siege. In 1975, after serving jail time, Peltier joined other members of AIM at Wounded Knee to provide supplies to other tribal members who were involved in the stance. Around that time, Peltier was charged with the murder of a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, police officer (he was later acquitted of all charges).

On June 26, 1975, Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A Williams (FBI) entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation looking for Jimmy Eagle, in connection with a recent assault and robbery. At approximately 11:50 am, the two FBI agents who drove unmarked cars came under fire. Both agents were killed within minutes. A total of 125 bullets were found near the FBI agents from a .223 Remington rifle. Three men who were at the Jumping Bull compound at the time of the shootings were arrested for the supposed involvement in the shooting. Those three men were Dino Butler, Robert Robideau and Peltier.

Leonard Peltier

What is the evidence against Leonard Peltier?

Throughout Peltier’s incarceration, he has provided numerous alibis and repeatedly claimed his innocence. 

In December 1976, Peltier was extradited from Canada based on documents submitted by the FBI. The documents provided false information given by Myrtle Poor Bear, who has admitted to lying and being harassed by the FBI. According to the judge, her testimony was barred due to mental incompetence. 

Robideau and Butler were subsequently acquitted, while Peltier was tried separately and convicted for the murder of the FBI agents. During the trial, Peltier was not allowed to give a self-defense testimony and the jury was shown numerous photos of the scene.

Inconsistencies in the prosecutions’ case have raised many doubts. Numerous people have recanted their stories, critical evidence went missing, and key witnesses were silenced. Furthermore, many involved in the case stated they were coerced to stay quiet or given immunity to testify against Peltier. 

Material evidence, such as the type of car Peltier drove, has been challenged in court time and time again. Ballistics experts have also stated the gun responsible for killing the agents did not come from Peltier. Dates have likewise been questioned and documents pertinent to the case have either gone missing or weren’t able to be examined by his team. The FBI claims the information would damage the current relationship with foreign governments and should remain sealed for national security.

Nonetheless, in April 1977, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

Where is Leonard Peltier today?

Peltier is currently incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary, Coleman in Sumter County, Florida.

Leonard Peltier’s case has garnered attention from human rights leaders, civil rights advocates, and groups, but his petition for clemency has been denied time and time again.

In his 1999 memoir, “Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance,” Peltier admitted to “participating” in the shootout of the FBI agents but insisted that he himself did not kill them.

Due to his ailing health and lack of evidence, many believe Peltier should be freed, or at the least, given a fair trial. While in prison, Peltier has also been the victim of violence numerous times and as a result, has been transferred from one prison to another.

In 2006, the petition to acquire all documents pertaining to the case was denied by Judge William M. Skretny, citing the documents are a matter of national security and should therefore not be disclosed.

Peltier has, however, gained the support of many celebrities and political figures such as Robert Redford, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama, who have campaigned for his clemency. Unfortunately, Peltier’s appeals for release and clemency have been ignored by presidents, including Barack Obama.

In 2016, Peltier wrote this letter, calling on his supporters to lobby President Obama for his release from prison. Read the letter below:

“I see over the decades that in some important ways, life has improved for our Peoples. President Obama’s extraordinary efforts to forge a strong relationship with our Tribal Nations is good cause for a new sense of optimism that our sovereignty is more secure. By exercising our sovereignty, life for our people might improve. We might begin to heal and start the long journey to move past the trauma of the last 500 years. But what will we do if the next Administration rolls back those gains made over the past eight years?

I often receive questions in letters from supporters about my health. Yes, this last year has been particularly stressful for me and my family. My health issues still have not been thoroughly addressed, and I still have not gotten the results of the MRI done over a month ago for the abdominal aortic aneurysm.

As the last remaining months of President Obama’s term pass by, my anxiety increases. I believe that this President is my last hope for freedom, and I will surely die here if I am not released by January 20, 2017. So I ask you all again, as this is the most crucial time in the campaign to gain my freedom, please continue to organize public support for my release, and always follow the lead of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.”

As of this year, Leonard Peltier is still a political prisoner in the United States and although Hollywood briefly took an interest in his story, it has largely faded from the mainstream—leaving Peltier with very little hope.

Barring appeals, parole or presidential clemency, Peltier will be imprisoned until 2035.

His next scheduled parole hearing is in 2024.


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About Jeanette Centeno

Jeanette Centeno (Taíno) is a nurse with 18 years of experience, ranging from Spinal Cord Injury patients to case management. She is committed to advocating for adequate healthcare and proper intervention for all people. Centeno currently works at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, one of the leading acute care hospitals in treating Spinal Cord Injury.

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Larry Sherk

I have followed the Leonard Peltier case since the seventies when I awoke to AIM and the continuing genocidal policies of the United States. He will always be an iconic figure because he stands for American injustice for Natives. Our racism continues unabated without any signs of letup or apology. My country can never live this down.


Please contact change.org or a similar petition generating group. Ask Kamala Harris to speak to Biden regarding a pardon or release for Peltier. This is so damn ridiculous and heart breaking.

Running Doe

Leonard Peltier should have been let out long, long ago this is very upsetting to me, I am in behalf of freeing him always have been wado,

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