Dakota Datebook

Peltier part 2

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

 

On this date in 1977, the trial of Leonard Peltier was in its second day. Peltier was an activist in the American Indian Movement or AIM and, in 1972, he took part in a 71-day standoff with FBI agents at Wounded Knee. The years after the standoff were marked by violence between the tribal administration of Dick Wilson and his opponents, who were supported by AIM.

By June 1975, the number of FBI agents and SWAT forces at Pine Ridge had increased, and tensions were high on all sides. Around noon on June 26th, FBI Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams drove onto the grounds of a ranch where a number of AIM activists, including Leonard Peltier, were staying. Coler and Williams were following up on a tip involving a wanted man. The situation escalated into a shootout that left both agents, as well as an AIM member, dead.

Leonard Peltier and three others were charged with two counts of first-degree murder and aiding and abetting. During the summer of 1976, two of the defendants were acquitted at trial. Charges against a third were voluntarily dismissed by the government. Peltier, meanwhile, was in custody in Canada fighting extradition. He was eventually brought back to the United States.

Following a five-week jury trial in Fargo, he was convicted on April 18th, 1977. He was sentenced to serve two consecutive life terms.

The case has generated a tremendous amount of finger pointing from both sides. For example, in “FBI Secrets: An Agent’s Expose,” M. Wesley Swearingen writes, “I was an FBI agent in Los Angeles when Leonard Peltier was convicted, and I know from FBI documents that I read, and from statements made by fellow FBI agents, that Peltier was wrongfully convicted… because the agents investigating the case wanted someone to pay for killing the two FBI agents. I know, for a fact, that the FBI is also covering up its culpability in the death of the two FBI agents.”

Federal prosecutors maintain quite the opposite, but statements like Swearingen’s have contributed to a broad base of support for Peltier.

Appeals continue to be filed on his behalf and, among many organizations and individuals, Amnesty International has called for his release. Among Peltier’s supporters have been eight Nobel Laureates, including the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

After his many years in prison, Peltier is now a great-grandfather, a writer, and an accomplished artist whose work is collected by many. His next parole hearing comes up in July, 2024. He will be seventy-nine years old.

Original writer: by Merry Helm (updated by Prairie Public staff)

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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