There remains but one crucial question concerning Leonard Peltier: at what point was he transformed from his unnoticed birth on a poor Indian Reservation into the Myth of Leonard Peltier, self-described as, Gwarth-ee-lass, "He Leads the People?"1 The Myth who is able to say, "I have never lost hope or an absolute belief in the rightness of my cause, which is my People's survival."2
Perhaps his life would have gone largely unnoticed, except for those family, friends, and acquaintances he would have developed in the normal course of everyday life, were it not for a chance meeting on a muddy road in South Dakota in his thirty-first year. Occurring as it did in a few fleeting moments, this confrontation forever altered his life and later compelled him to reflect back on what was, what never was, and what he believed had gone before. That timing though had to be inextricably linked with other events, which made this new Myth meaningful.
But for his birthright, Leonard Peltier should have been able to grow up in the 1950s post-war posterity but was instead ensnared in the systemic poverty and continued discrimination of the Reservation. He was trapped, born into a greater society that shunned his native heritage and by a government that was compelling his assimilation. Reservation life was, and to a large degree still is, a cultural mire for many. The poorest reservations, not unlike the inner cities, allow precious few to escape.
Leonard Peltier came late to the Indian cause, not joining the American Indian Movement (AIM) until 19723. AIM, in its early history, was seen as a threat to America's internal security because of its militant personality. At this point in his life Leonard Peltier was a poor, undereducated drifter, moving from place to place and in and out of petty crime. He did participate in the occupation of abandoned Fort Lawton, near Seattle, the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington, D.C., where he and other AIM members ransacked the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, but was in jail and missed the defining moment of the AIM struggle, Wounded Knee II. Later, while a fugitive, he allegedly protested for native fishing rights in Washington State and in AIM protests in Arizona and Wisconsin4.
Leonard Peltier has stated that in 1975 he was brought to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, to help the Oglala traditionalists in their conflict with the non-traditionalist tribal government of Dick Wilson. That tension triggered an event marking the end point of the often described "Reign of Terror,"5 which began roughly with Wounded Knee II (February 1973) and ended with the shooting deaths of two FBI Agents and an AIM member on June 26.
Leonard Peltier has claimed, that when the shooting started that fateful day, he and others were in the AIM camp to the south and only joined in with others and shot at the Agents at a great distance; some one hundred and fifty yards.6 However, only five people know exactly what happened that sultry day; Jack Coler and Ron Williams, who are dead; Leonard Peltier, Robert Robideau and Dino Butler. Although, to this day, Peltier claims that the agents were killed in self-defense7, any reasonable review of the sequence of events belies this; the Agents were first both severely wounded and then murdered at contact range. Whatever their final motivations, whether history took over in a re-celebration of a similar event between Indian and the Government ninety-nine years earlier in a not-to-distant place (Custer at the Little Big Horn), whether fear of retaliation, or just mindless panic took hold, one simple fact remains; dead men make poor witnesses. Whether or not there was any sense of guilt or remorse over the Agents' deaths that day, the participants have consistently stated that no crime was committed. 8
The Myth of Leonard Peltier evolved over a period of time and is linked to the unfolding of Mr. X.
There is no fixed date and place for the creation of Mr. X, but this much is known: Leonard Peltier was not present in California, but his co-conspirator, Dino Butler and others were there when the story was concocted.9 To his credit, Butler would not subscribe to the lie, that Mr. X, whom they all knew and who arrived at the Jumping Bull compound to deliver dynamite, killed the agents and drove off in a red pickup truck. Butler remained silent until 1995 when he publicly repudiated the idea of Mr. X and expressed his anger with Peltier biographer, Peter Matthiessen, for not consulting him about the matter.10 Matthiessen himself first learned of Mr. X on the sixth anniversary of the killings in 1981 while interviewing Robert Robideau for In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (ITSOCH), and was, "Taken aback by this unexpected story…."11 Even Leonard Peltier's biographer found the whole concept suspicious from the outset but confirmed for himself that Mr. X's misguided purpose was not acceptable, because, in the final analysis, it was decided by the defense attorneys that it was better to keep those involved "…out of the area of the (agents') cars entirely".12 But the legend of Mr. X persisted nonetheless.
There is no confusion about what Peltier and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC) has said about Mr. X. Peltier's direct quotes are easily understood and followed for the better part of two decades until he thought better of this lie and tried to distance himself from Mr. X. This was necessitated as the Myth was nurtured and his own self-importance and public stature increased. Thus, the need for an alibi became increasingly unnecessary and conversely more embarrassing to himself, the LPDC, and his ardent supporters. His new credibility and stature could not rest on an apparent fabrication.
This ultimately explains why Prison Writings, his autobiography, makes no mention of Mr. X or the red pickup truck.13
The evolution of Mr. X can be seen in the period between June 1, 1977 and 1986. Leonard Peltier expressed himself very forcefully at his sentencing in Fargo, North Dakota with a prepared statement in which he excoriated the sentencing judge, almost defying the court to give him the two consecutive life sentences he expected to receive. Noticeably absent from this diatribe was any attempt to speak on behalf of, or as a leader of, his People. To the contrary, he refers to himself several times only as an AIM or Native American "activist".14 By contrast, in a postscript to this earlier statement (added in 1986 while addressing the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals), he not so subtly refers to himself, as not just an activist anymore, but as an organizer.15 That nine-year period, along with the creation of Mr. X, laid the foundation for the Myth that was soon to take permanent shape.
Because of his own growing self-indulgence and notoriety, something greater, albeit more remarkable, was needed. The Myth of Leonard Peltier needed the Agents' deaths to be something other than just a coincidence. Unless it was otherwise, a haphazard encounter would diminish his developing mythical stature. It would not have allowed him, in retrospect, to rise to the occasion and lead his People out of harm's way.
In order for Leonard Peltier to be fully transformed into what he now believed himself to be, the entire incident had to be brought into proper focus. The reason for the incident at Oglala had to be directed towards Peltier himself. To establish this he makes his most excessive and remarkable claim since his arrest in February 1976, perpetuated and immortalized in his 1999 autobiography.
What happened that day, according to Leonard Peltier's own account was "…a planned paramilitary assault on the Pine Ridge reservation."16 [where] "…scores, even hundreds, of FBI agents…."17 [were] "in place at least twenty minutes before…,18 " [They] "…were all lying in wait in the immediate vicinity,"19 [while] "The government had been preparing for a major act,"20 [and], "Maybe they figured they could come in and finish us off after the two agents had drawn our fire, giving them the excuse they needed."21 [And], "There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of FBI, local lawmen, GOONs, and white vigilantes out there, suddenly appearing within minutes as if from out of nowhere, and they were all gunning for us. And two of their buddies lay injured, probably dead, in the crossfire zone between us."22
Peltier supports all this by claiming that Freedom of Information (FOI) "documents"23 confirmed that a virtual army of lawmen were laying in wait. This, perhaps more than anything else Peltier has claimed, had no basis in fact and served only to escalate the importance of the developing Myth.
The very nature of the emergency radio calls for help by Agent Williams further proves that this was not a preplanned event. Had it been otherwise, as Peltier claims, the Agents would have simply called in the phantom army of law-enforcement that allegedly surrounded Pine Ridge. However, the Agents were unwitting victims of Leonard Peltier and others who first pinned them down in a deadly crossfire and then executed them. Even Matthiessen, who probably spent more time than anyone else researching Peltier's case, disagrees with the preplanned scenario (but not before he mindlessly repeated the same claim). Matthiessen, within the six hundred pages of ITSOCH, came to his own inescapable and infinitely more logical conclusion. Because of the location of the agents' vehicles he recognized that they were caught by surprise, out in the open, and taken under fire. The position of their cars on a muddy road in an open area belied anything other than a spontaneous event.24
The FOI document Leonard Peltier refers to is an internal FBI memo dated April 24, 1975 entitled "The use of Special Agents of the FBI in a paramilitary law enforcement operation in the Indian Country." The purpose of this position paper is stated in the very first sentence: to brief the Attorney General, "…on the role of the FBI in the event of a major confrontation in Indian country…."25 The memo clearly states the problems the FBI encountered in coordinating the siege of Wounded Knee II in February 1973, by still attempting to establish a clearly defined chain of command structure and decision making process. The memo shows that no less than a dozen agencies: Department of Justice attorneys; United States Attorney; White House officials; Department of the Interior; FBI; Bureau of Indian Affairs; U.S. Marshal's Service; Public Information Officers; Community Relations Service; Department of Defense; U.S. Army; Tribal Police; in addition to church and social groups and the press; all contributed to a situation that FBI officials regarded as detrimental to resolving what was first and foremost, a hostage situation. Conflicting directives emanated from a lack of continuity, divided authority, and an indefinite command structure that fostered confusion during the seventy-one day siege. The FBI wanted, but apparently did not secure, the operational direction and leadership role it desired to remove any political influence and considerations from what was essentially a tactical law-enforcement operation.
This position paper was reviewed by a number of FBI officials as is evident by the eight (8) sets of initials at the end of the memo. In addition, a handwritten notation at the bottom of the cover page, and a date of August 11, 1975, clearly indicates that there were still questions about control and accountability even after the shooting at Pine Ridge.26 Those conflicts and problems are replete within the memo, but what is most significant about this government document is not its content, but when it was prepared. It demonstrates that the government was still arguing internally about authority and control of major incidents in Indian country a full two years after Wounded Knee II.
Leonard Peltier, ignoring the intent and timing of this memo, and now with profound visions of leadership and immortality, uses it to imply that a sinister plot existed to encircle Pine Ridge with a virtual army in place twenty minutes before the agents' deaths. Using this memo he segues into an incredible leap of faith for his followers, but for himself something only his own Myth could accept and understand. It becomes his greatest excuse for what happened that day. That alone allowed him to revisit his early life, reinvent himself, and create a new entity. Though by now, Leonard Peltier himself, the LPDC, and his ardent supporters see nothing of the original person. Such a lack of reason could only come from the mind of someone reaching for immortality, someone stepping into his own Myth.
Either the real Leonard Peltier demonstrates a fundamental ignorance of the legal history of his own case, or the Myth expects his followers, and all others who would listen, to accept his proclamations without hesitation or question. If the Myth says it is so then it must be true.
There are a number of specific examples on the issue of Aiding and Abetting, but as late as June 2000 Peltier granted a number of interviews with the media prior to his upcoming parole review hearing. He stated, for public consumption, "Then they claimed I was in prison for aiding and abetting but I was never prosecuted for aiding and abetting, I was prosecuted for first degree murder. Well that's what the eighth circuit court of appeals is now saying, yes. But again, I was never prosecuted for aiding and abetting, so how can I be serving time for aiding and abetting?"27 Yet, the legal history of Peltier's case has repeatedly proven the contrary. He was indeed, indicted by a Federal Grand Jury, tried in Federal Court, convicted during a jury trial, and ultimately sentenced for federal violations that included aiding and abetting. On appeal, he was even chided by the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, which stated that his arguments on this issue were "…fatally flawed."28
And, only the Myth of Leonard Peltier could offer an insult to the President of the United States. He has, with little humility, emboldened the LPDC and his supporters to encourage the President to grant him clemency; yet in another formal interview offered in the public domain, he showed his disdain for his supporters and the political process by demeaning and insulting the one person who could grant him relief.29
Leonard Peltier is no longer the same person he was on June 26, 1975. That American Indian does not exist; just the Myth of Leonard Peltier remains. Only the Myth can now say that he never regretted he stood up and protected his people, and that the murder of the agents that day was not a crime.
"In the Spirit of Coler and Williams"
NPPA - Founder
Addendum: January 12, 2008
Please see the following NPPA editorial essay:
Factual Guilt and Actual Guilt - Leonard Peltier
Please see "Critical Witnesses against Peltier" Editorial Essay #55
1Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999) 4.
5Peltier 112. Although there is no disputing that tensions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were high, Peltier and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC) have repeatedly referred to this period as the Reign of Terror, claiming that 64 Native American murders were never investigated, or prosecuted. Peltier implies that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was culpable in these deaths, "Seems like the more FBIs we had around, the more murders we had." (Peltier 113). However, many of these cases were prosecuted in federal court and were either not within FBI jurisdiction, or could not be verified. For a detailed review of these murders see, "Issue: Reign of Terror and Indian murders never investigated," No Parole Peltier Association, April, 2000, Cincinnati, Ohio, August 17, 2000, http://www.noparolepeltier.com/response.html.
7"CNN/Time Leonard Peltier transcript," American Indian Cultural Support, 1998, http://www.aics.org/LP/transcript.html, June 30, 2000. Text of CNN interview of Leonard Peltier by Mark Potter, broadcast, October 10, 1999. "Potter: So the deaths of those agents are not murders. Peltier: Not in Indian - not in Indian peoples' eyes. Potter: What are they? Peltier: Self-Defense."
8Peltier 206. "They, too, have to pay everyday for the crime I never committed." Dino Butler stated, "I wasn't willing to spend the rest of my life behind bars for something I did no wrong for, so I was gonna do all these things to stop that from happening, even if it meant making them kill me." Entire interview available at "Conversations with Dino Butler," Interview by E.K. Caldwell, No Parole Peltier Association, April, 2000, Cincinnati, Ohio, June 30, 2000, http://www.dickshovel.com/dino.html. Peter Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (New York, 1983, 1992) in reporting his extensive interviews with Robert Robideau: "All the Indians who were there that day were warriors, and the nameless figures in the red truck were no more guilty than he and Dino and Leonard, because no Indian that day was guilty; the only thing that might have been questioned was the judgment of those men, and Robideau refused to question even that." (547) "We were just sick and tired of being pushed around; we didn't care about them agents. They were shooting at us, and we shot back." (548)
9"Conversations with Dino Butler, Caldwell, http://www.dickshovel.com/dino.html.
10"Conversations with Dino Butler, Caldwell, http://www.dickshovel.com/dino.html.
11Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, 545.
12Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, 545-546.
13Peltier. No mention is made in this autobiography of either Mr. X or a red pickup truck being involved in the killings of the two FBI Agents.
18Peltier xvii. Preface by former U.S. Attorney General, Ramsey Clark.
20Peltier xvii. Preface by former U.S. Attorney General, Ramsey Clark.
23Peltier xvii. Preface by former U.S. Attorney General, Ramsey Clark. Complete quote reads, "We know now, from documents recently released in the 1990s under the Freedom of Information Act, that the FBI had people in place at least twenty minutes before the two cars that precipitated the "incident at Oglala" drove down into the Jumping Bull compound. The government had been preparing for a major act."
24Matthiessen 544. "On the other hand, the evidence suggests - to me at least - that Coler and Williams had indeed been chasing one or more vehicles, and that whether or not those being pursued stopped at the Y-fork above the junked cars (not wishing, apparently, to lead the FBI cars either down toward the camp or up into the compound), the agents pulled up in that vulnerable place down in the pasture because they heard a warning shot or came under fire; if there is another persuasive explanation of the location and position of their cars, I cannot find it."
25"FBI Memorandum, dated April 24, 1975," International Office of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, September 23, 2000, click here for link
26"FBI Memorandum, dated April 24, 1975."
27South Dakota Public Broadcasting Online, "A Conversation with Leonard Peltier, June, 2000," http://www.sdpb.org/conversations/leonardpeltier/page1.htm, 3.
28The government's case against Peltier includes nine court decisions, an indictment, trial, and an evidentiary hearing. The issue regarding a statement made by the federal prosecutor in subsequent oral arguments before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals was challenged on the argument that the government had conceded that it had abandoned one of the two basis's of Peltier's trial conviction. The decision addressing this issue is contained in PELTIER v. HENMEN, cite as 997 F. 2d 461 (8th Cir. 1993), page 485, section II, paragraph 2: "Peltier's arguments fail because their underlying premises are fatally flawed. (A) The Government tried the case on alternative theories; it asserted that Peltier personally killed the agents at point blank range, but that if he had not done so, then he was equally guilty of the murder as an aider and abettor." The complete text of this and the remaining decisions are available at http://www.noparolepeltier.com/court.html.
29Boulder Weekly, Interview by Ben Corbett, March 9, 2000, http://www.boulderweekly.com/archive/030300/coverstory.html, 4. "These politicians are such sleazebags that you just don't know." Peltier then goes on to make twelve specific references to the President of the United States.