On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents in unmarked cars followed a pickup onto the Jumping Bull Ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota the cars stopped at a fork in the road. The Native American families who lived on the ranch immediately became alarmed and feared an attack. This fear was because tensions were running high between the tribal chairperson Dick Wilson vigilantes's, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation "GOONS", and members of the Indian civil rights group the American Indian Movement (AIM). Shots were heard and a shoot-out erupted. The two FBI agents and one Native American lay dead when the shoot-out ended.
The agents had been injured in the shoot-out and then been shot at close range killing them. The Native American, a Joseph Stuntz, was shot in the head by a sniper bullet. FBI documents indicated, more than 40 Native Americans participated in the gunfight, but only AIM members Bob Robideau, Darrell Butler, and Leonard Peltier were ever brought to trial. Both Robideau and Butler were acquitted as the jury found that there was no evidence to link them to the fatal, close range bullets and that the mere act of returning fire was a matter of self-defense under those circumstances.
Peltier did not fare as well as his associates; Peltier was extradited from Canada on the basis of an affidavit signed by Myrtle Poor Bear, a local woman who claimed that she was Mr. Peltier's girlfriend and had personally witnessed the killings. Peltier unlike his associates was not tried in Iowa but in North Dakota, by a more conservative federal judge who allegedly allowed the prosecutor to suppress evidence and failed to hear contradictory testimonies. There were many other alleged improprieties in the arrest, extradition, trial and treatment of Leonard Peltier.
Peltier, despite these improprieties was convicted of two counts of murder, and has served twenty-seven years of two life sentences in Leavenworth Federal Prison. In the 27 years he has been in prison, Peltier has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He has been the subject of books, articles and three movies. He has been compared to Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela he is called defender of civil rights for the American Indians and a political prisoner of a corrupt federal justice system..
However, some say he is nothing more than a murderer who got just what he deserved for killing the two federal agents in the shootout. However, he is viewed; Leonard Peltier is bigger today than he was in 1975; Peltier has taken on legend in his own lifetime status. So how did this alleged injustice occur? Traditional America Indians with the help of AIM engaged in a sit-in to protest broken tribal treaties, and abuses against their people by corrupt tribal elders, and the federal government.
The Wounded Knee occupation of 1973 as it was known was ended when the government removed the protesters by force. This marked the beginning of a three-year period of heightened political and violent confrontation between the corrupt tribal leaders, and traditional American Indians supported by Aim, and the FBI. AIM came to the reservation purportedly to protect traditionalist American Indians More than 67 traditional tribal members and AIM members, were murdered and scores were assaulted.
Evidence indicated GOON responsibility in the majority of crimes but despite a large well-armed FBI presence, nothing was done to stop the violence. The FBI allegedly supplied the GOONS with intelligence on AIM members and looked away as GOONS committed crimes. AIM although fighting for civil rights for American Indians were far from peaceful, radical may even be a mild description; they at that time were the militant almost military wing of the Indian rights movement.
They were heavily armed with AR 15 and other assault rifles. It was within this violent backdrop where tensions were running high that the two FBI officers made a fatal decision to come onto the reservation allegedly to apprehend the AIM members in the truck. Who started the gunfight is unknown, why it started is also unknown, the only thing known was that three people died. Leonard Peltier may or may not have shot the FBI agents I do not think we will ever know.
One thing we do know, is that if Peltier had not fled to Canada after the shoot out and had instead gone to trial with the other two defendants, he almost certainly would have been acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. The Justice Department may or may not have wanted a scapegoat for the shootings and because of this allegedly turned a blind to the FBI's alleged coercively obtained three witness statements naming Peltier as the shooter. These individuals later retracted these statements. However, we do not know if this was because of coercive pressure by Aim and the traditionalist tribe members on the reservation where they lived.