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Lakota history taught me to promote advocacy; now it’s your turn

Lakota History teacher, Mr. Dominick Pugliese (end of left), and students of the Lakota History class meeting with Native activist, Suzan Shown Harjo (bottom middle), at a Leonard Peltier protest in front of the White House (Photo courtesy of Mr. Pugliese)

Students in the Lakota History class are often engaged with activism for the Native American community. Often, they encounter and learn from other individuals who have dedicated their lives to this common cause. 

For my Lakota History capstone project, I chose to learn more about Leonard Peltier, a 79-year-old Native American activist and prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), has been incarcerated for more than 46 years for the murder of two FBI agents named Ronald Williams and Jack Coler on June 26, 1975, in a shootout in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The trial was seen as very controversial by many different people, groups and professionals. With his attorney Mr. Kevin Sharp, Mr. Leonard Peltier has applied for clemency to the last few United States presidents, but all have denied it for him so far.

I was lucky enough to interview Mr. Kevin Sharp to learn more about Peltier’s case. According to Mr. Kevin Sharp, the background of what happened on Pine Ridge in 1975 goes way beyond just what physically happened that day. Indians, especially ones who are in AIM and live on the Pine Ridge Reservation, have developed a lot of anger, hate and distrust towards the United States government due to many broken treaties over a very long period of time. Those broken treaties often cause violence and sometimes the United States even wants the seemingly useless land they exchanged back because they discover some type of valuable resource they previously did not know about on the Native land, usually it is oil, or in Pine Ridge’s, as well as other nearby reservations at that time, case, uranium and coal. Something else that did not help the tension was that Dick Wilson ruled Pine Ridge Reservation with an iron fist using his pressure group called the Goon Squad. In short, all these events just combined to make people at the 1975 Pine Ridge Shootout as angry as they were willing to stay in a shootout against government agents.

In addition to the history of anger in the area, it is also important to know why the agents were even in Pine Ridge. Agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler were in the area looking for a man named Jimmy Eagle; here is the FBI’s description of why they were there looking for Eagle:

According to the FBI case file, “on June 25, 1975, the evening before the murders, Agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler were on the reservation attempting to locate and arrest Jimmy Eagle. A federal warrant charging Eagle with robbery was outstanding after Eagle and some companions had beaten and robbed a person on the reservation. Additional charges stemming from that incident included assault with a deadly weapon. One of the areas where Agent Williams attempted to locate Eagle was the Jumping Bull Compound, but the agents were unsuccessful in their attempts to find him. However, during the investigation, the agents talked with Norman Charles and two others in Agent Williams’ car and advised Charles that the purpose of their visit was to locate Eagle. It is noted that Norman Charles was with Peltier at the time of the murders on the following day. The agents were told that Eagle had just left in a red vehicle. No further detail was given concerning that vehicle.”

While the FBI’s claims of why they were there and the descriptions of Eagle’s vehicle are often called into question, Williams and Coler came onto Pine Ridge in a place called Jumping Bull Ranch, which was filled with angry AIM members and called a “powder keg” by Mr. Kevin Sharp, looking for Jimmy Eagle and his vehicle with no proof of being agents and all of sudden the shooting started. The fighting lasted for about ten to fifteen minutes and both Williams and Coler died along with a 21-year-old Native named Joe Stuntz who got shot in the head. 

According to Mr. Sharp, right after the shootings, hundreds of agents and members of the Goon Squad surrounded Jumping Bull Ranch and started rounding up suspects. He also stated that the organization and efficiency of the agents showing up so soon mean that the FBI probably planned it. Three people were indicted after the killings, excluding Jimmy Eagle, and they were Dino Butler, Bob Robideau and Leonard Peltier. Peltier was tried separately from Butler and Robideau because he had escaped to Canada, and they were acquitted on lack of evidence. The government got Peltier’s so-called girlfriend to sign an affidavit to get Canada to extradite Peltier, but she didn’t even know him, she made it up. Then from there the case just kept getting more and more suspicious with people changing stories and descriptions about what they saw (specifically with how Peltier’s car looked), the government switching judges, and even the FBI threatening witnesses.. However, what ultimately led to Leonard Peltier’s conviction was a shell casing that matched the gun he had, that shell casing was very common among many weapons, but they still went ahead with it and convicted him. 

According to Mr. Sharp, it was later found out that they did do a firing pin test and it showed it was not Leonard Peltier’s weapon and they knew it (the FBI) during the trial. Even with that discovery, nothing changed for Peltier and he remained in prison.

After learning all this, there are questions that you need to ask and determine the significance of it. Is there evidence that Leonard Peltier killed the two FBI agents? No, not really, the evidence was mainly testimonies that were often fabricated and the commonly used shell casing. Is there evidence to prove that Leonard Peltier did not kill the two FBI agents? According to Mr. Sharp, yes, with the firing pin test and testimonies that the FBI did not fully allow. Did Leonard Peltier have nothing to do with the killings of the FBI agents? He at least had some to do with it; he was part of AIM and he said he participated in the shootout. 

But, the final question you should ask, and what I personally think is the most important question, was Leonard Peltier given a fair trial? Definitely not; there was nefarious FBI interference, unorthodox prosecution methods, changing of stories, and withholding of evidence according to Mr. Sharp.

 In my personal opinion, Peltier should receive clemency. Mr. Sharp said it well, it has been nearly 50 years since the murders, the trial was clearly not 100% fair and unconstitutional, and Peltier is nearly 80 and has multiple health concerns, so leaving him to rot in a cell provides no value to anyone. Mr. Sharp said one of the main reasons why Leonard Peltier was so hardly tried to be convicted was that he was part of AIM and J. Edgar Hoover sought to destroy and damage them and every radicalized group, such as the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Moment, in any way possible. J. Edgar Hoover is dead and AIM is in no way even a thought of a threat today, Peltier needs to go home. 

As high school students in 2024 and, for some, soon-to-be college students, an event that happened in 1975 may not seem to mean anything to us, but we still can do things about it and learn from it. First off, it teaches us we have to look into and study events critically because even though agencies are usually trustworthy, they are not always correct or tell the full truth. 

Finally, even though we are still in high school, we should know that we have at least some say in events and decisions going on in our country. You could send letters or emails to people who make decisions in the government about your concern of Leonard Peltier and the more people who tell the government they care about the case, the more likely the president is actually going to do something about it. Leonard Peltier has had a painful life, but hopefully Mr. Sharp and others can make things finally change for the better.

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