For this October, 1992 interview, Leonard Peltier phoned Peter Gorman from Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary about the events that led to his incarceration. In honor of Peltier’s 76th birthday on September 12, we’re republishing it below.
Leonard Peltier is the most famous Native American political prisoner in the US. An AIM (American Indian Movement) activist, he was convicted of the execution-style deaths of two FBI Special Agents at the Jumping Bull Ranch on the Lakota Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, SD in 1975. His trial—more a vendetta against AIM than a search for truth—was marred by a prosecution that utilized fabricated and coerced testimony, perjury, and suppressed evidence which might have exonerated him. (For story background, see the sidebar following this interview.)
High Times spoke with Leonard Peltier on the telephone from Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he is serving the 16th year of two consecutive life sentences for the killings of agents Coler and Williams. He was clear-headed, good-humored and articulate.
High Times: What was your childhood like?
Leonard Peltier: I was raised in a two-room log cabin on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservation in Bellecourt, North Dakota, which was high in poverty and defeatism. We had to haul our water [and had] no electricity. We had wood stoves and an outdoor toilet. There was no employment in those days, and the roads were bad, so it was hard to get from your place to the main village of the reservation. We still used a lot of horses then. When we say Third World countries in the US, we’re talking reservations.
I got my clothes from the Sisters’ rummage sales. The Catholic Sisters had sales every month—of course I wasn’t the only one, we were all living like that. It was a hard life.
HT: How did you get involved with AIM?
LP: I had been active long before I joined the American Indian Movement. In the late fifties the government started selecting reservations to be terminated and the third one they picked was Turtle Mountain. The people opposed it and started organizing and I started attending a lot of these community meetings.
HT: What do you mean the government was going to terminate the reservation?
LP: I mean just that—terminate. Congressional Act. They planned to terminate all of the reservations in the United States and selected three of them, the Menominee of Wisconsin, Klamath Falls of Oregon, and the Turtle Mountain Chippewas, to start. From there they would select three more and just go on and on until there were no more Indian nations in the United States. So I started attending these meetings and started getting curious about what the people were saying. I participated in them as a runner for some of the older people—we didn’t have many cars in those days so we had to bring documents from one house to another.
Then later I got involved in the Northwest with the fishing struggles of the Native people there. I started traveling around and got involved in different organizations. I was the founder of United Indians of All Tribes—which still exists in Seattle. Washington—and are the people responsible for building Daybreak Star Park in Seattle. Later, in ’72, I joined the American Indian Movement in Denver,
Colorado, and returned north that same year.
HT: So what exactly happened on the day the two FBI men were killed?
LP: Well, we were expecting something to happen. You could feel the tension. There were a lot of terrorist acts going on at the hand of tribal chief Dick Wilson’s private police force, the Goon Squads. They were burning homes, there were drive-by shootings, killings and beatings—outright terrorism.
One little nine-year-old girl was playing in her yard. Her family were traditional and strong AIM supporters. Well they [the Goon Squads] came by and shot the house up and shot that little girl in the eye. She lost her eye.
So things were escalating into a very serious situation. We know now, from the testimony of Duane Brewer—one of the leaders of the Goon Squads—that they were receiving intelligence, armor-piercing ammunition and sophisticated weaponry from the FBI, and were planning on assaulting the Jumping Bull Ranch and a second area where AIM people were living.
HT: How did you know that?
LP: From his testimony. He gave an interview in the In The Spirit of Crazy Horse documentary, and it’s stated right there in his own words.
And because of the high tension around there, as you know, it resulted in a very serious conflict in which two FBI agents were killed and an Indian man was killed.
HT: Where were you at the time of their killing?
LP: I was in the camp at the time. We had moved from the houses down to a nice little grassy spot by the creek. We’d built a sweat lodge there, put some tepees up. It was summertime, it was real nice. Just camping out is what we were doing. Tired of living in the log cabins all winter. So that’s where I was.
When the shooting started I grabbed a weapon. My job was to protect the women and children—make sure they were safe. I figured something was happening and it certainly was. It started about ten o’clock that morning, and the shooting went on clear until about eight or nine o’clock that night. In fact, there was some shooting reported the following day. So it ended up in a pretty major gun battle.
HT: Did you fire your gun during the battle?
LP: Yes. I was defending myself and executing my responsibilities. I know I didn’t hit anyone—I just know it. Of course I couldn’t see anything. I was just shooting in the area where the bullets were coming from.
HT: Tell me about the mysterious Mr. X who has recently come forward. Is it true that he’s admitted the killings of the FBI men?
LP: Yes, he has.
HT: I’m told that you know his identity.
LP: Without jeopardizing myself any further, I believe I do—let’s put it that way.
HT: Is he ready to spring you for it?
LP: No. Otherwise he would have just come out and stated it in public. But the FBI does believe what he’s saying and they are investigating. They have already approached a number of Indian peoples’ homes with guns drawn.
And just recently, in the Incident at Oglala lawsuit for the documentation on the red pickup that was involved, the FBI [admitted they had] destroyed the records on it. It came out in a court in California when the judge ordered all of those transcripts turned over. And the FBI admitted before a court of law that they had destroyed some of them.
HT: What was the reason the FBI gave for destroying those records?
LP: They’re saying it’s because this case is so old. But you know, this case has been ongoing and we’re still in court, so what they did was illegal. It was a violation of the United States law to destroy evidence in a case that is still pending.
HT: Is there anyone at the FBI who might be willing to risk telling the truth—both about the destroyed evidence and anything else that might point a finger in a direction away from you?
LP: Do I believe there is a single honest person in that FBI camp? There hasn’t been so far, but I’m hoping that somebody’s going to come forward.
HT: I hear you’ve got an October court date. Tell me about it.
LP: We’ve not a date for oral arguments in St. Paul, Minnesota with the eighth circuit court. And I’ve got a new attorney on the case—Ramsey Clark.
HT: How did he get into the picture?
LP: Ramsey has been a supporter for a number of years. I was going to retain him a long time ago, but my lawyers talked me out of firing them and hiring him. So I held back until finally, in frustration, I told them I had no choice. We’re still associates and they’re still helping, but I had to tell them that I couldn’t keep riding the same horse that wasn’t going anyplace—I had to change mounts. I want to get out of here. So I asked Ramsey to help me.
HT: It’s been sixteen years inside for you now….
LP: Yes it has. Sixteen very hard years.
HT: What would you do if you got out?
LP: Well, I’ve developed my first love, which is to be an artist. I’ve developed it to where I believe I can be successful in supporting my family with some kind of comforts through my artwork. I would establish myself on my home base, build a studio. I’ve just recently asked a girl to marry me and she’s accepted, so she’s my fiancee—Lisa Faroulo, from New Jersey. We plan on getting married and building a life together.
And then of course, as I’ve told her a number of times, after we get settled, I’m going to have to go back to what I’ve always wanted to do—that’s to help my people. So I’ll go back to the struggle. Hopefully never to the serious confrontational level it was in the seventies, but, nevertheless, I still want to do what I can to bring attention to the treaties and the violations and so forth. Discrimination, poverty, highest alcoholism rate, drugs—it just goes on and on. Nothing has changed for us. I still want to spend the rest of my life fighting those issues and trying to make changes.
HT: What do you think the chances are that you will get out? Has enough public opinion built through the films, Incident at Oglala and Thunderheart? And will that help you?
LP: Well, Thunderheart isn’t really about me. They did steal our story—it parallels quite closely what happened in the seventies—but it’s not really my story. Incident at Oglala, of course, is, and I’m hoping that it builds enough public awareness and outcry to where it has some effect. The support has been building enormously, so I do feel some optimism that I will be released within a short period. That’s all I have, the optimism. I’ve got somebody I’m very much in love with and we want to build a life together. I feel confident that something is going to happen. So we’re going to start building our lives now.
HT: What are people like me capable of doing to help make the fight?
LP: First of all, the average American out there doesn’t know the true history of the Indian people. They should learn the true history of the Indian. Second, we don’t need a bunch of white people coming down to the reservation to save us. What we need are people to be behind legislation, to get laws passed that are going to be beneficial to the reservations. That’s the help we need.
HT: Legislation helps on one end, but what about the immediate crisis of poverty that exists on most reservations?
LP: We have to bring in some kind of industries. And we have to find some capital in order to do that, and right now casino gambling is the only thing there is for us.
HT: Do you think that gambling is helping the reservations that have it?
LP: I think so. So far the people who have it are investing the excess monies they’re making back into their people.
HT: Are there any other options besides gambling?
LP: There are a number of industries we could get going but they all require financing capital. For the Sioux, buffalo or cattle would work, though we’d prefer buffalo. There is a big big market for it out there. But you’ve got to start somewhere, so I’m for the gambling. Anything to make our lives better, get some work and do some good with the money.
HT: What would you do for the kids who have been socialized into oppression on the reservation? How do we change that?
LP: We started dealing with that in the seventies. The American Indian Movement brought life out of the Indian people, taught them to be proud of who they were. Indian people were joining us in masses. But of course we were nearly crushed. So we have to go back to some area, some thing, that can make our people proud of themselves again. We have to go back to something like that. I hope it’s not armed conflict—I don’t want to see any more armed confrontations, but we’ve got to do something to give them some hope.
The Case Against Peltier
One of the most important activist organizations born out of the social turmoil of the 1960s was AIM, the American Indian Movement. Its goals were to draw attention to the plight of American Indians—who were being denied their political and civil rights—and to change the deplorable conditions which existed on reservations throughout the US. The government’s response to the movement was an attempt to destroy it both through an intensive media campaign portraying AIM as a subversive and dangerous organization, and through a campaign of terror waged on AIM’s leaders. Between 1970 and 1975 more than 100 AIM activists and supporters were killed without investigations being launched into their murders.
The most famous political action taken by AIM was the 1973 occupation of the Pine Ridge, SD hamlet of Wounded Knee, the site of an 1890 massacre of nearly 300 unarmed Oglala Sioux by US forces. The occupation, at the request of Sioux traditionalists, took place in response to the tyrannical reign of Pine Ridge tribal government President Dick Wilson. For 71 days the activists held off heavily armed US Marshals, State Police and FBI, then voluntarily surrendered after negotiations produced a number of promises from the US government, among them the promise of a full investigation of the tribal government.
The investigation of Dick Wilson’s administration never fully materialized and his reign of terror—backed by the US government—continued. As the violence on Pine Ridge escalated, traditionalists urged AIM members to maintain a presence there. One of those who came to their defense was a young Chippewa named Leonard Peltier.
Leonard Peltier was one of several AIM members who were staying on the Jumping Bull Ranch on Pine Ridge when, on the morning of June 26, 1975, FBI Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams allegedly followed a red pickup truck in a high-speed chase onto the reservation. Shortly afterward, a gunfight erupted between the FBI and the AIM activists. When it was over, a young Indian and two FBI Special Agents were dead.
The killings of the agents led to one of the biggest manhunts in FBI history. Four Native Americans were eventually charged with the execution-style murders of Coler and Williams. Two of them, Rob Robideau and Dino Butler, claimed self-defense and were acquitted in a 1976 trial. Charges against the third, Jimmy Eagle, were dropped when it was found he had not been at Pine Ridge on the day of the firelight—which left the government with Peltier.
Shortly after the shootout, Peltier fled South Dakota for the sanctuary of Canada. The following year, based on documents the FBI has since admitted it fabricated, Peltier was extradited to the US, and in 1977, in Fargo, ND, he was tried and convicted for the murders.
While public outcry at the time led most Americans to believe that the FBI had gotten its man, evidence that has since come to light through the Freedom of Information Act suggests that Peltier was railroaded.
According to William Kunstler, one of Peltier’s defense attorneys, “Peltier was ultimately convicted on the strength of the apparent matching of a .223 shell casing supposedly found in the open trunk of Agent Coler’s car with an AR-15 rifle falsely attributed to the defendant.” Several years later, an FBI ballistics report (obtained through the FOIA) stated that the shell casing used to convict Peltier could not physically have been fired from the rifle in question.
Among the other materials obtained through the FOIA by the Peltier defense was an FBI memorandum dated June 30, 1975, which directed agents involved in the investigation to “get together and resolve any inconsistencies” before then-FBI Director Clarence Kelley held a press conference in Los Angeles the following day. In the transcript from that press conference, Kelley referred to the suspect’s car as a red pickup. It has recently been admitted by the FBI that all evidence concerning the red pickup has since been destroyed.
The red pickup is of particular importance because FBI Special Agent Gary Adams testified in the Robideau-Butler trial that a red pickup departed the scene of the murders moments after Coler and Williams were shot, but later denied the existence of the red pickup when he testified in the Peltier trial.
Additionally, a Mr. X. an unidentified man who has spoken to journalists but has been unwilling to speak to the authorities, has recently admitted the killings.
Whether any of this information—or the public attention brought by the release of the films Incident at Oglala and Thunderheart, as well as the re-release of Matthiesson’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse—will be enough to secure Peltier a new trial remains to be seen.
To find out how to help Leonard Peltier, visit the the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (ILPDC) here.