Knowledge Session: Who Is Leonard Peltier?

Leonard Pel­ti­er, a cit­izen of the Anish­in­abe and Lakota Nations, is a fath­er, a grand­fath­er, an artist, a writer, and an Indi­gen­ous rights act­iv­ist. He has spent more than twenty-sev­en years in pris­on for a crime he did not com­mit. Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al con­siders him a “polit­ic­al pris­on­er” who should be “imme­di­ately and uncon­di­tion­ally released.”

To the inter­na­tion­al com­munity, the case of Leonard Pel­ti­er is a stain on Amer­ica’s Human Rights record. Nel­son Man­dela, Rigoberta Men­chu, the U.N. High Com­mis­sion­er on Human Rights, the Dalai Lama, the European Par­lia­ment, the Kennedy Memori­al Cen­ter for Human Rights, and Rev. Jesse Jack­son are only a few who have called for his free­dom. To many Indi­gen­ous Peoples, Leonard Pel­ti­er is a sym­bol of the long his­tory of abuse and repres­sion they have endured. The Nation­al Con­gress of Amer­ic­an Indi­ans and the Assembly of First Nations, rep­res­ent­ing the major­ity of First Nations in the U.S. and Canada, have repeatedly called for Leonard Pel­ti­er­’s free­dom.leonard peltier

Leonard Pel­ti­er is 58 years old and was born on the Anish­in­abe (Chip­pewa) Turtle Moun­tain Reser­va­tion in North Dakota. He came from a large fam­ily of 13 broth­ers and sis­ters. He grew up in poverty, and sur­vived many trau­mat­ic exper­i­ences res­ult­ing from U.S. gov­ern­ment policies aimed to assim­il­ate Nat­ive Peoples.

At the age of eight he was taken from his fam­ily and sent to a res­id­en­tial board­ing school for Nat­ive people run by the US Gov­ern­ment. There, the stu­dents were for­bid­den to speak their lan­guages and they suffered both phys­ic­al and psy­cho­lo­gic­al abuses.

As a teen­ager Leonard Pel­ti­er returned to live with his fath­er at the Turtle Moun­tain Reser­va­tion in North Dakota. It was one of three reser­va­tions, which the United States Gov­ern­ment chose as the test­ing ground for its new ter­min­a­tion policy. The policy forced Nat­ive fam­il­ies off their reser­va­tions and into the cit­ies. The res­ult­ing protests and demon­stra­tions by tri­bal mem­bers intro­duced Leonard Pel­ti­er to Nat­ive res­ist­ance through act­iv­ism and organ­iz­ing.

Dur­ing one par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult winter on the Turtle Moun­tain Reser­va­tion Leonard Pel­ti­er recol­lects protests by his people to the Bur­eau of Indi­an Affairs about the des­per­ate lack of food. (The ter­min­a­tion policy with­drew fed­er­al assist­ance, includ­ing food, from those who remained on their land). Fol­low­ing these protests, B.I.A. social work­ers came to the reser­va­tion to invest­ig­ate the situ­ation. Leonard Pel­ti­er and one of the organ­izers on the reser­va­tion went from house­hold to house­hold before the arrival of the invest­ig­at­ing party to tell the loc­al people to hide what little food they had. When he got to the first house, he found that there was no food to hide and the same story was repeated in each of the house­holds that he went to. This exper­i­ence awakened him to the des­per­ate situ­ation for all people on his reser­va­tion.

As he grew older, he began trav­el­ing with his fath­er as a migrant farm work­er. While fol­low­ing the har­vests, they stayed at dif­fer­ent reser­va­tions. Dur­ing this time, he came to learn that policies of relo­ca­tion, poverty, and racism were endem­ic issues affect­ing tribes across the U.S.

In 1965, Leonard Pel­ti­er moved to Seattle, Wash­ing­ton, where he worked for sev­er­al years as part own­er of an auto body shop which he used to employ Nat­ive people and to provide low-cost auto­mobile repairs for those who needed it. Dur­ing the same peri­od, he was also act­ive in the found­ing of a Nat­ive halfway house for ex-pris­on­ers. His com­munity volun­teer work included Nat­ive Land Claim issues, alco­hol coun­sel­ing, and par­ti­cip­a­tion in protests con­cern­ing the pre­ser­va­tion of Nat­ive land with­in the city of Seattle.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Leonard Pel­ti­er began trav­el­ing to dif­fer­ent Nat­ive com­munit­ies. He spent a lot of time in Wash­ing­ton and Wis­con­sin and was work­ing as a weld­er, car­penter, and com­munity coun­selor for Nat­ive people. In the course of his work he became involved with the Amer­ic­an Indi­an Move­ment (AIM) and even­tu­ally joined the Den­ver Col­or­ado chapter. In Den­ver, he worked as a com­munity coun­selor con­front­ing unem­ploy­ment, alco­hol prob­lems and poor hous­ing. He became strongly involved in the spir­itu­al and tra­di­tion­al pro­grams of AIM.

Leonard Pel­ti­er­’s par­ti­cip­a­tion in the Amer­ic­an Indi­an Move­ment led to his involve­ment in the 1972 Trail of broken Treat­ies which took him to Wash­ing­ton D.C., in the occu­pa­tion of the Bur­eau of Indi­an Affairs build­ing.

Even­tu­ally his AIM involve­ment would bring him to assist the Oglala Lakota People of the Pine Ridge Indi­an Reser­va­tion in South Dakota in the mid 1970’s. On Pine Ridge he par­ti­cip­ated in the plan­ning of com­munity activ­it­ies, reli­gious cere­mon­ies, pro­grams for self-suf­fi­ciency, and improved liv­ing con­di­tions. He also helped to organ­ize secur­ity for the tra­di­tion­al people who were being tar­geted for viol­ence by the pro-assim­il­a­tion tri­bal chair­man and his vigil­antes. It was here that the tra­gic shoot-out of June 26, 1975 occurred, lead­ing to his wrong­ful con­vic­tion.

Des­pite the harsh con­di­tions of impris­on­ment, Leonard Pel­ti­er has con­tin­ued to lead an act­ive life.


From behind bars, he has helped to estab­lish schol­ar­ships for Nat­ive stu­dents and spe­cial pro­grams for Indi­gen­ous youth. He has served on the advis­ory board of the Rosen­berg Fund for Chil­dren, and has sponsored chil­dren in Cent­ral Amer­ica. He has donated to battered women’s shel­ters, organ­ized the annu­al Christ­mas drive for the people of Pine Ridge Reser­va­tion, and pro­moted pris­on­er art pro­grams.

He has also estab­lished him­self as a tal­en­ted artist, using oils to paint por­traits of his people, por­tray­ing their cul­tures and his­tor­ies. He has writ­ten poetry and prose from pris­on, and recently com­pleted a mov­ing bio­graphy titled Pris­on Writ­ings:

My Life Is My Sun Dance (St. Mar­tin’s Press, NY, 1999).

Leonard Pel­ti­er cred­its his abil­ity to endure his cir­cum­stances to his spir­itu­al prac­tices and the love and sup­port from his fam­ily and sup­port­ers.

Write to Leonard Pel­ti­er:

LEONARD PEL­TI­ER #89637–132

P.O. BOX 1033
COLE­MAN, FL 33521


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Gata Malandra

Gata Malandra

Edit­or / Research­er at No Bounds
Gata is a music and arts lov­er, stud­ied anthro­po­logy, art man­age­ment and media pro­duc­tion ded­ic­at­ing most of her time to cre­at­ive pro­jects pro­duced by No Bounds.
Gata Malandra

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About Gata Malandra

Gata Malandra
Gata is a music and arts lover, studied anthropology, art management and media production dedicating most of her time to creative projects produced by No Bounds.

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