by Stephanie Wood, University of Oregon, Honoring Tribal Legacies
This primary source has been shared with us by the National Archives and Records Administration employee Carol Buswell.* It consists of a folder relating to President Bill Clinton’s consideration of a pardon for Leonard Peltier. The folder was made available as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Peltier was born in 1944 on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. As of 2019, he has spent more than forty years in federal penitentiaries for the alleged murder of two FBI agents on Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. He maintains that he is innocent. Many presidents have considered pardoning him, most recently President Barack Obama, but none has taken that step, as of yet.
How do the histories of North and South Dakota help us understand the Peltier case—both what led up to it and its judicial outcome? What was the nature of Peltier’s family life and his schooling—Wahpeton Indian School (ND) and Flandreau Indian School (SD)–and how might these have shaped his eventual embrace of the “warrior” lifestyle? How have non-tribal interests in real or potential extractive industries (gold, uranium, coal, and oil) affected tribal sovereignty in this region over the years? How did the U.S. government over-react to the American Indian Movement activities in the Dakotas, including the “neutralization” project by the FBI in the 1970s? Are feelings divided, locally, about AIM? about the Peltier case? Why or why not?
What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and what does the FOIA packet about Leonard Peltier contain? Do tribal voices have equal weight with non-tribal voices in this packet? Whose voices are the few Native voices in this packet? Where are the Native voices from the Dakotas? Do you think that Scott Anderson’s analysis of the Peltier case (Outside, July 1995) might have affected President Clinton’s reluctance to pardon Peltier? What are the strengths and weaknesses of Anderson’s interpretation of events?
Sample “entry” question:
What is the nature of the “evidence” that suggests Peltier is or is not guilty of murder?
Sample “essential” question
What does the Peltier case illuminate about the history of U.S. government-tribal relations in the twentieth century?
Sample “big idea”
The American Indian Movement (founded in 1968 in MN), Wounded Knee II (Feb.-April 1973), the battle at Jumping Bull Camp in Oglala (June 26, 1975), and the conviction of Leonard Peltier (1977) all cast light on an important 20th-century struggle for greater indigenous rights and cultural preservation. But we also see internal factionalism and the external federal suppression the movement confronted.
Sample “enduring understandings”
Whether innocent of murder or not, Peltier became a “potent political symbol” in the media and in grassroots struggles, a martyr and symbol of the U.S. government’s repression of Native people striving to defend their culture. A journey of healing: How might we derive healing from a case such as this? What positive take-away messages can we identify for our youth?
For further information about Leonard Peltier, you might wish to consult these additional resources:
FILM. Warrior: The Life of Leonard Peltier (documentary film about his life and imprisonment in the context of the American Indian Movement and the federal government’s response to this activism) 1 hour, 25 minutes.
FILM. Incident at Oglala (documentary film hosted by the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee). 1 hour, 32 minutes.
FILM OF PRESENTATION. Bruce Ellison, attorney of Leonard Peltier, speaking at the University of Oregon in January 2016. 1 hour, 11 minutes.
*All photos/documents copyright reserved by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Catalog https://catalog.archives.gov/id/40436136
Leonard Peltier, Native American political prisoner portrait on a sign at
Standing Rock, Dakota Access Pipeline protests, November 2016
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Noncommercial Reuse)