Leonard Peltier: Political Prisoner

Incident at Olgala: The Leonard Peltier Story

Michael Apted (1992)

Film Review

This documentary, narrated by Robert Redford, describes the framing of American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Leonard Peltier for the murder of two FBI agents. Essentially a political prisoner, Peltier is currently serving two consecutive life sentences.

The charges arose out of a June 1975 firefight in Jumping Bull on the Pine Ridge reservation in North Dakota. The film portrays quite vividly the regime of terror gripping Pine Ridge between 1973-75. It was overseen by corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) appointee Dick Wilson, with the support of BIA police. In 1973 Lakota elders, who were the primary targets of Wilson and his “goon squads” approached the national American Indian Movement (AIM) leadership for support.

By mid-1975, the reservation was in a state of virtual war, with more than 60 unsolved murders and frequent firefights like the one that occurred in Jumping Bull.

Based on this background, Pelter’s co-defendants Daryl Butler and Bib Ribideau won acquittal on their first degree murder charges. Given the two FBI agents were in civilian dress, unknown to the defendants and drew their guns on them, the jury found Butler and Ribideau were merely defending themselves in firing their weapons.

Peltier, who had to be extradited from Canada, was assigned a different judge. By the time of his trial in 1997, the FBI had clearly doctored the ballistics evidence and browbeat and intimidated two eyewitnesses into changing their statements.

Peltier’s arrest and trial occurred during a period when the FBI  see The FBI’s War on Black People) was hoping to kill off both AIM and the Black Panther Party by decimating their leadership – through covert assassination and arresting as many as possible on phony charges.

The film can’t be embedded for copyright reason but can be seen free at Incident at Olgala

The Poetry of Dispossession


Heather Roy (2005)

Film Review

Trudell is a documentary about the life and work of American Indian Movement (AIM) activist, poet and philosopher John Trudell. The film is made up of archival and performance footage, interviews with Trudell, family members and film and rock celebrities who have worked with him, and samples of his poetry.

Stop Thief: the Commons Enclosures and Resistance (see Forgotten History: the Theft of the Commons) has helped me understand the Indian Wars and the continuing oppression of Native Americans in a whole new light. As author Peter Linebaugh describes it, the Indian Wars boil down to a determination by Jefferson and other early US leaders to enclose (ie steal) Indian lands to fence them off as private property. And as Trudell emphasizes in this film, repeated treaty violations all revolve around US efforts to steal yet more Indian land and resources for profit.

Trudell’s Role in AIM

Trudell first became an activist in his early twenties, with the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1970-71. The federal government declared Alcatraz Island surplus property after closing the prison in 1973. Trudell and his fellow activists claimed it under provisions in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which promises Native Americans access to unused federal land.

He eventually became secretary of AIM in Minnesota and helped organize the Trail of Broken Treaties occupation of the DC Bureau of Indian Affairs office in 1972. He also helped organize the AIM defense against the FBI siege on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973. The standoff at Wounded Knee related to yet another treaty violation, in which the federal government allowed mining companies to mine for uranium on tribal land. In one interview, Trudell reminds us that 50-70% of all US energy resources are on native lands. Their extraction nearly always violates US treaty commitments. Worse still, radioactive contamination from uranium mining is a major factor in the high mortality rate at Pine Ridge and other reservations.

When the residents of Pine Ridge tried to block the mining companies, the FBI sent in paramilitary units equipped with helicopters and tanks in addition to covert death squads. Between 1973-76, Pine Ridge had the highest murder rate in the country.

In 1975, following a fire fight that killed two FBI agents, AIMS members Bob Robideau, Darelle Butler and Leonard Pelletier were charged with murder. Robideau and Butler were tried in Cedar Rapids, where AIM enjoyed strong public support. They were acquitted on self-defense grounds. Pelletier, who was tried in Fargo, was prohibited from using their acquittal in his defense. He remains in prison to this day.

A Suspicious House Fire

In 1979, Trudell’s wife and two children were killed in a house fire he believes was started by the FBI. Between 1969-70, the FBI compiled a 17,000 page dossier on him. They also made a direct threat to go after his family.

He began writing poetry as a way of coping with the emotional turmoil of losing his family. His first albums were spoke word against a background of indigenous chants. He later worked with prominent rock artists who set his poems to music.