American Indians

40th Anniversary of Pine Ridge Shootout

Leonard Peltier serving a life sentence for the murder of two FBI agents on Pine Ridge reservation in 1975.



Today is the 40th anniversary of the June 26, 1975, shootout at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota between two FBI agents who drove in with unmarked cars and several members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a Native American rights group operating out of the reservation at the time. Both FBI agents were wounded by gunfire before appearing to be shot execution-style, and a member of AIM, Joseph Stuntz, was also fatally shot. The FBI never investigated his killing but reports he was "apparently shot by a law enforcement officer at the scene" during the shootout.

Despite having a population of just 12,000, there were more murders in Pine Ridge in the two years before the shootout than in the rest of the state of South Dakota combined. Three years ago, the FBI resolved to reinvestigate 45 homicides contemporary tribal leaders say remain unresolved. In the 1970s, many of the unsolved murders were attributed to the "Guardians of the Oglala Nation" (GOON) squad, a vigilante-like group organized by the tribal chair, Dick Wilson. AIM and others blamed Wilson, a "progressive" (as opposed to the "traditionalists" of the AIM), for the campaign against "traditional people," and accused him of widespread corruption, not uncommon in tribal governments at the time.

The two FBI special agents who entered Pine Ridge in June 1975, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, were apparently following a Native American teenager, and member of AIM, accused of stealing a pair of cowboy boots after a fight off the reservation. Forensic evidence from the scene suggested the agents were outmanned and outgunned during the confrontation. All the AIM participants were able to flee the area despite the arrival of more federal authorities on the scene. Leonard Peltier, an AIM member, was eventually identified as a suspect in the shooting. Authorities also arrested Robert Robideau and Dean Butler, two other members of AIM, after their car, full of ammo and weapons, exploded on a highway in Kansas.

The two were tried in federal court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, while Peltier was able to flee to Canada. Robideau and Butler were found not guilty after lawyers argued they shot the FBI agents in self-defense—both men said they didn't know Coler and Williams were FBI agents and were simply defending themselves from intruder in an environment they compared to a "war zone."

Peltier was extradited from Canada based on an affidavit his attorneys argued was not credible. The affidavit contained the testimony of Myrtle Poor Bear, who later said the FBI coerced her into making statements to incriminate Peltier—two other affidavits appeared to contradict those statements. Poor Bear could not testify at trial—the prosecutor in the case decided she was incompetent due to "obvious mental deterioration prior to trial." After losing the Cedar Rapids trial, the FBI studied the case and found that the jury wanted more evidence that the people the government was prosecuting were the ones to actually fatally shoot the FBI agents. At the Fargo, N.D., trial of Leonard Peltier, government prosecutors argued exactly that, using forensic evidence tying a casing found in the trunk of the FBI car to an AR-15 found in the explosion in Kansas, which they tied to Peltier, the only person on the scene on June 26 that, according to the FBI, had an AR-15. Peltier's lawyers questioned the forensics—they also questioned the veracity of two of the government's witnesses, who both recanted their testimony and claimed the FBI coerced them into it after the trial. The government did not lose twice—securing a conviction in the Peltier case. Prosecutors were helped by the fortuitous evidence not available at the previous trial, and also by the fact that the jury was not allowed to hear about previous cases of FBI witness and evidence tampering, something other juries in similar trials, including the Cedar Rapids trial, were able to hear.

Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. He's been denied parole a number of times—his next parole hearing isn't until 2024 and his expected release date is 2040, when Peltier would be 96. Many people expected Bill Clinton to grant Peltier clemency before the end of his term. He didn't. Neither did George W. Bush at the end of his. In 2007, media mogul David Geffen, a big Democratic fundraiser/supporter, backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in part because of Clinton's failure to pardon Peltier. Geffen had led an effort in 2000 to secure a last minute clemency for Peltier. Clinton issued 140 pardons, including one for financier Marc Rich, a big Clinton donor, but not for Peltier. Obama, who ended up winning that presidential election, has as yet not granted clemency to Peltier either, nor indicated that he would. Earlier this week the White House tweeted about Pine Ridge, not about Peltier or the shooting but about a new clean energy project being funded by the federal government on the reservation. That article includes a thoroughly depressing quote from the executive director of the Community Development Corporation responsible for the project. "Today is the beginning of the end of poverty on Pine Ridge," Nick Tilsen said at the groundbreaking. But poverty was the overwhelming problem in Pine Ridge 40 years ago when the shootout happened, and the 40 years before that, and the 40 years before that, when the feds first established Pine Ridge as a reservation for Native Americans to go to stagnate. The issue of government malfeasance toward Native Americans isn't one that would be out of place in the contemporary civil rights milieu—Native Americans are most likely to be killed in encounters with police.

Related: Reason interviewed Russell Means, one of the first members of AIM, who became a prominent libertarian activist, in our August/September 1986 issue (PDF).

Read the FBI's fact sheet on the shooutout and subsequent cases here.

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  1. Who cares, gay marriage!

  2. Do you know who holds the record for killing FBI agents?
    If you’re historically and/or culturally literate you know the name.
    No Googling

    1. Obama, oops I mean Osama.

      1. I was wrong.

    2. I googled the question and found the answer to be Baby Face Nelson.

      1. Rules are for the little people, Hugh.

    3. “Do you know who holds the record for killing FBI agents?”

      The leadership of the F.B.I.?

      1. Correct.

        1. Indeed (and thank you).

          I think that the following question, in its various forms, goes back for a rather long time with regards to “Top Persons”: What, at this point, does it matter?

    4. William Munny?

  3. They need to start flying an inappropriate flag on those reservations so that they can get attention. I have only spent time on one reservation and it was thoroughly depressing.

    1. I just googleearthed the pine ridge reservation. Depressing doesn’t really cover it. I have a lot of sympathy for Indians despite every one I ever knew being a supreme asshole. They all had real chips on their shoulders. I can’t blame them.

      The ones here are in the casino business and the tribes are rolling in money. Good for them. This is fairly recent. I can remember driving through Marksville, La on a friday night and literally having to drive around drunk indians passed out and laying in the middle of the road. Back then they lived in bone-crushing poverty.

      1. Solution is more free shit. Worked for the black inner-cities too.

      2. One interesting thing about the reservations is that it keeps the Indians out of major population centers. As such the progs don’t make as big deal out of their shitty situations and history as an oppressed people than blacks. I don’t see many calls for an Native American President to cleanse America of its treatment of them.

        1. They live in deplorable government sanctioned conditions, and the only time they become newsworthy is when guilty white people debate the name of a professional football team.

        2. Eh, I see leftists write a decent amount of articles about them from time to time. There’s something like 13 black people in this country for every 1 Native American so it’s not surprising that Native Americans get less media attention.

      3. Actually it’s pretty bad for them. Not that I begrudge them the money they bring in with the casinos, but they just don’t use it well. Our local tribe basically starts paying out a ridiculous monthly stipend (at least $10k but I wanna say more than that) as soon as the kids turn 18. You can imagine how productive they are and how well they study in school knowing that as soon as they hit majority they never have to work a day in their lives.

        All thanks to the loving embrace provided by our government caring for the noble savages.

      4. I drove through one in California. It was just like the countryside around it– nice farms. No gate or anything, just a signs on the road that you were entering and leaving the reservation.

  4. Fun facts: Female Suffrage was passed shortly before Lenin and Mao took over. Kim-Il Sung and Peron gave their countries Female Suffrage. And Weimar Germany had female suffrage, the Berlin cabarets, German Expressionism. All of these things prevented authoritarians from coming to power…

    1. Are you sure you’re talking about suffrage or suffering? Because if sounds to me like they pretty much came as a package deal.

      1. Are you sure you’re talking about suffrage or suffering?

        Sometimes I’m tempted to go to a university and try an “End Female Suffrage” petition or protest… (You know, like the ones they record about banning water as a dangerous substance or whatnot.)

    2. I googled “female suffrage” but the only images that came up were of women holding signs about “women’s suffrage.” It’s like they don’t even know the right word to describe themselves.

      1. No surprise there, bro…they’re chicks.

      2. Ah don’t lean on me man, cause you can’t afford the ticket
        I’m back from Suffragette City

    3. Are you under the impression that Lenin and Mao seized power through democratic means?

      1. Where did I say that?

        The point wasn’t that women voted them in but social progress did not have a chance against armed Communists who also had some popular support.

  5. OT: I was re-reading Ender’s Game last week and the internet’s central role in political/philosophical debates as predicted in the novel struck me as sadly naive and idealistic when compared to the current state of things, especially this week. The main use of the internet in such matters today appears to be whipping up PC flash-mobs, self-congratulation and social signaling, and smug ‘debate’ where no one is open of being persuaded of anything until devolving into personal attacks (if it didn’t start there in the first place). Who would have guessed you could connect millions of people and this would be the outcome?

    1. You’re being really myopic. Without the internet Rolling Stone’s rape fairytales would still be…rolling, and so would a dozen other scams unchallenged ex Trayvon, catastrophic AGW, etc

      1. Those things might be challenged, but the “truth” of those things is largely accepted by the masses.

        1 in 4 women on campus gets raped. Black men are being hunted down like deer by white people. We’re entering Earth’s 6th Mass Extinction event due to climate change.

        On and on, the narrative the left is spinning is winning, thanks a great deal to the internet.

    2. People familiar with history, democracy, human nature, etc.? The advertising and propaganda industries?

  6. OT:
    Proof that the libertarian moment is not restricted to humans.

  7. Anyway now, it don’t seem right
    He’s in there and you’re on the outside
    Over pine ridge to wounded knee
    There’s blood on the ground as far as you see
    Crazy life

    1. OMG Toad the Wet Sprocket

  8. Wow I never thought about it like that.

  9. I started with my online business I earn $58 every 15 minutes. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out.

  10. Gee, they had evidence tying a casing found in the trunk of the FBI car to a rifle that had been blown up? That’s not suspicious at all…

    1. Gee, they had evidence tying a casing found in the trunk of the FBI car to a rifle that had been blown up? That’s not suspicious at all…

      What!? You’re telling me you don’t believe in forensic tools like “uncrop” and ‘super enhance’?

  11. I’m waiting for the day a Native American tells a black to check his/her privilege. Immediately after the union army “freed” the slaves their first thought was to enslave the Indians to build the Union Pacific railroad. But Sherman ixnayed that idea, because, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” So in stead of starting up slavery ( because that’s why the civil war doncha know) with a new class of untermensch, the noble Union generals went with genocide.

    1. I grew up next to a rez and the natives were the most racist people I have ever known. The shit they said about blacks was way worse than anything I ever heard when living in Memphis.

      To be fair, they also hated whites, asians and other tribes.

      Amazing how much of their world is tied up in being a member of the tribe.

      1. I’ve run into a couple of Hawaiians with that attitude.

        1. Hawaii is the worst in my experience. However, that may just be the natural response to all the tourists. They have some beautiful islands but the vast numbers of tourists make them less pleasant by their presence. Sure, some Hawaiians are making a fine living from tourist spending, but those who don’t just get a less pleasant environment.

          At the other extreme, all of the indigenous people I’ve met from Oklahoma are as sociable as anybody else.

  12. For those keeping score at home, Peltier was the go-to cause at any protest rally, then as best as I could tell, he fell out of favor for Mumia.

    1. I remember everyone I knew growing up talking about how Peltier was guilty, guilty, guilty. I was going into the 3rd grade at the time and my father was a probation officer who had a lot of clients on the local reservation not far from there. So I was pretty interested in it.

      I haven’t thought about this case for years. Looking at it now, it is strange how hard it is for me to rethink my position formed when I was a kid based on how I think of LEO’s now.

      1. Taken together, Peltier and Mumia couldn’t hold a candle next to the career of Baby Face Nelson.

  13. But poverty was the overwhelming problem in Pine Ridge 40 years ago when the shootout happened, and the 40 years before that, and the 40 years before that, when the feds first established Pine Ridge as a reservation for Native Americans to go to stagnate.

    True enough. So why can’t Reason connect the dots between open borders and what happened to the American Indians?

    We’re going to end up with half the country run like Mexico (corrupt as hell, and racist to boot, ask the Maya about how they are treated in their own home), and much of the rest basically an Islamic Caliphate.

    1. So… the Indians should have closed their borders?

  14. For a great treatment of the shoot-out and other graphic violence, Ed K., check out the Aaron and Guera comic Scalped from Vertigo Comics. Fantastic art combined with a South Dakota rez/casino gangster story. It has the added bonus of Hmong professional torturers paying a visit to the rez to collect a debt.

  15. Clinton issued 140 pardons, including one for financier Marc Rich, a big Clinton donor, but not for Peltier.

    The Rich pardon was just typical Clinton sleeziness.

    The relevant pardons vis-a-vis Peltier are the commutations of the sentences of 16 terrorists who operated under FALN, perhaps the most bloody leftist group during the Days of Rage.

    From le Wiki:

    Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of FALN, which is a Puerto Rican paramilitary organization that set off 120 bombs in the United States, mostly in New York City and Chicago. There were convictions for conspiracy to commit robbery, bomb-making, and sedition, as well as firearms and explosives violations. The 16 were convicted of conspiracy and sedition and sentenced with terms ranging from 35 to 105 years in prison. Congress, however, recognizes that the FALN is responsible for “6 deaths and the permanent maiming of dozens of others, including law enforcement officials.”

    Having lived during the era, I was shocked that even Clinton would commute their sentences. I guess he thought that it would appeal to Hispanic voters. A Peltier commutation would appeal to traditional indigenous peoples and libertarians, and how many of these would vote Democrat anyway? Eight years later the US elected a president that was chummy with the ringleader of the Weather Underground, another terrorist organization of the Days of Rage. Nothing surprises me any longer.

  16. If case the truth matters:

    “This story is true.”
    Leonard Peltier, assuring his supporters that a mysterious Mr. X shot the FBI agents.
    Peltier’s lawyer, Mike Kuzma, has publicly admitted that the Mr. X story was “concocted.”

    “I seen Joe when he pulled it out of the trunk and I looked at him when he put it on, and he gave me a smile.”
    Leonard Peltier, standing over the bodies of Jack Coler and Ron Williams, moments after their heads were blown off, commenting on Joe Stuntz wearing Jack Coler’s green FBI jacket taken from his car trunk, as quoted in Peter Matthiessen’s, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.

    “I heard the bullet go whizzing by my head.”
    FBI Agent Dean Hughes, describing Joe Stuntz’s gunfire after Stuntz, an ex-con, was repeatedly warned to stop shooting at law enforcement officers. A BIA agent returned fire and killed Stuntz, the lone volunteer who helped Peltier escape the murder scene, as described in American Indian Mafia.

    “The circumstantial evidence presented at the extradition hearing, taken alone [without the Poor Bear affidavits], constituted sufficient evidence to justify Mr. Peltier’s committal on the two murder charges.” Anne McLellen, Canadian Minister of Justice, in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, October 12, 1999.

  17. “The two witnesses testified outside the presence of the jury that after their testimony at trial, they had been threatened by Peltier himself that if they did not return to court and testify that their earlier testimony had been induced by F.B.I. threats, their lives would be in danger.”
    United States v. Peltier, 585 F. 2d 314, U.S. App. Decision September 14, 1978.

    “There is no doubt that in June 1975 Leonard Peltier put a loaded gun in my mother’s mouth during one of her interrogations and that six months later, other members of the American Indian Movement carried out my mother’s torture, rape and murder. Leonard knows a lot about the people involved but even today, after all these years, he refuses to cooperate in the on-going murder investigation.” Denise Maloney, daughter of AIM murder victim Anna Mae Pictou Aquash (Mi’kmaq)

    “This story that the government admitted they don’t know who shot the agents comes from an out-of-context comment from prosecutor Lynn Crooks. Let me tell you something. I know Lynn Crooks, and there is no one on the planet more convinced of Peltier’s guilt than Lynn Crooks.”
    John M. Trimbach, American Indian Mafia

  18. “The motherf—er was begging for his life but I shot him anyway.”
    Testimony of Leonard Peltier boasting in the Marlon Brando motor home about shooting Ron Williams, as heard by Dennis Banks, Ka-Mook Banks, Bernie Lafferty, and (soon-to-be-murdered) Anna Mae Aquash.

    “… the greater probability is that you yourself fired the fatal shots… It would be unjust to treat the slaying of these F.B.I. agents, while they lay wounded and helpless, as if your actions had been part of a gun battle. Neither the state of relations between Native American militants and law enforcement at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation prior to June 26, 1975, nor the exchanges of gunfire between individuals at the Jumping Bull Compound and the law enforcement agents who arrived there during the hours after Agents Coler and Williams were murdered, explains or mitigates the crimes you committed…Your release on parole would promote disrespect for the law in contravention of 18 U.S.C….”
    Leonard Peltier’s 1999 Parole Board, commenting on his aiding and abetting conviction.

    “I never thought my commitment would mean sacrificing like this, but I was willing to do so nonetheless. And really, if necessary, I’d do it all over again, because it was the right thing to do.”
    Peltier’s statement to supporters, 2/6/2010.

    Parole may be granted when the offender’s “…release would not depreciate the seriousness of the offense.”
    DOJ policy statement on parole.

  19. Why the heck were FBI agents chasing a fellow for stealing a pair of boots, anyway? That seems a bit weedy for the Fibbers.

    1. Because the weedheads are fibbers, and because it was more than a “brawl” over a pair of boots. From the book that destroyed Peter Matthiesson’s credibility, American Indian Mafia:

      “At a home near Batesland on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Jerry Schwarting, a college student, and Robert Dunsmore, 14, were held captive at gunpoint by drunken assailants, one of whom was Gladys Bissonette’s grandson, Jimmy Eagle. Another participant was Teddy Pourier, coincidentally, the man being transported to jail by SA Dean Hughes at the moment the Agents came under fire. Hughes, who later testified during Teddy Pourier’s trial, offered, as evidence of the torture, pictures of the marks left on the victims, such as the bruises caused by Pourier when he pressed the barrel of his gun against the young boy’s forehead. ‘Dunsmore was undressed and kept away from Schwarting. Pourier slashed Schwarting on the arm with a pocket knife, and both Dunsmore and Schwarting had a gun fired over their heads repeatedly.””

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