By Jim Calio
Updated April 20, 1981 12:00 PM

The Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Indian Nation stretches over 7,200 square miles of South Dakota. Within the borders of this ancient Indian patrimony are thousands of desolate acres of scrub pine and grassland whose few dreary settlements are connected by a single narrow ribbon of two-lane blacktop. Not much happens of great interest to the world beyond the reservation, but on the hot, hazy morning of June 26, 1975, at the settlement occupied by members of the Jumping Bull family, the Pine Ridge Reservation earned a bloody page in American Indian history.

That morning two FBI agents arrived at the compound to serve a subpoena on a young man wanted for a minor robbery. There is little agreement on what happened next except that gunfire erupted, and that when it ended agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were dead, as was Joseph Stuntz, a Lakota from the reservation. Four Indians were subsequently charged with murder, but only one, American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, 36, was convicted. Now, nearly six years after the shooting, the Peltier case has become a rallying point for native Americans—and it may soon be a subject of national debate as well. Twentieth Century-Fox has bought rights to the story; Robert Redford visited Peltier in the federal penitentiary in Marion, III. last month to discuss a movie project of his own; and Rep. Ron Dellums (D.-Calif.) is demanding a congressional investigation of Peltier’s conviction.

The controversy is less about Peltier’s guilt or innocence than about whether the methods the government used to convict him deprived him of a fair trial. Three of the prosecution’s key witnesses have recanted their testimony against Peltier, claiming it was exacted from them under duress. The prosecutor himself refused to introduce a crucial affidavit obtained by the FBI because he doubted its veracity, and one federal judge worried openly over what he labeled Gestapo tactics on the part of government officials. “I think Leonard might well have killed those guys,” says one Peltier supporter candidly. “He’s capable of it. But the government had a weak case, and there’s no doubt something strange went on when the FBI collected evidence.”

Peltier admits that he was involved in a shoot-out with the agents that day, but he states flatly, “I didn’t kill them.” Nonetheless, he fled the country immediately after the incident. The following year the FBI tracked Peltier to Vancouver and sought his extradition, basing its argument largely on the affidavit of a Lakota woman named Myrtle Poor Bear, who claimed to be Peltier’s girlfriend and who stated bluntly: “I saw Leonard Peltier shoot the FBI agents.” Canadian authorities sent the fugitive back to stand trial, and he was convicted of the two murders in Federal District Court in Fargo, N.Dak. in 1977. With his sentence of two consecutive life terms, the government declared itself satisfied that justice had been served. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Peltier shot the agents,” says attorney Evan Hultman, who prosecuted the case and is now in private practice in Iowa. “He was the enforcer on the reservation—everyone knew that.”

But the way the government won its conviction—and especially the origin of Myrtle Poor Bear’s affidavit—is questionable. Peltier claims that he had never laid eyes on this so-called “girlfriend” before her affidavit was filed. “Until the trial, I didn’t know she existed,” he says now. Even Hultman shared his incredulity. “I’m a thousand percent sure she wasn’t even at Pine Ridge that day,” he says. At the trial Poor Bear attempted to recant her affidavit, but she was not allowed to tell her story to the jury. It would have done the government’s case no service; she would have testified that FBI agents had sequestered her in a motel room, threatened her and told her that they would take away her daughter if she refused to sign the paper incriminating Peltier. “I signed the papers without reading them,” she says. “All I wanted was to go home.” Three other Indian witnesses told similar tales, but Federal Court Judge Paul Benson dismissed them summarily, stating, “The FBI is not on trial here.” (In fact, evidence of the intimidation of witnesses can be grounds for declaring a mistrial.)

With such an important witness as Poor Bear impeached, Hultman was forced to rely on circumstantial evidence connecting Peltier to the gun, an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, that allegedly killed the agents. But since the trial, Peltier’s lawyer, Bruce Ellison, has used the Freedom of Information Act to pry loose government documents that, he claims, undermine even the circumstantial evidence. “We can now prove with scientific certainty that the AR-15 did not fire the shell casing found at the murder scene,” Ellison says. “And we can prove the FBI knew it in late September 1975.” Former prosecutor Hultman is not convinced, but neither is he indifferent to the charge. “If I knew the FBI was doing that stuff,” he says, “I’d go after those sons of bitches just as hard as I went after Peltier.”

Underlying Leonard’s case is a history of conflict between the FBI and the American Indian Movement. Founded in 1968, AIM quickly emerged as the largest, most radical Indian activist organization in the country. It has been involved in armed resistance against federal authority and has attempted to break the authority of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs over tribal lands and properties. AIM leaders were prominent in the 71-day siege of the Wounded Knee trading post in 1973, by which time the FBI was working hard to infiltrate the movement; one bureau memo urged local agents to conduct “forceful and penetrative” interviews with Indian activists in order to develop informants. The year before Wounded Knee, Peltier had been arrested after a scuffle with police in Milwaukee and charged with attempted murder (he was later acquitted). A former girlfriend of one of the arresting officers claimed that he had previously shown her a picture of Peltier and told her that he was going to help the FBI “get a big one.” As one lawyer who has worked on the Peltier case puts it: “The Indians are paranoid about the FBI, the FBI is paranoid about the Indians—and they both have good reason.”

Leonard Peltier was in court most recently in connection with his attempt to escape from California’s Lompoc Prison Camp in 1979. Peltier says he broke out after he uncovered a plot allegedly hatched by government officials to have him killed by a fellow inmate. As his story goes, Robert “Max” Carey, 51, then captain of the guard at the Marion (III.) Penitentiary, approached another inmate about “neutralizing” Peltier. According to the alleged plan, Peltier would be transferred to Lompoc, a minimum-security prison, where the “hit” could be made to look like a failed escape attempt. “That’s ridiculous,” Carey says indignantly. “The tale was cooked up to get Peltier’s escape charge dismissed. Why would I or any FBI agent want to put out a contract on Peltier?” Fear of death is a legally supportable defense on an escape charge, but last month a federal appeals court reversed Peltier’s escape conviction on a technicality, directing the trial judge to consider Peltier’s murder-plot theory before a possible retrial.

Getting the escape conviction overturned is a relatively minor victory for Peltier, however; the U.S. Supreme Court has already declined to review his murder case, and as it stands he will not be eligible for parole until 2015. Lawyer Ellison’s only hope for him now is a habeas corpus action based on new evidence of government misconduct. Meanwhile Peltier passes his days like most of the other 525 prisoners at Marion, spending several hours a week in the prison gym and nights in his cell reading or writing letters. “Sure I get depressed,” he admits. “There have been a few times where I’ve just wanted to start screaming.” Peltier consoles himself with music and the symbols of Lakota culture allowed him in his cell: a talisman of braided buffalo hair, a peace pipe and a ceremonial drum. Ironically, one of the people with whom Peltier has exchanged letters is Myrtle Poor Bear, whose affidavit helped put him behind bars. “I don’t hold anything against Myrtle,” says Peltier. “I’d have to be an animal to hate anyone like that.”

Whatever the outcome of his case—and whatever the merits of his allegations against the FBI—Peltier has become a martyr of sorts to the American Indian Movement. He admits that the role makes him uneasy. “I keep telling my friends I’m no saint, I’m not holy,” he says. “But what scares me is that if I get out, my people might not see me as the same Leonard Peltier who went in.” Clearly, he is not—and whether in prison or out, he will never again have a normal life. “There’s no question about it,” says an old friend. “Leonard’s become a symbol for the Indian struggle. If he gets out, he’ll need protection. Leonard will always be in danger.”