His Life is a Sundance: Analyzing the Case of Leonard Peltier
1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
3. Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).
Leonard Peltier is a Native American, member of the Indian American Movement, who is serving two consecutive life sentences after his 1977 conviction for the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. Looking at Peltier’s Sentencing Statement at the end of his 1977 trial, students will learn about the controversy surrounding this case, the struggle of Native Americans in the past and the struggle of Native Americans now.
This lesson plan is designed for students in grades six through eight, but is particularly well-suited for students in grade eight. Students will be introduced to the Leonard Peltier incident with a Rage Against the Machine music video for the song “Freedom.” Then, students are to be presented with a copy of Leonard Peltier’s Sentencing Statement, which is to be read as homework. The following day, a lecture will be given to provide background for the Leonard Peltier case, accompanied by a recent news article on Peltier’s case. Then a discussion about the essential questions will be conducted. As homework due in two weeks , students are to analyze Peltier’s Sentencing Statement, properly citing it, quickly summarizing it and thoroughly addressing Peltier’s point of view and purpose. They will be provided with additional resources they may also reference, should they choose to.
Leonard Peltier’s imprisonment and the events that lead to the fateful on the Pine Ridge Reservation are examples of the constant mistreatment of Native Americans by the United States government.
1. At whom was Peltier’s Sentencing Statement directed?
2. How would students describe the tone of the Sentencing Statement?
3. How does Peltier define equality in his Sentencing Statement?
4. What critiques of the United States Judicial System and of American society in general does Peltier offer?
5. How would students describe the Judge’s, Defendant’s and Prosecutor’s tone toward Peltier?
6. How do Peltier’s different versions of what happened on June 26, 1975 affect the student’s perception of the case?
The United States’ government maltreatment of Natives was first noted with the passing of the Indian Civilization Fund Act of 1819. This act’s goal was to accrue money for the relocation and civilization of Natives. Clearly, this act was passed under the assumption that Natives were “uncivilized,” a common opinion among Americans then. Natives were then left with a choice: accommodate or resist. Those who chose to accommodate found it extremely difficult. Those who chose to resist were often called “revivalists” because, on top of resisting accommodation, they tried to bring back many Native traditions and religious ceremonies. One of those religious ceremonies was the Ghost Dance. It was this ritual that 84 men, 44 women and 18 children were participating in when they were killed by the U.S. army in a massacre now known as Wounded Knee (1890). Forty-four years after this massacre came the Indian Reorganization Act, which forcibly established tribal governments on reservations. It was this act that made Richard “Dickie” Wilson in charge of the Pine Ridge Reservation.1
The American Indian Movement (AIM) was started as a response to the many wrongdoings against Native Americans both on reservations and in the cities. Established in Minneapolis in 1968 by George Mitchell and Dennis Banks, the movement had the goal of attaining better treatment of Native Americans everywhere, which often required activism.2 Thus, AIM members were leaders of the Native American march on Washington, D.C. in March 1972, which is now known as the Trail of Broken Treaties. This march on Washington evolved into a nine-day standoff when the Native Americans occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building. When an agreement to was reached, the occupiers left the BIA building peacefully.3
While AIM was making a statement in Washington, D.C., Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation were suffering under Wilson’s reign. He was at war with the traditionalists, those who remained obstinate in their Native American way of life. When the traditionalists asked the BIA for help, the BIA instead gave Wilson funding for a paramilitary group which adopted the name of the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs). Eventually, the leaders of the reservation residents decided to ask AIM for help.4
Leonard Peltier volunteered to join other AIM members on the Pine Ridge Reservation in order to defend the residents from the GOONs. On June 26, 1975, a day that would soon become known as Wounded Knee II, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, came onto the reservation and began shooting at the AIM encampment. It is believed that this attack was planned: the two agents would start shooting the AIM members, the AIM members would shoot back and the FBI, SWAT, and BIA police waiting in the vicinity would use that as an excuse to execute a take-over of the reservation, killing anyone who resisted. That day did not go as planned; agents Coler and Williams died.5
The FBI could not let the deaths of the two agents go unacknowledged. Jimmy Eagle, Darelle “Dino” Butler, Bob Robideau and Leonard Peltier were chosen as the possible “murderers.” All charges were eventually dropped for Jimmy Eagle. The same was the case for Butler and Robideau after a jury acquitted them on July 16, 1976. It was determined that if the two men had shot the two agents (which Robideau admitted he had), it was in self-defense. Peltier still stood trial for the two murders.6
He was found guilty on both counts of first degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Three appeals were filed (1978, 1982, 1987), all of which were denied even after Lynn Crooks, assistant U.S. attorney admitted to not having a clue about who shot those agents.7
Peltier has been in prison since 1977 but his attorneys continue to fight for his freedom. A little under five years ago, his lawyers filed for parole, a petition which was denied with the excuse that, according to a federal prosecutor, releasing him would “diminish the seriousness of his crime.” This is the second time Peltier is denied parole, the first being in1993.8
1. Have students watch lyric video for “Freedom” by Rage Against the Machine. Students are then to have a discussion with a partner about the song. The students will regroup and have a five-minute discussion. Making clear that the song is allegedly about Leonard Peltier’s imprisonment, the instructor is to hand out a copy of Leonard Peltier’s Sentencing Statement. The instructor must give a brief introduction to who Leonard Peltier is and why he is in prison. Students are to read the sentencing statement for homework and have something to say about it for the next class period.
2. Instructor is to give a lecture, providing more details about Leonard Peltier’s case. Details about what to say are provided in the Introduction section. After the lecture, students will have a Socratic Seminar to discuss Peltier’s Sentencing Statement. The instructor is to facilitate the discussion and help students think about and answer the Essential Questions. Halfway through the discussion, the instructor is to give each student a copy of “Leonard Peltier’s Different Views of June 26, 1975.” Students will read over it quickly and the discussion will continue. The instructor will ask students if and how the article changes their analysis of the Leonard Peltier case. The discussion should last for approximately 30 minutes.
3. Once the discussion is finished, the instructor will ask students for any final thoughts, allowing only a couple of students to share so as to leave students ideas to write about. For homework, students are to write an essay of no less than 4 pages in legnth where they analyze Peltier’s Sentencing Statement. The instructor is to encourage them to use other sources, some of which are provided in the Additional Sources section.
1. Peltier, Leonard and Harvey Arden, ed. Prison Writings: My Life is Sundance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
2. Matthiessen, Peter. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. New York, Random House, 2012.
3. Messerschmidt, Jim. The Trial of Leonard Peltier. Cambridge, Mass., South End Press, 1983.
4. Matt, Meyer. Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners. Montreal, Quebec: Kersplebedeb, 2008.
1Irwin, Lee. “Freedom, Law and Prophecy: A Brief History of Native American Religious Resistance.” American Indian Quarterly, Winter 1997. Accessed April 16, 2014.
3Churchill, Ward. “The Bloody Wake of Alcatraz.” In Acts of Rebellion, 151-168. New York: Routledge, 2003.
8NFIC Editor. “Leonard Peltier Denied Parole, Next Hearing Scheduled for 2024.” News from Indian Country, August 21, 2009. Accessed April 16, 2014.