Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier was born on 12 September 1944 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. A citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Leonard Peltier continues to defend tribal sovereignty and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Activist

Leonard Peltier (of the Anishinabe, Dakota, and Lakota Nations) traces the roots of his political activism to the rank racism and brutal poverty he experienced every day as an Indian child growing up on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Fort Totten Sioux reservations in North Dakota.

During the last years of the Eisenhower administration a resolution was passed by Congress to "terminate" all Indian reservations and "relocate" Indians off their lands and into the cities. Indians were given two choices: either relocate or starve. Later, court decisions would declare this policy illegal. In the late 1950s, however, to implement their inhuman policy, the United States government cut off the reservations' already meager supply of food and commodities — the pitiful little "payment" they had promised the Indians in their treaties to recompense Indians for all the vast and holy continent they'd stolen. Now, Indian people were offered money to get off their land and move to cities like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Chicago — where they were faced with joblessness, poverty, and hopeless despair on the mean streets of America's inner-city slums.

Leonard was about 14 years old at the time. With his father, he attended meetings on the reservation to discuss the government's decision to terminate Turtle Mountain. He recalls one Ojibwa lady, a cousin, who stood up angrily and asked in a loud, emotional, tear-filled voice, "Where are our warriors? Why don't they stand up and fight for their starving people?"

"That sent electric vibrations from my scalp all the way down my spine to the soles of my feet," Peltier says. "It was like a revelation to me — that there was actually something worthwhile you could do with your life, something more important than living your own selfish little life day by day. Yes, there was something more important than your poor miserable self: your People. You could actually stand up and fight for them... and as I would come to see in later years, all Indian people, all Indigenous People, all human beings of good heart. I vowed right then and there that I would become a warrior and that I'd always work to help my people. It's a vow I've done my best to keep."

From that point, Peltier lived his life for the People, doing what he could to help. He protested for fishing rights in the Northwest, for example. But his first real experience with confronting the might of the U.S. government was the 1970 peaceful takeover of abandoned Fort Lawton, outside Seattle, Washington, which was on "surplus" federal land to which the Indians had first right under the law.

Faced with government machine guns and flamethrowers, the protestors were taken into custody. Peltier and the other Natives were beaten by the police at the time of arrest and beaten again when taken to their cells. When finally released, Peltier refused to leave the Army stockade until all the other protestors had been freed.

Ultimately, the Indian's challenge was successful. Today, Fort Lawton is an Indian cultural center.

After Fort Lawton, Peltier traveled the country where, in Colorado, he joined the American Indian Movement (AIM).

"AIM was born out of [the] turmoil [of "termination"]... The attempt to destroy us had only made us stronger, more aware, more dedicated. Every single one of us was willing to lay down our life for our cause, which was the very survival of Indian peoples...The growth of the Indian movement and the history of AIM are intertwined with my personal history... We found our inspiration and our strategy in the example and message of AIM leaders such as Dennis Banks, John Trudell, Russell Means, Eddie Benton-Banai, and Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt — all imperfect men, no doubt, yet men whose vision and bravery and fiery, even incendiary, words gave voice to a whole generation of Indian activists, myself included."

The Artist

Not so very long ago, Leonard Peltier would have been the first one to say, "I'm a long way from my peak as an artist."

Growing up with uncles who would spend time sketching and carving, Peltier would watch his elders in their craft and try to imitate them.

"I remember I started carving with a knife I had found in the trash and sharpened up. I learned to draw before I could read or write, and it was kind of a way to communicate for me... I took art classes in school... art was what I was good at. I began teaching myself painting and getting into colors just before I got arrested. After my arrest, I really didn't do anything until about 1984 or 1985."

Spending time in "the hole," while in the federal prison at Springfield in the 1980s, Leonard watched another prisoner working with pastels and when he got permission to get his own set of pastels and paper, he started working with the images and colors that he has always loved.

Inside the gray walls of the prison, locked away from the natural beauty of Mother Earth and her changes, artists must take their inspiration from books and magazines available to them.

"We are denied seeing Mother Earth and enjoying her, so we use some nice pictures for models and change them around... I like to express the beauty of my culture to the world — the colors of powwow, dancers, drummers, and crafts. I want to record and share this beauty."

After his transfer to the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, Leonard began to work with oils and acrylics.

Peltier must purchase supplies from the prison commissary at USP-Coleman, where he is currently imprisoned, but supplies are limited. He can order supplies through a catalog, but that is subject to approval. He isn't limited in the quantity he can purchase, only by funds.

Peltier's paintings reflect the strength and commitment in his heart for the struggle of his People to retain a natural way of life in the face of great adversity. But painting means so much more to Leonard.

"Painting is a way to examine the world in ways denied me by the United States justice system, a way to travel beyond the walls and bars of the penitentiary. Through my paints I can be with my People — in touch with my culture, tradition, and spirit. I can watch little children in regalia, dancing and smiling; see my elders in prayer; behold the intense glow in a warrior's eye. As I work the canvas, I am a free man."

In 1986, Leonard suffered a stroke and lost about eighty percent of his sight in his left eye.

"My eye problems have slowed me down considerably, but I am still very inspired."

Indeed, art professionals marvel at the number and quality of the paintings Peltier produces in light of this disability.

"Sharing my art makes my heart feel good. It's a way, too, of letting people know that I have not been conquered by the oppressor even though I have spent so many years in these iron lodges. It's a way to say thank you for all the people's support. It's a way of letting them know that their prayers are strong."

Leonard donates his paintings to his defense committee to help support efforts to win his freedom.

Leonard Peltier also donates his artwork to several human rights and social welfare organizations to help them raise funds. Most recently, recipients have included the American Civil Liberties Union; Trail of Hope (a Native American conference dealing with drug and alcohol addiction); World Peace and Prayer Day; the First Nation Student Association; and the Buffalo Trust Fund.

Leonard's paintings are collected by celebrities and luminaries worldwide including Oliver Stone, Peter Coyote, Jane Fonda, Val Kilmer, and Michael Apted.

For more information on Mr. Peltier's art, please visit www.peltierart.com.

The Humanitarian

Despite his imprisonment, which poses numerous barriers, Mr. Peltier has made remarkable contributions to humanitarian and charitable causes.

Leonard Peltier has played a key role in getting people from different tribes, with a history of animosity, to come together in peace. He advocates for peaceful resolution of all issues that deal with Native Americans and respect for the rights of others.

Leonard Peltier has worked with Dr. Steward Selkin on a pilot program on the Rosebud Reservation, the Leonard Peltier Health Care Reform Package, to document needs and requirements for delivery and care. The ultimate intent of the program is to fundamentally alter health care delivery on reservations throughout the U.S.

He has worked with Professor Jeffery Timmons on a program to stimulate reservation-based economics and investments in Native American business enterprises, including a component to teach business ownership and operation to the young people of First Nations.

In 1992, Leonard Peltier established a scholarship at New York University for Native American students seeking law degrees. He also was instrumental in the establishment and funding of a Native American newspaper by and for Native young people in Washington State. In addition to having raised two of his grandchildren from prison, Leonard Peltier has been a sponsoring father of two children through ChildReach, one in El Salvador and the other in Guatemala. Every year, he sponsors a Christmas gift drive for the children of Pine Ridge and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Peltier also serves as an honorary member of the Board of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and on the honorary advisory committee for the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign.

Leonard Peltier organized an emergency food drive for the people of Pohlo, Mexico, in response to the Acteal Massacre. He also frequently contributes to Head Start programs and domestic violence shelters to help address funding shortfalls.

Peltier has helped several Indian prisoners rehabilitate themselves by advocating a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle while encouraging pride and knowledge in their culture and traditions. He also has worked to develop prisoner art programs thereby increasing prisoners' self-confidence.

Leonard Peltier has been widely recognized for his humanitarian works, winning honors including but not limited to: 1986 Human Rights Commission of Spain International Human Rights Prize; 1993 North Star Frederick Douglas Award; 2003 Federation of Labour (Ontario, Canada) Humanist of the Year Award; 2004 Silver Arrow Award for Lifetime Achievement; 2009 First Red Nation Humanitarian Award; 2010 Kwame Ture Lifetime Achievement Award; 2010 Fighters for Justice Award; and 2011 Mario Benedetti Foundation (Uruguay) - First International Human Rights Prize.

In 2009, for the sixth consecutive year, Leonard Peltier also was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The following areas reflect Leonard's primary concerns.

  • * Caring for Mother Earth
  • * Indigenous Rights (Protection of All Civil/Human Rights) and Tribal Sovereignty
  • * Political Dissent and Related Government Misconduct/Accountability
  • * Prisoner Rights and Conditions of Confinement (as well as other Criminal Justice Reforms)
  • * Religious Freedom and Protection of Sacred Places
  • * Voter Registration and Get-Out-the-Vote Strategies
  • * Youth Activism

The Writer

In 1999, Leonard Peltier's memoir was published — "Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance" (St. Martin's Press).

The work received wide acclaim and attracted the attention of luminaries such as Britain's Queen Elizabeth. As a result, the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for Peltier to be freed and France's former First Lady Danielle Mitterand — then president of the French human rights organization, France Libertés — also called for the release of Leonard Peltier.

Editor Harvey Arden said, "Leonard Peltier's powerful memoir, a Native American spiritual testament, will shake the conscience of the nation... and the world. It's a flaming arrow aimed at the circled wagons of American injustice."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it: "A deeply moving and very disturbing story of a gross miscarriage of justice and an eloquent "cri de coeur" of Native Americans for redress and to be regarded as human beings with inalienable rights guaranteed under the United States Constitution… We pray that it does not fall on deaf ears. America owes it to herself."

Learn More

Peter Matthiessen

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse

Meticulously researched, this courageous book is the definitive work on the Peltier case. The author successfully defended against lawsuits brought in three different states, surviving an eight-year litigation designed to block the book's publication.

Jim Messerschmidt

The Trial of Leonard Peltier

Foreword by William Kunstler. A well-documented and researched study, this book examines the orchestration by the federal government of the wrongful conviction of Native American activist Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Peltier

Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance

Edited by Harvey Arden. Peltier chronicles life in prison. Peltier explores his suffering and the insights it has borne him in the context of American Indians and their struggle to survive.


We the People

We the People have read your Constitution, Mr. Obama.  We also are aware of the clemency application review process (28 C.F.R. Part I, §§ 1.1-1.11) and know that these guidelines do not bind the President. Congress and the Department of Justice (DOJ) cannot regulate or otherwise limit the presidential clemency power. The authority to grant clemency to federal prisoners belongs only to the President of the United States (under Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution). You have the power to grant clemency to anyone, for any reason, and at any time.