UPDATE: Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier is denied parole.

Burning sage filled the air with smoke in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Monday, where several dozen people joined a vigil for Leonard Peltier. Peltier is an Indigenous activist who has been imprisoned for 48 years for the 1975 killings of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents.

The vigil marks the first time in more than a decade that Peltier was afforded a full parole hearing. At 79, Peltier’s health is declining. If he is not granted parole, it might be another decade before he gets another chance. “Indeed, we are at a crucial time,” said Tony Gonzales in an email, director of the American Indian Movement-West (AIM-West). 

Peltier received two consecutive life sentences after he was convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI agents in South Dakota, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler. To this day, Peltier and his supporters say he was wrongly convicted.

“If we keep pushing and pressuring, maybe eventually he will be free,” said Eloy Martinez during the vigil. “We have to be his voice on the streets.”

Occupation of Wounded Knee

Peltier, an Anishinabe-Lakota political activist, was a prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) that formed in the 1960s to combat police brutality and discrimination against Native Americans.

AIM grabbed headlines in February 27, 1973, when it took over and occupied Wounded Knee, a historic site on the Pine Ridge reservation where approximately 300 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the U.S. army in 1890. The activists were protesting corruption in tribal leadership and pushed for Native American treaty rights.

The occupation lasted for 71 days. Federal agents made hundreds of arrests and killed two Native Americans. The occupation ended on May 8, 1973, after federal authorities said they would investigate complaints. Tensions between AIM and the federal government remained high for years afterwards, setting the stage for the Pine Ridge shoot-out. 

The West-American Liberation Movement held a vigil for Leonard Peltier, a Anishinabe-Lakota Native American political activist who has been imprisoned for 48 years. Approximately an hour into the demonstrations, a man was detained by four SFPD officers on site. As the man was being dragged away, he could be heard saying, “I am Native American.” Photo: Jennifer Yin

Controversial murder conviction

On June 26, 1975, two federal agents in unmarked cars went to Pine Ridge in pursuit of Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for the theft of a pair of cowboy boots. The agents approached a red and white vehicle containing Peltier, Robert Robideau and Darelle Butler. A shoot-out began, wounding the two FBI agents before they were shot in the head at close range. Native American Joseph Stunt was also fatally shot.

According to FBI documents, more than 40 Native Americans were involved in the shootout, but only Robideau, Butler, and Peltier were brought to trial. Robideau and Butler, who were tried separately from Peltier, were found not guilty of killing Coler and Williams due to self-defense, claiming they were unaware that the individuals in the unmarked cars were law enforcement agents. Peltier, who was extradited to the U.S. after fleeing to Canada, was convicted in a controversial trial marred with disputed testimony and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and fabricated evidence.

One key piece of evidence was a .223 bullet casing found in the trunk of Coler’s car, which the FBI alleged matched an AR-15 connected to Peltier. “The evidence they had against him, the shell casing, the connection to the gun and the firing pin test was not a match. They withheld that evidence,” said Peltier’s cousin, Adam Villagomez, during the vigil. “They did a shell casing test, which is less reliable. But there was a match, so they used that in the court case. But the most reliable ballistic evidence was withheld.”

Continued fight for release

Since his conviction, Peltier has maintained his innocence. In a “60 Minutes” television interview, Peltier said, “I never killed those agents. I didn’t fire the first shots, but it wouldn’t make any difference at all. These two strangers were firing on these homes which were occupied by women and children. We were asked to come to this reservation to protect this community and that is exactly what we did. The only thing I am guilty of is trying to help my people.”

Peltier was denied parole in 1993, 1996 and 2009. He was also denied clemency by presidents Bill Clinton in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2016. Now, AIM members and supporters are calling for the Biden administration to grant Peltier clemency amid his declining health. 

In San Francisco, Monday’s vigil ended with a prayer circle and an excerpt from Morning Star Gali, a member of the Ajumawi band of Pit River Tribe: “Some ask us, will you ever stop protesting? We will stop protesting when we can act as sovereign nations on our own land without the interference of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. When police brutality no longer exists in communities of color. We will stop protesting when Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Puerto Rican Independentistas and all the political prisoners are free. Until then, the struggle will continue. Free Palestine, free Leonard Peltier, free them all.”

 A decision on Monday’s hearing is expected within 21 days.

Several dozen people joined a vigil for Leonard Peltier, an Indigenous activist who has been imprisoned for 48 years and is seeking parole. Photo: Jennifer Yin

Clarification: This article was originally published with photographs from a previous vigil for Leonard Peltier in San Francisco. The images have been updated to reflect Monday’s vigil.

Jennifer Yin

Jennifer is a journalism student at San Jose State University. She graduated from City College of San Francisco, where she wrote for the Guardsman, Etc. Magazine and completed a fellowship with California...