Chauncey Peltier felt a hand grab his arm and yank him out of line. It was 1976 and he was in the federal courthouse in Vancouver, British Columbia waiting to attend his father’s extradition hearing. The hand clamped down on him like a bear trap. Chauncey spun around and saw a clean-cut white man in a suit pulling him aside.
The man in the suit shoved Chauncey against a wall and kicked his feet apart. He frisked Chauncey roughly, like an old-time beat cop teaching a punk a lesson. Then he leaned forward and whispered into Chauncey’s ear.
“I’m going to see your cop-killing dad never sees freedom.”
Chauncey Peltier was 10 years old.
Forty years later, that scared boy is now an effective champion for the rights of his 71-year-old father, Leonard Peltier. Chauncey manages the collection of pictures his father painted in prison and also directs the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.
On October 12, Indigenous People’s Day in Olympia, Washington, Chauncey spoke at the dedication of a mural based on one of his father’s paintings. “Stalking,” created by Olympia artist Ira Coyne, is a super-sized version of a much smaller picture that Leonard painted in prison. It features a crouching lion creeping through grass, its eyes fixed intently on something. But the lion is pink and red, highlighted with white.
The mural was created near Olympia’s artesian well where many people coming to get pure water will see it. The vivid colors contrast with the dreary reality of Leonard’s 40 years of incarceration in a maximum-security federal penitentiary. A plaque next to it reads, “This mural is based on an original painting by Leonard Peltier. Leonard is an Indigenous Activist imprisoned since 1977 for a crime he did not commit.”
On June 26, 1975, two unmarked vehicles chased a red pickup truck onto the Jumping Bull property on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams exited their cars and drew handguns, presumably to arrest the driver of the red pickup.
Many visiting members of the traditionalist American Indian Movement (AIM) and their families were staying on the Jumping Bull property. They assumed the two men were hired thugs working for corrupt Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson. These hired guns called themselves the GOONs, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation. During the previous two years, GOON death squads murdered 64 AIM members and Oglala Lakota traditionalists in what became known as the “Reign of Terror.”
Lots of money was at stake. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is on prime mining land. Dick Wilson felt Natives should assimilate into the dominant society and sell the resources they owned. But the Oglala Lakota traditional people wanted to preserve their culture and connection to the land. In response, Wilson and his GOONs, backed by the FBI, intended to destroy AIM and the traditionalists.
So when Williams and Coler jumped out of their vehicles brandishing weapons, AIM members assumed they were GOONs.
Chauncey was a few hours away on the Rosebud Reservation. He was only 9. He remembers joining the families running into the woods from the tents at Crow Dog where he was staying as word of a conflict spread. Meanwhile, his father and many other AIM members ran to defend the Jumping Bull compound from an onslaught of armed mercenaries. Only these particular mercenaries weren’t GOONs, they were FBI. And by the end of the day they were both dead.
Years later, after the FBI railroaded him in a trial based on tampered evidence, coerced witnesses, and falsified expert testimony, Leonard received two consecutive life sentences for the deaths of Coler and Williams, even though there was no direct evidence linking him to the crimes.
Chauncey recently told ICTMN the advice his father gave him from prison.
“My father told me, ‘Live your life and stay out of all this, Chauncey.’ And I tried that. The only way I would ever do that is if I changed my last name. And people told me, ‘It probably still wouldn’t have worked, Chaunce.’”
Chauncey moved to Oregon and worked as a logger and then joined Local 296, the laborer’s union in Portland.
“I did masonry for 28 years. If you walk around Portland, and I’m not exaggerating, there must be 35 or 40 buildings, 14 to 20 story buildings, that we put brick on. We built colleges, schools, police departments, Washington County Jail, forensics labs. That’s what I did for 28 years.”
But even in Oregon, Chauncey received regular reminders that he was Leonard Peltier’s son.
“When I was 17, I got the shit beat out of me by a cop asking me how my cop-killer dad was doing. Same thing when I was 24.”
A few years ago a retired FBI agent, who had helped frame Leonard, moved into Chauncey’s hometown. He bad-mouthed Chauncey behind his back to people in town, calling him a drunk. After one encounter at a car show, Chauncey went home and a light came on in his head. He remembered how the FBI had strong-armed him at the courthouse in Canada when he was a boy. He had cried so badly when that happened the judge had him removed from the courtroom.
But now he was grown up. He was through running away, through being pushed around. When his father asked him to be the director of both his art collection and his defense committee a couple years ago, Chauncey agreed. Now he travels the country displaying his father’s art and telling his story.
Chauncey doesn’t regret being drawn back into his father’s battles, “because my father is dying in there. He’s in hell.”
The retired FBI agents who framed Leonard years ago still block every attempt at parole or retrial. They know if Leonard’s case were reexamined, their clumsy job of framing him will be revealed.
As Leonard gets older, his health gets worse. He was recently diagnosed with a small abdominal aortic aneurysm that will eventually require surgery. His only hope of getting out before he dies is for President Barack Obama to grant him executive clemency, something Presidents traditionally do for special cases just before they leave office.
Chauncey carries a pocketful of business cards giving instructions on how to contact President Obama to request clemency for his father. He hands them out wherever he goes.
The boy who was once bullied by FBI agents, is now a warrior who fights for his father, just as his father once fought for him and for all Native people. The goal of this battle, however, is a bit more humble.
“They want my father to die in there. All he wants to do is go home. Let him come home.”
Editor¹s Note: This piece was edited on 2/19/16 to more accurately place the location of Chauncey on the day of the shoot-out.