Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights 2020

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Leonard Peltier Interview/High Plains Reader

Part I Peltier: His Life
Photo: Hazel Little Hawk speaks at a rally for Leonard Peltier at the federal building in St. Paul, Minnesota. (AP/Wide World Photos)

It is probably safe to say that anyone who does not feel some empathy for the centuries-old plight of the American Indian does not have an open heart. The suffering of these peoples at the hands of the U.S. government from early American history onward remains an emotionally-charged and challenging topic.What sensitive person, for example, doesn’t pause for moral reflection at the concept of Manifest Destiny? This term, coined by John O’Sullivan in 1839, describes U. S. territorial expansion—essentially, it is the government sanctioned movement across the U.S. from east to west, and its attendant displacement of indigenous peoples in the name of God and country.But at what ethical cost did this movement occur, and who paid the heaviest price? During the expansion, the American Indian was maligned, betrayed, and murdered. These proud peoples with rich cultures were eventually sequestered on Reservations.
Listen to the words of Sitting Bull: “When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world. The sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them? What white man can ever say I stole his land… Yet they say I am a thief. Who has ever come to me hungry and left unfed? What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am Sioux? Because I was born where my father lived? Because I would die for my people and my country?”
A trader once tauntingly asked Crazy Horse, “Where are your lands now?” The Oglala Sioux Chief replied: “My lands are where my dead lie buried.” What he seems to have meant in addition, if I dare exercise poetic license, is “My lands are where my heart lies buried.” And who cannot understand that sentiment?Buried in the past are many great sins against the American Indian. Who doesn’t know the stories? As one brief example, think of the 1890s massacre of Indians—children, women, and men—at Wounded Knee. Who can hear the details of Wounded Knee without feeling pathos for these indigenous peoples?
Leonard Peltier is a name familiar to not only North Dakota and South Dakota residents, but to a national audience, and to renowned citizens of the world. Peltier was tried and convicted in Fargo, North Dakota in 1977 in connection with the deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Controversy has clouded the validity of Peltier’s conviction, which had been labeled unfair and unjust by Amnesty International.
Agreeing with AI are human rights organizations such as Human Rights Alliance, The Center for Constitutional Rights, and The International Federation of Human Rights, and parliaments all around the world. Yet, Peltier has been in prison for 33 years.Leonard Peltier’s first full parole hearing was held in 1993 and his release was denied. Just two weeks ago, on July 28, 2009, Peltier’s second parole hearing took place.
A full-throttle international campaign to bring attention to the July 28th hearing included vigils, letter writing, emails to the Obama White House, and wide-spread press coverage.Included in the international effort are the activities of the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee headquartered in Fargo. Coordinating the Committee’s press, volunteer, and fundraising endeavors are Leonard Peltier family members, niece Kari Ann Cowan, Peltier’s sister Betty Ann Peltier-Salono, plus Jeff Armstrong.
“We are waiting impatiently for the Parole Board to set him free,” Peltier-Solano said.Kari Ann Cowan, who has traveled extensively in support of her uncle, including a trip to Paris where Peltier has significant support, is instrumental in keeping Peltier informed of the Committee’s activities on his behalf.
Kari Ann described Peltier’s early prison years: “He was often beaten by prison guards and was in lock-down all of the time.” “During the trial,” she relates, “the jurors were in a bus with covered windows so they couldn’t see the Native American mothers and children—who supported Leonard—walking around the court house. The prosecution didn’t want to humanize Indians, especially Leonard, in the eyes of the jurors.”
Keri Ann is praying for her uncle’s release.Influential political and spiritual leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize laureates who have signed petitions in support of Peltier’s release are Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, among many others. Signees also include writers, film actors and directors, and musicians—Oliver Stone, Yoko Ono, Sting, William Styron, Jane Fonda, Val Kilmer, among them.Robert Redford, who produced the documentary film Incident at Oglala, an insightful account of the Peltier saga is also a long-time Peltier supporter, as is National Book Award winning author Peter Matthiessen, whose documentary In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is a comprehensive look at the American Indian Movement and the case of Leonard Peltier. Redford’s and Matthiessen’s works are educational tools for anyone interested in learning more about Peltier’s case, as are Leonard Peltier’s own prison writings, collected in Prison Writings: My Life is my Sun Dance. In addition, numerous court documents, interviews, and press reports can be researched online.
As the Parole Commission reviews the case of Leonard Peltier, it is still possible to voice support. Concerned citizens can call the Parole Commission at 301-492-5990 and reference the case of Leonard Peltier, #89637-132.

Peltier Interview: High Plains Reader
His Parole: An Exclusive Interview following interview took place by telephone on August 11, 2009.
Leonard Peltier spoke to HPR from the federal penitentiary in Lewistown, Pennsylvania where he awaits the results of a July 28, 2009 parole hearing.
The Federal Parole Commission must decide whether to release or to retain Mr. Peltier by August 18, 2009, just five days from now.
Pamela Sund for HPR: Good Morning, Mr. Peltier. Thank you for agreeing to talk with us.
Peltier: No problem. No problem at all.
Before I ask a few questions, how are you?
Hanging in there.
What is it like to wait for the Parole Commission’s decision?
Well, a lot of stress, anticipation, hopefulness, trying to think positive, and a lot of anxiety.You have many supporters, including several Nobel Peace Prize winners, writers, dignitaries, and actors, among others. What would you like to say to those who are sympathetic to your cause?
Many have supported me, yes. Bishop Desmond Tutu, many heads of state, Mother Teresa when she was still alive… the support has been very broad. In fact, FBI regional director Don Edwards was one of my biggest supporters. He said, “I know what they did to Leonard, I worked there.”
You have paid a heavy price for your activism. Was it worth it?We had to do something. We had just as much right as any people to protect our human rights. We had to preserve our culture’s rights. In my day, we didn’t have what is going on today. We didn’t have the powwows or the right to practice our religion. At this time the idea was “to take the Indian out of the Indian.”
There was so much racism. The American Indian was being terminated. You can look it up. That was what it was called. But we had just as much right to live as people everywhere. I loved my people; I loved my religion; I loved my culture, and I, well… this was not just me, I mean that we were just trying to save it.
During the recent parole hearing, was U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley present?
He was there. He came there saying the same things the government has always said, but you have to understand, we have impeached ninety percent of the government case… and you know, he left out what [U.S. prosecuting attorney] Lynn Crooks said when asked just what was Mr. Peltier convicted of… and this is almost a direct quote…“We can find no evidence for first degree murder in the record… your Honor, the government does not know who killed our agents nor what part Leonard Peltier had in this, if any.”
Mr. Wrigley forgot to mention how corrupt the government’s case was. This was absolutely not justice. Over 19 constitutional violations were involved. There were over a dozen questionable reversible errors. In addition, the Chief Judge of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court, Judge Webster, was contacted and asked if he would take the position as Director of the FBI and didn’t even tell us.Given all of this, how do you feel about your conviction, about the judge and jury?
I don’t blame the jury because the jury didn’t even hear the whole case….Going back to those who are sympathetic to you. You have many supporters in the community here in Fargo, including several High Plains Reader staff members. What would you like to say to these individuals?
I would like to say, thank you very much for all the years you have believed in me and supported me. And I want to repeat that I am not guilty. You have to remember the times—in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the government was trying to terminate Indian people. There is so much history involved here—there were even admitted racists who sat on my jury. The judge in the case wouldn’t even let us voir dire our jury.
I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with that term. Can you explain?
This is the term used for the process of questioning jurors. We were not allowed to do this. We even brought this to court and won, but still, no positive outcome. There were so many things that happened that were just unconstitutional.
I would like to bring your artwork into the discussion. Your artwork doesn’t exhibit anger or bitterness. There is a sense of innocence and joy in so many of the faces that you paint. Can you speak to this?
I always wanted to be an artist from the time I was very young. It was my first love. I want to portray my people as they are: loving, kind, gentle, generous, and protectors of their homes and families. These are very
intelligent peoples. Many indigenous peoples were much more advanced early on than the Europeans. I’m talking about the Mayans and the Aztecs and others. I want to portray my people as they are, with the qualities I have mentioned.
I wonder if I could ask a question about Banks and Means.
What about Banks and Means?
As an activist, what did you learn from them?
We were all learning from our elders. That’s what we were doing. We were learning from our elders. The government wants to portray us as terrorists, and communists, or militants, but we were resistance fighters. And we learned from each other.
If you are not released, will you appeal?
I will appeal, of course, if the government says no, it will be an act of vindictiveness, an unjustifiable act. They are letting so many of the older prisoners go. There is no legitimate reason for keeping me. According to the guidelines, I have already served the equivalent of three life sentences.
I understand that if you are released, you want to spend time in the Turtle Mountains of your youth. Is that correct?
That’s right. That is where I want to be. It looks like our time is about up.Is there anything else you would like to say?
The Committee [the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee] can use help. People should be outraged at injustice, whether this is happening to me or to someone else. Any help for the Committee would be appreciated. Our time is up. Could you put my niece back on the phone?
I will, yes, but I’m wondering, if you are released, can we continue this conversation?
Peltier: Yes, yes we can… but then, we can sit down and relax.Questions and comments:

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