Is Leonard Peltier America’s Nelson Mandela?
“My case at this point in time really isn’t about me as much as it is about wrongful illegal immoral policies that they practice against our people. And at this juncture of history though these practices were for the most part exercised first on my people they have now crossed over into all peoples, especially the poor. Or anyone that doesn’t have the political or monetary power to combat their system and bring to public awareness the transgressions upon those who can ill afford to defend themselves.”
If we cannot respect other human life, how can we respect the intricacies of a complete planetary ecosystem? It is not just the poor without the financial backing for a voice it is also the voiceless members of all nature who lack a defense.
The first struggle is the struggle I face writing this piece, because I am not directly connected to the difficulties faced by American Indians. Yet, I find myself writing on the topic of an American Indian role model. There is always a question of motive behind the writer in these situations. Agreed, I question the same type of writers myself. Even choosing a descriptive label for the culture is a touchy subject.
Regardless of culture, label and race, Leonard Peltier is one of the strongest positive role models from my growth into adulthood. As I began re-researching his story, I struggled. Contemporary views on non-American Indian writers writing on American Indian themes are not always positive. As I continued to develop the piece about the strong influence Peltier had on my views and myself today, I recalled my indoctrination into the imbalances that exist within the United States of America. These divisions and imbalances can be seen as a sickness. The sickness we see manifested today in environmental destruction and lack of social cohesion, the sickness that Peltier’s case represents.
Along the lines of imbalance, I see a need for those willing to take a stand. It doesn’t matter what labels we wear. I could write about some other mixed gene mutt like me, or I could take a chance to pay respect to a leader who greatly influenced me. If we can ignore the concept of what percent of which genes we come from, we can just speak of human and human.
June 26, 1975: FBI agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams, along with AIM member Joseph Stuntz Killsright, are killed on Pine Ridge Reservation (trial background)
February 6, 1976: Leonard Peltier is arrested in Canada and held for extradition for the murders of Coler and Williams.
I was a bit of an early bloomer as far as questioning the society we live in. One day, as I was riding my bike home from first grade, I was struck by a perplexing contradiction in society. Murder is wrong, a crime to be punished, yet killing in war is ok. That didn’t add up in my young mind. The night before, on the evening news, I had heard about Leonard Peltier’s arrest. I asked my parents why he was being arrested, about the meaning of murder and the punishments for it. The next day during school I was distracted by thoughts of my father’s time in Vietnam fighting in a war where he had to kill. From a young age I noticed the contradictions within society and the differences between what we are taught and the way society actually functions. Hearing about Leonard Peltier was the motivator that had connected the right information together.
As a boy beginning to question the society around him, Leonard Peltier was probably the earliest outside influence I can remember who symbolized fighting for what you know is right. As I learned more about his story, the fact that he, and the rest of the Pine Ridge activists stood up to the power of the US government and FBI left a resonance within me that has continued to this day.
April 18, 1977: Peltier is found guilty on two counts of murder in the first-degree.
The second time I heard Leonard Peltier’s name was when his verdict was announced…guilty. No surprise there. It left a strong image in my mind as I watched the news with my parents. I could sense some tension inside of them. We didn’t talk about it. I was too caught by the oddness that a ‘killer’ was being punished, but my parents seemed somehow saddened by this. Things were not adding up in my mind, and those thoughts lead me to question larger contradictions around me.
On one hand, in school we were being taught about the cooperative diversity that makes America great, and the purity of the judicial system. Also, during the holiday season we were taught to honor American Indian culture, well the Thanksgiving version of the story at least. In the palm of the other hand was reality. In school, the students were socially dividing into cliques and elitist groups. Through the media of the time I was learning about Peltier’s continuing struggle against a justice system that might not have been portrayed as unjust, but was definitely becoming obvious in it’s imbalanced application of the law.
March 10, 1979: The U. S. Supreme Court declines to review Peltier’s case.
July 20, 1979: Peltier escapes from Lompoc Federal Prison in California.
July 26, 1979: Peltier is recaptured.
The news about Peltier in 1979 showed that the cycle of injustice was complete. The imbalance in the treatment of prosecution and defense sides in the case denied any recourse against the powers of the US government. With no legal recourse left, Peltier escaped from prison, and the news ran with the story, and now I had a role model of great influence. When all recourse within the law fails, the innocent person might be forced to break the law in order to preserve their survival. Peltier was captured soon after, but the resonance of his escape left me certain of his innocence and strength in the face of injustice. Who wouldn’t risk that run if there were no other means of escape, if one knew their own innocence and believed in a system of justice?
1986 Peltier is denied a retrial.
The imbalances in Peltier’s case, and the justice system as a whole became more blatant. The US Court of Appeal for the Eighth Circuit denied Peltier a retrial stating that:
“We recognize that there is some evidence in this record of improper conduct on the part of some FBI agents, but we are reluctant to impute even further improprieties to them.”
Wait, what? In essence, they tell us that though the FBI had broken the rules, they wouldn’t focus on that because it might bring more attention to the injustice. This is justice?
Now I was seeing how Peltier’s case was following along as a symbolic example of sociopolitical imbalances inside the entire system, from the public school level social indoctrination I experienced, all the way to the top tier of the judicial branch of the federal government.
1992 Incident at Oglala is released.
In Michael Apted’s compelling documentary, Peltier discusses the warriors of AIM, and the direction of their movement:
“We have to really start doing stuff, you know, building community gardens, chopping wood, hauling water. You know whatever they needed done. That’s your responsibility.”
The simple and obvious power of the daily act, the building of strong community ties and trying to create a lifestyle of balance and awareness, these were the thoughts that flew into my mind. I didn’t know if that was all inside Peltier’s intention, but that is how I understood it, and how it provoked positive change in my life. I decided I could actively seek, through my lifestyle, a way to try to balance the imbalances I saw. There was a way to disconnect from the material pursuit that seemed to be the fuel that fed the imbalance. This started a period of time where I tried to rationalize the difficulty of this type of survival in a system built on monetary gain.
As imbalance presented itself all round me, I sought escape away from urban imbalance. Then in 1999, I had one of those experiences where you read someone’s words, and those words perfectly express a feeling that you hadn’t quite formulated yourself:
“I don’t know how to save the world. I don’t have the answers or The Answer. I hold no secret knowledge as to how to fix the mistakes of generations past and present. I only know that without compassion and respect for all of Earth’s inhabitants, none of us will survive—nor will we deserve to.”
-Leonard Peltier, My Life Is My Sun Dance.
This finally drove things home for me. Two years later, I dived into an experiment in activist life style.
The deep ecological concept of Peltier’s helped inspire me to become an environmental activist. Like so many other stories of direct action or activism, it begins with an opportunity presenting itself. This is exactly as it happened to me. I had the chance to meet some people who were involved in a direct action campaign to protect old growth forests. They invited me to join them, and for the next two years we successfully fought to cancel the sale of the remaining acres of a large-scale ancient ecosystem.
My life’s path would have taken a drastically different course without the early, and continuing, influence of Leonard Peltier’s life and words. This article would not have challenged me to try to present a clear example of the problems that are shared by all of the inhabitants of Earth. These problems are inter-representational. They are all symptoms of the same sickness. The imbalance of resources whether monetary, for legal “defense,” or political, through not having a “voice,” is shared across all nature.
Joseph Stuntz Killsright’s death remains uninvestigated. Leonard Peltier remains in prison.
–Photo Credit: moonros22Flickr