Washington Post reviewer: Leonard Peltier is probably innocent

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Aug 31 09:37:51 MDT 2000

By Jennifer Howard © 2000
The Washington Post Company
Sunday , August 27, 2000 ; X10

U.S. Prisoner #89637-132

The number means nothing. The name behind it--Leonard Peltier--evokes
everything that's lousy about the American judicial system, if you count
yourself among the many who believe that Peltier was wrongfully convicted
of gunning down two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South
Dakota on June 28, 1975.

While Peltier, American Indian Movement (AIM) activist and martyr, serves
two consecutive life sentences at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in
Leavenworth, Kan., human rights activists continue to agitate for his
release. Amnesty International considers him a political prisoner.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama have cast their considerable
moral weight on his side. Peter Matthiessen wrote about the case in his
book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the
FBI's War on the American Indian Movement. And another high-flying Peltier
supporter, former attorney general Ramsay Clark, provides the introduction
to Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance by Leonard Peltier (St.
Martin's/Griffin, $13.95).

A prolonged cri de coeur delivered with a political inflection, Prison
Writings comes closer to spiritual autobiography than to a declaration of
innocence. Not that Peltier lets you forget his claim to freedom: Every
American, he says, rightly and repeatedly, ought to care about his case if
they care at all about the Constitution. (Interestingly, Peltier does not
consider himself an American, though he invokes with respect the highest
American ideals.) Information that has come out since his trial--tales of
testimony suborned, evidence lost or fabricated--makes me believe that he's
very probably innocent. But he comes across as least persuasive when he's
trying hardest to persuade.

Fortunately for the reader, Peltier has a multitude of things to talk
about: his origins (Chippewa, Dakota Sioux, a soupcon of French), his
childhood (poor and peripatetic), his identification with the traditions he
calls Indian Way, his activism on behalf of his people. "When you grow up
Indian, you quickly learn that the so-called American Dream isn't for you.
For you that dream's a nightmare. Ask any Indian kid: you're out just
walking across the street of some little off-reservation town, and there's
this white cop suddenly comes up to you, grabs you by your long hair,
pushes you up against a car, frisks you, gives you a couple good jabs in
the ribs with his nightstick, then sends you off with a warning sneer:
'Watch yourself, Tonto!' "

Peltier wears his names proudly: Tate Wikuwa ("Wind Chases the Sun"),
Gwarth-ee-lass ("He Leads the People"). "In Indian Way, names come to you
in the course of your life, not just when you're born. . . . Each name
gives you a new sense of yourself and your own possibilities. And each name
gives you something to live up to. It points out the direction you're
supposed to take in this life."

What can he do with his latest moniker, Prisoner #89637-132? "Not much
imagination, or inspiration, there." And yet he fashions a sort of poetry
out of the humiliations and deprivations and sensory assaults of life in
the big house. (There are real poems in the book, too.) I'd last about a
week under the conditions he describes: capricious guards, expert beatings,
botched or nonexistent medical care, and "the noise, always the noise. . .
. A while back someone was crying out eerily down the corridor in the
echoing half-darkness. 'Slur the buds!' he cried out dementedly, repeating
those meaningless words over and over again in a ghostly voice, softly
hissing and hollow. 'Slur the buds! Slur the buds!' . . . Doing time does
this thing to you. But, of course, you don't do time. You do without it. Or
rather, time does you. Time is a cannibal that devours the flesh of your
years day by day, bite by bite. And as he finishes the last morsel, with
the juices of your life running down his bloody chin, he smiles wickedly,
belches with satisfaction, and hisses out in ghostly tones, 'Slur the buds!' "

So run the thoughts of a man locked down for a quarter-century and
counting. For updates on Peltier's situation, see the Web site maintained
by the International Office of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee at
www.freepeltier.org. (You'll find the FBI's side of the case presented at

Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is howardjen at washpost.com.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

ALSO SEE: http://ishgooda.nativeweb.org/peltier.trial.htm

Louis Proyect

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