talking & action (was Re: carol and lou on religion)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 29 10:36:02 MST 2000

>    Alan,
>    I am uninformed about Leonard Peltier

NY Times Op-Ed, December 29, 2000

A Time for Human Rights on Native Ground


MINNEAPOLIS - In 1977, fresh out of Dartmouth College's Native American
program, I got a job in Fargo, N.D. I worked only blocks from the federal
court building, and one day, from my window, I saw a crowd collect near the
courtroom entrance. I walked over to see what was happening and spotted a
few friends I had grown up with in Wahpeton, N.D.

My political leanings were all surface, consisting mainly of fashion
statements. During the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee and the subsequent
murderous climate on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, in which more
than 60 Native people and two F.B.I. agents were killed, I had been trying
to get good grades.

Now, here were my friends dressed in flamboyant vests, beads and black hats
hung with eagle feathers. I, too, wore a hat, a brown Italian fedora, only
my feather was a blue macaw's. On the basis of our hats, rather than any
political awareness, I joined the crowd entering the court building and
became immediately drawn into the trial of Leonard Peltier.

I changed the hours in my job so that I could sit through the trial and
listen carefully until at last the cases were presented. Once I'd heard it
all, I was confident that not one scintilla of hard evidence linked Mr.
Peltier to the murders of F.B.I. agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.
When the jury came back with a guilty verdict I remember extreme shock, a
surprise so visceral that I jumped up, shouted, and then found myself
quietly weeping in the swirl of subsequent chaos. I had, then, no personal
connection with Mr. Peltier. I was not persuaded of his innocence, but that
was not the point. I was positive that on the basis of what I'd heard in
court that there was reasonable doubt as to his guilt and that he should
not have been convicted. My horror was for the United States judicial system.

The court system had been influenced, as had I, by the black hats and the
feathers and the aura of paranoia. Only to me, these things were
attractive. To others, the mood at the back of the courtroom and the drum
beating in the street outside were threatening. No one at the time was
capable of impartiality, or dedicated to discovering the truth.

Here are a few truths. There is no exact forensic evidence that links the
rifle said to have been carried by Mr. Peltier to the weapon that caused
the fatal injuries. There was no witness to the shooting of the F.B.I.
agents. The young witnesses who placed Mr. Peltier, along with some 30
other people, in the vicinity of the crime scene have since insisted that
they were coerced and intimidated by the F.B.I.

Subsequently, it appears that the F.B.I. sought to avenge the murders on
the only person who could still be brought to trial after everyone else
involved in the fatal episode was acquitted, by withholding and
manipulating critical evidence.

During the next few weeks, President Clinton has an opportunity to
demonstrate to Native American people and to the world that our country
practices some of what it preaches about human rights. By extending
clemency to Leonard Peltier, Mr. Clinton could make an enormous gesture of
reparation and healing. Mr. Peltier's release is urged by the European
Parliament, Amnesty International, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human
Rights; by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Jesse Jackson, the
Dalai Lama; as well as Canada's Assembly of First Nations, not to mention
Native rights groups and ordinary citizens throughout the United States. As
long as Leonard Peltier is imprisoned, our country's relationship with its
Native people is stained by ongoing dishonor, and our own human rights
statements are undermined by hypocrisy.

After the Peltier trial, I immersed myself in writing and then motherhood.
Having experienced some of the hysteria and hatreds of those times, I was
ambivalent about Mr. Peltier and the attendant posturing of other leaders
of the American Indian Movement. I was not a knee- jerk defense committee
member, although I am a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, as is
Leonard Peltier. But I was haunted because of the high degree of reasonable
doubt that existed in the evidence against him. Eventually, I wrote to
Leonard Peltier.

He is not a killer and never was. How do I know this? Because of the person
he has become. Leonard Peltier lives, physically half-destroyed, in
Leavenworth Prison. He is 56 years old, and he has suffered a stroke and a
jaw condition that left him in unalleviated pain. Everything has been
stripped away from him. He is transparent now; 24 years in prison do that.
There is no rage, there is no blame in him. If his life were based upon two
murders, he could not have grown, as he has, into a spiritual force, a
person of true humility and gentle humor. I believe the only way he could
have survived is on the strength of his innocence.

Last summer, I walked my grandfather's Turtle Mountain land, side- stepping
wild prairie roses, flicking off wood ticks, snapping the dry tall stems of
sage into a bundle I would wrap and keep through the winter. As I walked,
the evening sun blazed beneath a low cloud and lighted all I saw with a
shivering golden fire. I felt in that moment the vast blessing of my own
freedom, and took out a letter I'd recently received from Leonard. Words
are the soul to me, so I neatly folded the letter and buried it, there, in
his home ground.

Leonard Peltier has paid a terrible price for all that the American Indian
Movement was blamed for during the late 1970's. While other AIM leaders
have trekked to Hollywood, married, remarried, traveled first-class around
the world and reaped the rewards of notoriety, Mr. Peltier has paid. He has
paid for our nation's savagery at Wounded Knee in 1890 and 1973, and for
the shame of the F.B.I.'s treatment of Pine Ridge people. He has paid for
the violence of the AIM "warriors" who trashed government offices,
strutted, mugged, brandished weapons and used them. He has paid the debt
for whoever actually did commit those murders. He has paid every day for 24
years. He has paid enough.

It is time to let him go home.

Louise Erdrich is the author of the forthcoming novel, "The Last Report on
the Miracles at Little No Horse."

Louis Proyect
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