Leonard Peltier

I recently received a comment on one of my submissions in which the writer spoke about the plight of Leonard Peltier. In all honesty, at first I thought the note was a generic submission generated by some arcane software technology that picks out a key word from cyberspace and homes in on every site that uses it. But this, it turns out, was far from the case. The comment was written by a real person, a deeply caring person, who, like so many of us, is at a loss as to what to do about the deep injustice that we feel has been perpetrated on the American Indian prisoner, Leonard Peltier.

Some of you may not know about Peltier, some may be familiar with his case. For those of you who are not, or those who wish to have a refresher course, I recommend that you rent the video or DVD titled, Incident at Oglala. It will open your eyes and sadden your heart. It may also make you very angry.

I have long been bothered by the Leonard Peltier situation — so much so that I wanted to dedicate Neither Wolf nor Dog to Mr. Peltier. But I was stopped by my publisher who saw it as too political a gesture. Two summers ago I even came close to stopping at Leavenworth Prison and leaving a copy of Neither Wolf nor Dog for Mr. Peltier, but was thwarted by the absurd fact that I could not find a parking place and was being scrutinized far too closely for my own comfort as I drove in circles in the parking area looking for somewhere to stop. Ah, the residual effects of life in the sixties.

But it was that same life in the sixties that has made me so concerned about Peltier’s case. I came of age in those years and was part of that cultural earthquake. I saw what the government was willing to do to people who opposed its policies. The manufacturing of false charges and the incarceration of people to set examples was simply standard fare. You had to be part of the times to appreciate what a strangely ruthless situation it really was. Now, those years have been reduced to caricature and relegated to the status of curio to be studied in high school history units. But the reality for those of us who lived through them was quite different. The U.S. government had not perceived an internal challenge of such magnitude since the days of the Communist hysteria and Joe McCarthy, and it used the tactics of the McCarthy era as a template for dealing with the dissidents of the sixties. This meant that civil liberties were seen as impediments to government policy, and were to be disregarded as much as was necessary in order to stop the perceived threat to our established way of life. (It seems we have dusted off that approach again in recent years, but now we’re after folks with Arab surnames rather than American young people with long hair).

But my purpose here is not a political diatribe. The simple fact is that well-intentioned people do bad things in the name of their political beliefs, and during the sixties that included the radical underground as well as the Republican party of Richard Nixon. A lot of people got caught in the crossfire. Leonard Peltier was one of them. The issue has always been whether he was simply caught in that crossfire or whether he was one of those doing the firing. There is good reason to think that he was simply caught in the crossfire — that he was set up, taken down, and locked away in order to serve as an example and a warning. The government has steadfastly refused to reexamine the case to see whether this is true. Meanwhile, Mr. Peltier watches from inside a cell in Leavenworth Penitentiary while his days slip away.

Up here in Indian country we get a bit more news about issues involving Native people. And, truth be told, there is some new material that casts a shadow over Mr. Peltier’s innocence. But there is also a mountain of evidence that speaks to inexcusable corruption of the judicial system with the express intent of getting Mr. Peltier put away forever.

Simply put, he never got fair hearing. Evidence was manufactured, witnesses were mysteriously silenced, and truth was trampled on in every way within the power of what was at the time a very paranoid and malicious justice department. In short, Mr. Peltier, a quiet, simple, committed man, was railroaded.

The question of Mr. Peltier’s guilt or innocence remains, but there is no question that the American vision of justice was perverted to obtain his conviction. He deserves another day in court. Personally, the saddest day for me of Clinton’s presidency was not when he sold his mandate for a dalliance in a closet, or when he lied about it under oath, but when, at the end of his presidency, he used his power of presidential pardon to free crooked campaign contributors rather than people like Leonard Peltier. So much for feeling the pain of the little man.

And Leonard Peltier was a little man, at least in the big scheme of things. He deserves to have someone in high places feel his pain. He was convicted because someone in those high places wanted to make an example of him, and he has been languishing in prison ever since.

Fortunately for him, whenever American justice tries to make an example of someone, it ends up making that person into a symbol for all those of opposing points of view. Leonard Peltier is now a symbol of the abuses that the criminal justice system can heap upon an ordinary man; of the continued disregard in which our government holds the legitimate grievances of Native people; and of the lengths that our government will go to in order to keep from correcting a wrong or shining a light on an injustice of its own creation.

Mr. Peltier deserves a full and open reconsideration of his case. Even many who were involved in his initial conviction believe this. And many ordinary folks, like the person who wrote the comment that inspired this response, refuse to let his case die. They are his only real hope, and they reach out in desperation wherever they can in an effort to keep a small light shining into this dark corner of American judicial abuse. We need to hear them, and be reminded that where one of our brothers or sisters suffers, we all suffer.

I am not ready to say that Leonard Peltier should be considered the moral equivalent of Nelson Mandela. But I do know that, like Mr. Mandela, he has served a long, dark sentence handed down by his government at least partly for political purposes. If South Africa can revisit their conviction of a man to see if he was wrongly imprisoned, is it too much to ask that America be willing to do the same?

We need to speak up for Leonard Peltier, and for all the Leonard Peltiers of the world. I applaud the person who wrote the response. He or she is fighting the good fight — a fight too many people have abandoned in pursuit of personal ends. But, as I said in an earlier blog, we are, indeed, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. What happens to the least of us happens to us all. Leonard Peltier is our brother. He is also, to my mind, the most visible canary in the coal mine of American justice. If he breathes his last breath while incarcerated, without ever had a fair and open hearing of his case, something in all of us dies. We should not be willing to let this happen.

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