American Indian activist Leonard Peltier was wrongfully charged with the murder of two FBI agents in 1977, and has been imprisoned ever since. His son Chauncey Peltier spoke with us about his father’s case and the determined campaign for his release.
Free Leonard Peltier!
Until recently, I was unaware of one of the most botched trials in history – the 1977 case of The United States v. Leonard Peltier. To summarize: On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents died in a shootout at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Despite lacking sufficient evidence, the FBI accused Leonard Peltier of the murders. During the trial, the prosecution withheld ballistics evidence and presented false testimony, determined to frame Peltier for the incident. As a result, in April 1977, Peltier was convicted and charged with two life sentences. Later new evidence was gathered that would’ve proven Leonard innocent – a Mr. X even took responsibility for the murders – but he was never granted a retrial after his initial, and faulty, conviction.
Millions of people have called for the release of Leonard Peltier, or, at the very least, a fair appeal of his case, and Amnesty International has acknowledged him as a political prisoner. It’s possible and many are hopeful that Leonard will be granted Executive Clemency during Obama’s term. But there’s only a year left for President Obama to grant clemency to Leonard and release him from his sentence of two life terms in prison with October 11th, 2040 as his projected release date. Leonard has been incarcerated for 40 years and is now 71 years old locked up in a federal maximum-security prison in Florida. Unless clemency is granted by President Obama, he will likely die behind bars.
Despite his unjust arrest, severe treatment in prison, and continual denial of parole and clemency, Leonard has managed to do a lot from inside his cell over the last 40 years. He’s donated money to various causes on the Pine Ridge reservation, helping schools stay open after being defunded by the state. He’s received six Nobel Peace Prize nominations, written a speech as the keynote speaker for The Evergreen State college’s 1993 graduating class, given numerous interviews and statements (including this most recent one), and painted over 250 original works.
Leonard Peltier’s oldest son Chauncey Peltier is the director of his art collection, as well as the co-director of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. He has made it his mission, through public speaking and curating his father’s paintings, to garner support for complete executive clemency. The money collected from painting sales goes towards legal funds and other causes Leonard chooses to donate to (like the schools in Pine Ridge).
A local sign painter and muralist in Olympia, Ira Coyne, heard Chauncey interviewed by Raven Redbone on his show Make No Bones About it on KAOS radio. When Ira learned Leonard was a painter, he looked up his work and was taken by the pink lion depicted in Stalking. He then reached out to Raven and Chauncey to turn this piece into a mural at our city’s artesian well. Chauncey is now in Olympia for the week to work on the mural with Ira and anyone else who shows up at the well to lend a hand. (The official ribbon cutting for the mural will coincide with Olympia’s Inaugural Indigenous Peoples’ Day, this Monday October 12, at 12:00 pm by Olympia’s Artesian Well.)
Throughout the first day’s work of scraping away decades of paint, he shared many stories about his father and how the experience of growing up as a Peltier has shaped his relationships and life path. Unfortunately I didn’t get to record them, but after dinner, I had the opportunity to record a brief conversation with him.
Call or write the White House to Urge President Obama to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier.
Chauncey: I think this mural is going to make [my father’s case] relevant for people again. It will remind them that Leonard is still in jail. A lot of people think Clinton let him out and that he’s free. They’ll ask me how my dad’s doing, as if he’s out. When I tell them he’s still in prison they can’t believe it! They’ll usually try to get involved in some way, for example by signing the petition. Some people will say “I already signed a petition before.” But I have to have a new set of petitions with each president. That’s why I recommend that everyone call or write the White House again, because we need all the supporters we can get now – past supporters along with the new supporters. I want to start doing more outreach at colleges so we can get the younger generations in on this. A lot of people who are 20 or 30 years old don’t know who Leonard Peltier is.”
Yeah, I didn’t know about him until recently, and I’m 29.
Chauncey: See? The newer generation is going to pick up the signs and protest. They’re the ones that want to protect the earth. When I was down in New Mexico last, there were college kids protesting to protect the Apache flats (Oak Flat, a sacred site to the Apache — Ed.), which is being threatened because of its mineral value. They want to make a hole the size of the grand canyon in their sacred prayer grounds. I was amazed to see these kids out there protecting the land. That gave me hope that the younger generations might support Leonard too. I mean, this is one of the biggest cases of human rights violations in history.
What kind of support do you need right now?
Go to the website whoisleonardpeltier.info. It will teach you anything you need to know about the case and Leonard. It’ll teach you how to start a support group, put together events, and other details about the case. Also, read In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen. Dad recommends that book to anyone who wants to learn about the case.
I watched Incident at Oglala and that movie really schooled me on the severity of the situation. The severe mistreatment of Native people is something people often put in the past, but this documentary wasn’t made that long ago. It’s as if reservations have been a place where white supremacists and dirty cops can go to commit lawless crimes.
[The reservation] was somewhere these killers could go where there were no consequences. A few of them may have been maniac killer police officers. I mean over 60 people died on that reservation at that time. That was more murders in that small area than in the entire state. And people don’t realize it’s still like that.
My brother still lives in Pine Ridge. I went out to visit him and said “Man, if I was you I’d move out of here. Pay the electric bill, get everyone some food, and go find some work,” And he says, “Well, this is my home, this is all I know.” A lot of people are stuck there because that’s all they know, it’s their livelihood but there’s no work for them there. I know lots of people who move off the reservations because there are no jobs. But as soon as they move off, the government’s going to take that land. There’s no reason there can’t be jobs there but starving the reservations is one way of getting rid of the Native population.
There’s another way too: A couple of my friends have been trying to get enrolled [as Native] for a long time. Their parents are Native, they’ve filled out all the paperwork, it should be a done deal but they’ve been fighting for two years and still can’t get enrolled. My dad is Turtle Mountain Chippewa and my mom is a Ft. Totten Sioux. They’re both over three quarters Native blood but I get my tribal card and it says I’m less than half Native blood.
So they’re trying to document Native blood out of existence?
Yes, they want to weaken the bloodline. When there’s less than about half Native blood on a reservation the state can take that land for their own. There’s only a couple of reservations that call their own blood line.
I’m thankful you’re sharing and keeping your story alive. When people read your interviews, see Leonards art, or hear about whoisleonardpeltier.info it gives them a place to reach out and connect to.
Yeah, I had a story in the Oregonian about Leonard’s art. A reporter was up near my house doing a story on a new bird sanctuary and interviewed me. When he learned who I was he expressed interest in interviewing me about the art. I made the third page of the Oregonian, our main newspaper. Well, some of the guys down in Oregon State penitentiary get that paper. They didn’t know Leonard Peltier had a son in Oregon so they got a hold of me through a friend of mine and asked me to go down there for sweat lodge.
Wow, they have a sweat lodge in the prison?
Yes in some of them, not all, but the inmates don’t want someone from inside the prison to pour water for them. They want someone free, someone who isn’t locked up and confined, for spiritual reasons. So, the first time I went and sweated with a friend, then I went to a powwow there, then they were short on guys to pour water for them so they asked me to come in and do it. I’ve been going in there every third Saturday of the month and pouring water for them. It helps me with my issues too, kind of like an AA class. I’ve come close to being there (in prison —Ed.) a few times myself. If I can help one of those guys, it’ll help me through my sobriety too. It’s a stepping stone in my journey. To survive in prison you have to leave your heart and feelings at the front door. If you get emotional, they’ll tear you to pieces in there. The sweat lodge and ceremonies help them through their time there. I ask them not to leave that medicine when they leave the prison. I tell them “Your sage, sweetgrass, and feathers – take that with you. When you go into the world and leave your medicine behind, you fall of the path and end back up in prison. Don’t just use the medicine for your sobriety in here, use it for your sobriety out there too.” A lot of guys really appreciated that. I hope I’m doing some good.
You’re doing something good for sure, something amazing.
I hope. When I go into prison, man that’s some scary stuff and I ain’t no slacker! (laughs) I’ve boxed and done karate but it’d be scary if I had to live in there. Can you imagine my dad, 71 years old in there? I used to build prisons. I did masonry for 30 years. If you go to Portland, all those 13, 14, 16-story buildings made of brick? I worked on probably 30 or 40 of those. I’ve built colleges, jails, prisons, and schools. Thirty years worth. When I did that I drank every day, but I’ve been sober for five years now. Now I’m really focused on my dad’s art, doing events, and vendoring.
I’m excited about this mural of your father’s piece Stalking. Some people might not know that he spends a lot of time painting in prison.
Yeah, a lot of people have appreciated his work and bought it over the years. The more you look at it, the more stuff you see in there. Dad is a very intelligent artist. This mural is going to bring the public out, they’re going to see the plaque up there and investigate on their own. Let alone, it’s just a great painting.