“Please don’t let me die in prison…”
I set out to write something about Leonard Peltier and I didn’t know where to start. But this plea, from Peltier himself, repeated by various people who have met or spoken with him is what stuck with me long after my research was finished. I cannot pretend to know the intonation of his voice or the level of emotion behind the statement but it struck me as something very human, to want to be free and not die a prisoner.
American Indian Movement member Leonard Peltier is pictured at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, in this September 13, 2000 handout photo. Reuters
Leonard Peltier, a Chippewa-Lakota man, has been in prison for 40 years, incarcerated for the murder of two FBI agents in 1975. The case against him is shaky, that’s the best way I can describe it, and it seems he is the victim of an overzealous prosecution during a period of time when being a Native activist was treated like an act of treason. Peltier’s involvement with the American Indian Movement (AIM) made him a target, as it made several other Natives activists, their families and their children targets during the 1970s while AIM led a resistance against corrupt federal, state and local government policies.
Netflix hasn’t done a ten part documentary series on Peltier’s case, but for the past 40 years many people have fought in the hopes of bringing to light the corrupt nature of his prosecution. Native people are reminded each time Peltier asks for clemency of the precarious nature of the justice system. It is what struck such a chord with audiences as they followed the saga of Steven Avery, a man who was wrongfully convicted, in Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” series. What if the system can be easily manipulated by a select few in authority who just want you to be guilty? What if they lock you up and throw away the key?
How many letters will you write home that begin, “please don’t let me die in prison”?
Imprisonment is so intertwined with the settler colonial agenda that we as Native people have been treated as prisoners in our own lands. Missions, forts, reservations, boarding schools…they were all designed to imprison us.
Leonard Peltier is also an artist, an author and a poet who in his 40 years in prison has had attempts on his life, developed diabetes, had a stroke and had surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurism. He is currently one of the longest serving political prisoners in the United States of America. There is a kind of sardonic symbolism in that one of the longest serving prisoners in the United States is Native American. Imprisonment is so intertwined with the settler colonial agenda that we as Native people have been treated as prisoners in our own lands. Missions, forts, reservations, boarding schools…they were all designed to imprison us.
Native people have been consistently and increasingly incarcerated since first invasion by western settlers. If they weren’t killing us, they were imprisoning us. They said their punishments fit our crimes. Sometimes our crimes were things like standing around, going off the reservation, defending ourselves against sexual assault, hunting, fishing, or refusing to be removed from our homes. It very quickly became illegal just to be Indian. And for every new law that they passed in the name of justice, there was one more Indian incarcerated because while “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” if you can’t kill him then the only good Indian is an incarcerated Indian.
In 1883, a Lakota Sioux man named Crow Dog shot and killed another Native man named Spotted Tail. The tribe dealt with this incident through a system of settlement that was traditional to the tribal people. We didn’t believe that prison was the answer, because we had complex systems of justice that valued balance in our communities. U.S. authorities could not believe that in this traditional system of justice there was no real “punishment” so they intervened, arrested and tried Crow Dog. They sentenced him to death. How interesting that their goal was two dead Indians, not just one. Crow Dog took his case all the way to the Supreme Court and you know what the court said “get out of this Indian business you guys. They have their own justice systems. They are sovereign nations” (Basically. You should read the whole case if you want to know what they said exactly).
While “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” if you can’t kill him then the only good Indian is an incarcerated Indian.
After that Congress made sure that Indians could no longer be in charge of justice systems when it came to what they called “major crimes” because it wasn’t justice if Indians weren’t going to jail or getting executed. And now Indians are sentenced to longer sentences than white people who commit the same crime and according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics they are incarcerated at a rate 38 percent higher than the national average. Native men are incarcerated four times more than white men. Native women, six times more than white women. So the system is working because we are going to jail.
And it makes me wonder how many of these Native people write home or say silent prayers at night that begin “Please don’t let me die in prison.”
Leonard Peltier’s case, however, has made international headlines not because he is a Native man in prison but because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his conviction. The trial was farcical and unsettling. It seemed like conviction of Peltier was to prove a point about punishing the American Indian Movement. For the last 40 years Peltier has maintained his innocence and has had people working endlessly to free him. They began with requests for new trials. They highlighted the inconsistencies of the case. In 2009 he was denied parole. He has been denied clemency by multiple Presidents. Organizations like Amnesty International and the National Congress of American Indians have called for intervention in his case.
Last year the Leonard Peltier “I Will” Clemency Campaign produced a series of videos in which human rights leaders, activists, celebrities and others asked for President Obama to offer clemency to Peltier. Peltier’s lawyers think that clemency is his only option because at this point as he is not eligible for another parole hearing until 2024 when he will be 79 years old. Clemency is an opportunity to acknowledge the great price that Peltier has paid, the many years he has already served, and to treat him like a human being instead of just making an example out of him.
Peltier is considered by many a political prisoner because of his involvement with the American Indian Movement during the 1970s. If we think of the American Indian Movement as resisting occupation, as pushing back against the settler colonial desire to disappear, remove and destroy Native people then we must also remind ourselves that AIM was a group of human beings. Much of what people now know about AIM was because of the ever present news cameras, hungry to build a narrative that would play well to national and international television audiences. Suddenly, Indians were on television.
American Indian youths ride a car adorned with a buffalo skull as the "Longest Walk" approaches Washington in this July 1978 handout photo.
They had dreams and songs, they had survived and resisted countless government programs meant to assimilate them, they were stronger together and they were willing to fight. And there were many real things at stake. There were communities desperate for help to fight corrupt government systems. There were Native people resisting continued policies meant to tear apart their families. There were demands to honor the treaties. There was increasing rates of homicide, cases that were going uninvestigated by the government. There was a movement to educate young Native people, to build Native run universities and cultural centers. There was the fight against termination and the fight for restoration of land. And behind all of that was a growing group of Native people, some coming in caravans, others hitchhiking or taking the bus, to find their way to each other, a mass of voices demanding a better future for Native nations. This is what the government at the time considered a threat, Native people who saw opportunities for sustainable, healthy futures through education and empowerment.
This is not to say that AIM was a perfect organization. We must, as generations looking back on how we can learn and grow from this movement, critique as well as support the actions of people during this period of time. There was a culture of misogyny and gender violence amongst AIM members. There was also the ever present threat of FBI infiltrators and the paranoia of ever increasing numbers of informants in AIM ranks.
International Indian Treaty Council representative Winona LaDuke addresses a U.N. conference on discrimination against indigenous populations in the Americas, in Geneva, Switzerland, in this September 1977 handout photo. Reuters
This is what the government at the time considered a threat, Native people who saw opportunities for sustainable, healthy futures through education and empowerment.
There was the murder of a young Native woman, Anna Mae Aquash, who was found buried on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She was thirty years old with two young daughters. As we consider the lasting impact of this politicized time on Peltier’s life, on the lives of countless others, we must also consider these many issues and demand justice not only for Peltier but also for Anna Mae, wrongfully incarcerated Native peoples all over the world, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. Peltier’s very lengthy incarceration is just a part of this larger context of the continued injustices that are perpetrated against Native peoples because we resist and we survive.
In the end I am brought back home. I have been reminded over the past few days as I wrote this article that one of Leonard Peltier’s children grew up in my hometown. I knew him for most of my young life and I remember once that my mother made him dance with me at a Pow Wow. I was really embarrassed but he was pretty good at the two-step. Leonard Peltier, the father, rarely gets talked about. It could be because he didn’t get much of a chance to be a father, or because his children don’t seem to search out the spotlight very often. But, as much as he is a political prisoner, or even an incarcerated Native man, he is also a father.
And he is a son, an author, an activist, an artist, a human being and a poet.
We are not separate beings, you and I
We are different strands of the same being
You are me and I am you
and we are they and they are us
Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University. She is also the author of a popular blog that explores contemporary Native American politics and culture. http://cutcharislingbaldy.com/blog She is Hupa, Karuk and Yurok and enrolled in the Hoopa Valley Tribe.