Leonard Peltier in his own words
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My Life is My Sun Dance: Prison Writings of Leonard Peltier Read by Harvey Arden, music by Reverend Goat and New Orleans Light Mi Abuelo Records
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REVIEW BY NORM DIXON
Leonard Peltier is one of the United States' longest-serving political prisoners, jailed in 1976 in a blatantly rigged trial, during which the US government and the FBI refused to put any limits on the depths they would stoop to see this militant leader of the Native American people silenced for life. Almost 30 years later, Harvey Arden has done his bit to break that silence with the release of My Life is My Sun Dance, a series of readings from Peltier's prison writings.
Arden's expressive voice creates an emotional connection between the listener and the author of the words, who has been bricked up in high-security prisons and kept isolated from his people and his many supporters. Through Arden, accompanied by the smooth jazz moods of New Orleans Light, Peltier talks directly to us and you can feel and share his humanity, defiance, and fears. Peltier's writing is conversational and poetic; it is hopeful and inspiring. One listen of this CD and you will really care about this humane and gentle, but fierce warrior for social justice.
Peltier tells us about the terrors and uncertainties of prison life, about the history of Washington's long oppression of the Native American people and how his individual oppression is simply a continuation of it. He discusses his people's spirituality and how it is bound to the struggle to end the oppression of all peoples. And Peltier outlines the specifics of the events that landed him in jail, and the details of what must be one of the most outrageous frame-ups in US history.
In the early 1970s, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota was the scene of a serious conflict between the corrupt, pro-government, assimilationist reservation authorities and militant reservation residents who were demanding that Native Americans control their own affairs. The residents were also demanding that they be permitted to continue to practice their traditional culture without hindrance.
It emerged that uranium had been found on the reservation land, and the federal government and its Indian puppets were determined to crush the militants in order to get their hands on it. Rich ranchers were also being allowed to graze the sensitive semi-arid country for minimal or no fees.
In 1973, the residents sought the assistance of the radical American Indian Movement (AIM) and together they occupied the village of Wounded Knee (the same site where, less than 100 years earlier, a horrific US Army massacre of 300 Native Americans had taken place). The response of the US government was to launch a paramilitary attack in which two residents were killed. The stand-off lasted 71 days, before the government promised to investigate the residents' complaints. It was another promise made to Native Americans that was never kept.
In the aftermath of the Wounded Knee occupation, the reservation authorities outlawed the AIM and banned traditional ceremonies and practices. A reign of terror was instigated, in which thugs known as Guardians of the Oglala Nation (literally spelled GOON), attempted to drive out all opponents of the pro-government reservation leaders. Between 1973 and 1976, more than 60 "traditionalists" were murdered. The FBI refused to investigate these deaths and continued to arm the GOONs with weapons and information in order to prevent AIM again gaining a foothold at Pine Ridge.
In desperation, Pine Ridge residents again appealed for AIM activists to help them defend themselves. Leonard Peltier was among the dozens of militants who responded. The traditional people, many of whom were elderly, feared for their lives. AIM provided support such as cutting fire wood, collecting water and preparing meals, as well as offering protection from attacks by GOONs. AIM activists were armed for their own protection.
On June 26, 1975, two unmarked cars chased a red truck onto the Jumping Bull ranch at Pine Ridge, the home of a number of families being defended by AIM. It later emerged that the cars were driven by FBI agents, who were supposedly chasing a person accused of the heinous crime of stealing cowboy boots. The agents opened fire on the ranch and its residents, who fired back in self defense. Within minutes, more than 150 FBI SWAT team members, Bureau of Indian Affairs police and GOONs had surrounded the ranch and a fierce, largely one-sided fire-fight erupted.
When the smoke cleared, AIM member Joe Killsright Stuntz and two FBI agents were found shot dead. Miraculously, Peltier and the other people in the camp escaped. Following the largest hunt in FBI history, three AIM activists, Dino Butler, Robert Robideaux and Leonard Peltier were charged with the murder of the agents. However, Robideaux and Butler were tried in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the jury found them not guilty of murder because they had simply returned fire in self-defense when fired upon by unknown assailants.
Meanwhile, Peltier had escaped to Canada knowing that he would never get a fair trial in the US, that is if he wasn't gunned down by the FBI first. He was captured in Canada on February 6, 1976. The US government presented the Canadian court with affidavits signed by a woman claiming to be Peltier's companion, who claimed that she had seen Peltier shoot the FBI agents. This was a blatant lie. The woman had never met Peltier and she was not present at Pine Ridge during the shoot-out. She later revealed that the FBI forced her to sign the lies written for her by the FBI.
Peltier was tried before an all-white jury in North Dakota, before a hostile judge who refused to allow use of the self-defense argument. The FBI created a climate of fear around the proceedings in an attempt to convince the jurors that Peltier was a terrorist. The government withheld evidence that pointed to his innocence. This evidence was finally released from FBI files seven years later under the Freedom of Information Act.
Prosecutor Lynn Crook failed to produce a single witness who could identify Peltier as the shooter, and concealed ballistics reports that showed that Peltier's rifle could not be linked to shell casings found near the scene. Yet in his summation, Crook accused Peltier of firing the fatal bullets that killed the agents. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Seventeen years later, in November 1992, Crook admitted to the court reviewing Peltier's case, "We don't know who killed the agents."
Despite Crook's admission, and even though the appeals court found that Peltier may have been acquitted had evidence not been improperly withheld by the FBI, a new trial was denied.
In 2000, US President Bill Clinton stated that he was considering Peltier's request for clemency. However, the FBI launched a massive disinformation campaign, which included a march by more than 500 FBI agents outside the White House in December 2000. Peltier's name was not among those granted clemency by Clinton a month later.
Peltier may become eligible for parole in 2008, but it will be fought tooth and nail by the FBI and other powerful forces who want to keep this inspiring liberation fighter silent. The US authorities continue to make life difficult for Peltier and his supporters. On June 30, he was suddenly transferred from Leavenworth prison in Kansas to Terre Haute in Indiana. His lawyers were not informed and he has been kept in solitary confinement for more than month.
Yet no matter how hard they try, such repression cannot keep Peltier silent, as Harvey Arden's brilliant tribute shows.
If you would like to know more, visit http://www.leonardpeltier.org, where Peltier's prison writing in book form can be purchased. Peter Matthiessen's classic In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (Penguin Books) is well worth searching out, as is the documentary Incident at Oglala, produced by Robert Redford.
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