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Leonard Peltier

Oppressed by the System Or Betrayed by His Friends?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, December 20, 2000.

There are many oral Rorschach tests that recently introduced people give each other to ascertain what conversation topics are open for discussion between them. Recently, of course, the Presidential election serves the bill. This is because if you know someone was for Bush, chances are you know that person's feelings on abortion and many other social issues. In the previous centuries, your views on Aaron Burr, George Custer, Emma Goldman, and Martin Luther King served the same purpose.

A quarter century ago, almost, Leonard Peltier was a lightening rod for polarizing the nation. He was a member of AIM, the American Indian movement, whose two biggest names, Dennis Banks and Russell Means, were probably of interest to law enforcement beyond the norm. Means is now an actor, in a complete irony. He starred in Last of the Mohicans as, well, the last of the Mohicans. Oh course, Fennimore Cooper and the movie were wrong. The Mohicans exist yet. That mythical event can serve as a metaphor for all discussions about native Americans.

Peltier was different, though. A punk kid, Peltier was never as important to history or tribe as many have claimed. Peltier was an Oglala Sioux accused of killing two FBI agents after they pulled over his car. Two others were arrested, tried, freed. He ran to Canada, the traditional Sioux place of safety in the land of the Grandmother, but he was arrested and sent back, also a standard event. This issue, a direct descendent of the Custer syndrome, clarified the political positions of everyone when they discussed it. If you thought Peltier was guilty, you were a war mongering imperialist lusting for burnt babies in Vietnam and the continued genocide waged against indigenous peoples and nuclear war against the Russkies. If you thought he was innocent, you were a milk-dribbling, cowardly, traitorous drug-addicted commie homo. As I recall, neither side was entirely wrong, but the absurd positioning by symbol made any intelligent discussion of the issue almost impossible.

Yesterday night, people urged the Boulder City Council to exert some pressure to get Peltier pardoned by the President before he leaves office. They say, in effect, that Peltier was lynched, innocent, and a political prisoner. Earlier this week, hundreds of FBI agents protested any reduction in sentence for Peltier. The issues fires may have been banked, but they are still there.

Is Peltier guilty? Who knows. Unfortunately, the FBI has not covered itself with glory in the decades since, and there is more than enough reason to doubt the Bureau's word at face value on virtually any subject. It is too big, too powerful, and too paranoid to be entirely sane as an institution. However, Leonard Peltier is not and was not Jimmy Stewart caught in the crossfire, utterly innocent. If Peltier did not do it, he knows who did and took part in the episode. In most states, the man who knowingly drives the getaway car for the hit man is as guilty as the one who pulled the trigger. It is hard to believe that Peltier, triggerman or not, did not take part in the double murder of two wounded FBI men. Since there was no conceivable upside, political or otherwise, to such an act, it is likely that those who committed such an act did it because they wanted to kill. On the other hand, there seems to be no conclusive evidence other than the word of the FBI or their witnesses, who we are told were coerced by the Bureau. Like the Seventh Cavalry a hundred years previous, perhaps the FBI simply wanted to hammer the uppity Sioux for deaths of their own. They could get Peltier and settled for him.

The problem here is that those who hold definite opinions on Peltier tend to hold definite and black and white opinions about native Americans and the government's treatment of them. Many feel that since Europeans caused the deaths of millions of indigenous people, we should throw them a bone and let Peltier out, as a symbol. Even though we now know that today's native Americans are not the first Americans, and that they were as vicious, wasteful, and belligerent as the people who conquered them - just not as organized - the theory holds that the Native Americans are owed, and that releasing Peltier would be a gracious symbol. It is similar to the feelings about O. J. Simpson. Sure, he did it, and now there is one high profile black American who got away with murder which somehow overpowers in memory all the white people who enslaved, raped, and lynched blacks throughout our history and got away with it even if they went to trial. Peltier slaughtered two armed antagonists on Indian land and he goes to prison. Who is in jail for slaughtering all the native Americans? Who ever was? Chivington died a free man.

This is an issue, which is not what the Peltier supporters want to hear. They want us to think: here is a man, innocent, and imprisoned. The FBI wants us to recall two different men.

The problem is that in burdening Peltier with all the political baggage accumulated since the Civil War, his supporters have made it impossible for Peltier to be seen as a man. The law cannot dispense justice to an issue, but only to people. The horror is, it is Peltier's friends who have stripped him of his personhood in their political usage of him. It will be very hard for them to overcome their own previous actions trying to face down the FBI, who are very clear and consistent in their view. The FBI wanted to nail Peltier as a symbol, if nothing else. The Peltier supporters want him free, since the issues have changed and he is no longer an effective tool. It is hard to say whose actions have affected Leonard Peltier more adversely: his own, his enemies', or his friends'.