The President of the United States grants clemency every November to a turkey, while 46 million other members of that bird’s species are slaughtered, to “celebrate” the ongoing genocide of 100 million Native Americans, including American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier, who was wrongfully imprisoned 44 years ago for murders he did not commit.
Rather than following the White House tradition of “pardoning” a turkey destined for a thanksgiving dinner table, shouldn’t the American President extend that courtesy instead to some of the thousands of human beings caged up in America’s federal prisons? And rather than continuing to make another routine charade of this presidential power, he should use this privilege to provide clemency to Leonard Peltier.
Coinciding with the American Thanksgiving holiday, 2015 will mark the 50th National Day of Mourning for many Native Americans; an annual event meant to honor ancestors that were murdered at the hands of the European invasion, and expose the bloody history behind the November holiday.
Despite popular belief, Thanksgiving is a day rooted in the homecoming celebration of colonists returning safely from raids and massacres against Native American villages. The term itself was coined by wealthy Puritan Governor John Winthrop following a “successful” massacre of 700 women and children of the Pequot Nation in 1637. A “Thanksgiving” was in-turn observed to celebrate the war party’s safe return.
While we might teach our children that the holiday is about unity and peace, nothing could be further from the truth. While Natives and Pilgrims did share one quaint meal on one occasion, that meal has nothing at all to do with the annual “Thanksgiving holiday” nor its reference to marauding colonists. The Native Americans haven’t forgotten, hence the National Day of Mourning observed each year at Plymouth Rock.
In addition to “Thanksgiving,” the newer but equally insulting and redundant exposition of “turkey pardoning” comes as a supreme insult to the Native Americans. Not only will America continue an observance as historically misunderstood as it is brutal, but the President of the nation will openly mock his ability to free the people who are in the most desperate need of it.
No one deserves a Presidential pardon more than Leonard.
Leonard Peltier was born on 12 September 1944 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. As a descendant of the Anishinabe, Dakota, and Lakota Nations, he traces the roots of his activism to the rampant discrimination and vicious poverty that were inseparable from daily existence as an Indian child growing up on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Fort Totten Sioux reservations in North Dakota. To adequately appraise the circumstances of Leonard’s incarceration, it is paramount to understand the conditions of Indian Reservations at the time his life took a turn for the worst.
In 1943 the United States Senate conducted a survey of the state of Indian affairs. Living conditions on reservations were found to be appalling, and severe poverty was commonplace. The Senate found The Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal bureaucracy to be at fault due to extreme financial mismanagement. But instead of investigating, the government instead chose a policy that would terminate the recognition of 109 tribes by 1964—effecting 12,000 Native Americans in turn forcing thousands more Natives from lands that had sustained their tribes for generations, into metropolitan centers.
The Klamaths who owned valuable timber property in Oregon and the Agua Caliente, who owned the land around Palm Springs were some of the first tribes to be affected by the U.S. government’s new “Termination Policy.” These lands, rich in resources, were taken over by the Federal Government. Approximately 2,500,000 acres of trust land was removed from protected status and sold off to non-Indians as tribes lost official recognition. Thus the dire poverty that so troubled Natives on reservations in 1943 grew far worse as the meager amends allotted to tribal members was greatly diminished, and a long chronology of Indian Eradication marched ever onward.
It was at this time that Leonard was growing into a teenager. With his father, he attended meetings on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota to discuss the government’s decision – Turtle Mountain was one of three reservations which the U.S. Government chose as the testing ground for their new Termination Policy.
Leonard recalls an Ojibwa cousin of his standing up angrily and asking in a loud, emotional, tear-filled voice, “Where are our warriors? Why don’t they stand up and fight for their starving people?”
Remembering that moment, Peltier later said, “That sent electric vibrations from my scalp all the way down my spine to the soles of my feet! It was like a revelation to me — that there was actually something worthwhile you could do with your life, something more important than living your own selfish little life day by day. Yes, there was something more important than your poor miserable self: your People. You could actually stand up and fight for them… and as I would come to see in later years, all Indian people, all Indigenous People, all human beings of good heart. I vowed right then and there that I would become a warrior and that I’d always work to help my people. It’s a vow I’ve done my best to keep.”
During one particularly difficult winter on the Turtle Mountain Reservation protests against the Bureau of Indian Affairs became particularly fierce due to the desperate lack of food, as the termination policy withdrew federal assistance, including food, from those who chose to ignore the government decision and remain on their land. Following these protests, B.I.A. social workers came to the reservation to investigate the situation. Leonard Peltier and one of the organizers on the reservation went from household to household before the arrival of the investigating party to tell the local people to hide what little food they had. When he got to the first house, he found that there was no food to hide and the same story was repeated in each of the households that he went to. This experience awakened him to the desperate situation for all people on his reservation, and the resulting protests and demonstrations by tribal members introduced Leonard Peltier to Native resistance.
From that point, Peltier lived his life for his People, doing what he could to help. He protested for fishing rights in the Northwest, helped found a Native halfway house for ex-prisoners, and worked for several years as part owner of an auto body shop which he used to employ Native people and to provide low-cost automobile repairs for those who needed it. His community volunteer work included Native Land Claim issues, alcohol counseling, and participation in protests concerning the preservation of Native land within the city of Seattle.
But his first real experience with confronting the might of the U.S. Government was his participation in the 1970 peaceful takeover of the abandoned Fort Lawton, outside Seattle, Washington. The Fort was on “surplus” federal land to which the Indians were granted first right under the law.
Faced with government machine guns and flamethrowers, the protestors were taken into custody. Peltier and the other Natives were beaten by law enforcement repeatedly from the time of their arrest to the moment they were caged in their cells. When finally released, Peltier refused to leave the Army stockade until all the other protestors had been freed.
Ultimately, the Indian’s challenge was successful. Today, Fort Lawton is an Indian cultural center.
After Fort Lawton, Peltier traveled the country where, in Colorado, he joined the American Indian Movement (AIM).
“AIM was born out of [the] turmoil [of “termination”]… The attempt to destroy us had only made us stronger, more aware, more dedicated. Every single one of us was willing to lay down our life for our cause, which was the very survival of Indian peoples…The growth of the Indian movement and the history of AIM are intertwined with my personal history… We found our inspiration and our strategy in the example and message of AIM leaders such as Dennis Banks, John Trudell, Russell Means, Eddie Benton-Banai, and Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt — all imperfect men, no doubt, yet men whose vision and bravery and fiery, even incendiary, words gave voice to a whole generation of Indian activists, myself included.”
In 1973 the Wounded Knee occupation marked the beginning of a three-year period of political violence on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The tribal chairman hired vigilante teams self-proclaimed as “GOONS,” to rid the reservation of American Indian Movement (AIM) activity and sentiment. More than 60 traditional tribal members and AIM members were murdered, and scores more were assaulted. Evidence indicated GOON responsibility in the majority of crimes but despite a large FBI presence, the U.S. Government did nothing to stop the violence. Instead, the FBI supplied the GOONS with weapons, ammunition, and intelligence on AIM members, and ignored the violent criminal fallout that resulted.
By this time Leonard Peltier was an AIM leader, and was asked by the traditional people at Pine Ridge to support and protect those being targeted by the mercenaries. Peltier and a small group of young AIM members set up camp on a ranch owned by the traditional Jumping Bull family, setting the stage for an event that would not only go down in history as one of the darkest days in Native American history, but a day that would change Leonard Peltier’s life forever.
On June 26, 1975 two FBI agents in civilian clothes driving unmarked cars followed a pick-up truck onto the Jumping Bull ranch. Fearing another attack from the local mercenaries, local families immediately sounded the alarm and a shoot-out erupted. It’s unclear who fired the first shots, but when the initial firefight ended, two FBI agents and one Native American lay dead, culminating into a nationwide manhunt, as more than 150 agents, GOONS, and law enforcement surrounded the ranch. While the deaths of the FBI agents were thoroughly investigated, the Native American, Joseph Stuntz, who was shot in the head by a sniper’s bullet, has never been investigated, nor has anyone ever been charged in connection with his death.
According to FBI documents, more than 40 Native Americans participated in the gunfight, but only AIM members Bob Robideau, Darrell Butler, and Leonard Peltier were brought to trial.
Mr. Robideau and Mr. Butler were arrested first and sent to trial. A federal jury in Iowa acquitted them on grounds of self-defense, finding that their participation in the shoot-out was justified given the climate of fear and violence that existed on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and further, that they could not be tied to the close-range shootings.
Leonard Peltier, who had fled to Canada, was arrested on February 6, 1976. The U.S. Government wanted to try Peltier for the death of the two FBI agents, but had to legal extradite him from Canada to do so. So, to justify the extradition, the United States Government presented the Canadian court with affidavits signed by one, Myrtle Poor Bear who said she was Mr. Peltier’s girlfriend and allegedly saw him shoot the agents despite the fact that Ms. Poor Bear had never met Peltier and was not present during the shoot-out. Soon after, Ms. Poor Bear recanted her statements, asserting that the FBI had threatened her and coerced her into signing the false affidavits.
Mr. Peltier was thus extradited to the United States where he was tried in 1977. Every aspect of the trail was rigged against Leonard.
The trial was held in North Dakota before United States District Judge Paul Benson, a conservative jurist appointed to the federal bench by Richard M. Nixon. Key witnesses like Myrtle Poor Bear were not allowed to testify and unlike the Robideau/Butler trial in Iowa, physical evidence regarding the event on Pine Ridge was severely restricted.
An FBI agent who had previously testified that the agents followed a pick-up truck onto the scene – a vehicle that could not be tied to Mr. Peltier – changed his account, stating that the agents had followed a red and white van onto the scene, a vehicle which Mr. Peltier drove occasionally.
Three teenaged Native witnesses testified against Mr. Peltier, all later admitting that the FBI forced them to testify, and still, not one witness had positively identified Mr. Peltier as the shooter.
The U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case claimed that the government had provided the defense with all FBI documents concerning the case. To the contrary, more than 140,000 pages had been withheld in their entirety.
An FBI ballistics expert testified that a casing found near the agents’ bodies matched the gun tied to Mr. Peltier. However, a ballistic test proving that the casing did not come from the gun tied to Mr. Peltier was intentionally concealed.
The jury, unaware of the aforementioned facts, found Mr. Peltier guilty. He was convicted for the deaths of the two FBI agents and Judge Benson, in turn, sentenced Mr. Peltier to two consecutive life terms – a sentence he is serving to this very day, 38 years later.
Leonard Peltier is now an imprisoned Native American considered by Amnesty International, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and the Dalai Lama, among many others, to be a political prisoner whose release should be immediate.
Following the discovery of new evidence obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Mr. Peltier sought a new trial. The Eighth Circuit ruled, “There is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government’s case.” Yet, the court denied Mr. Peltier a new trial.
During oral argument, the government attorney conceded that the government does not know who shot the agents, stating that Mr. Peltier is equally guilty whether he shot the agents at point-blank range, or participated in the shoot-out from a distance. Mr. Peltier’s co-defendants participated in the shoot-out from a distance, but were acquitted.
Judge Heaney, who authored the decision denying a new trial, has since voiced firm support for Mr. Peltier’s release, stating that the FBI used improper tactics to convict him and that the FBI was equally responsible for the shoot-out.
Today, Leonard suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, and a heart condition. Time for justice is short.
Despite his imprisonment, which poses numerous barriers, Mr. Peltier has made remarkable contributions to humanitarian and charitable causes. He has found ways of getting people from different tribes, with a history of animosity, to come together in peace. He advocates for peaceful resolution of all issues that deal with Native Americans and respect for the rights of others.
He has worked with Dr. Steward Selkin on a pilot program on the Rosebud Reservation, the Leonard Peltier Health Care Reform Package, to document needs and requirements for delivery and care. The ultimate intent of the program is to fundamentally alter health care delivery on reservations throughout the U.S.
He has worked with Professor Jeffery Timmons on a program to stimulate reservation-based economics and investments in Native American business enterprises, including a component to teach business ownership and operation to the young people of First Nations.
In 1992, He established a scholarship at New York University for Native American students seeking law degrees. He also was instrumental in the establishment and funding of a Native American newspaper by and for Native young people in Washington State. In addition to having supported two of his grandchildren from prison, Leonard Peltier has also sponsored two children through ChildReach, one in El Salvador and the other in Guatemala. Every year, he sponsors a Christmas gift drive for the children of Pine Ridge and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Peltier also serves as an honorary member of the Board of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and on the honorary advisory committee for the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign.
He has organized an emergency food drive for the people of Pohlo, Mexico, in response to the Acteal Massacre. He also frequently contributes to Head Start programs and domestic violence shelters to help address funding shortfalls.
Peltier has helped several Indian prisoners rehabilitate themselves by advocating a drug-and alcohol-free lifestyle while encouraging pride and knowledge in their culture and traditions, and works to develop prisoner art programs thereby increasing prisoners’ self-confidence.
Leonard Peltier has been widely recognized for his humanitarian works, winning honors including but not limited to: 1986 Human Rights Commission of Spain International Human Rights Prize; 1993 North Star Frederick Douglas Award; 2003 Federation of Labour (Ontario, Canada) Humanist of the Year Award; 2004 Silver Arrow Award for Lifetime Achievement; 2009 First Red Nation Humanitarian Award; 2010 Kwame Ture Lifetime Achievement Award; 2010 Fighters for Justice Award; and 2011 Mario Benedetti Foundation (Uruguay) – First International Human Rights Prize.
In 1999, Leonard Peltier’s memoir was published — “Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance” (St. Martin’s Press).
The work received wide acclaim and attracted the attention of luminaries such as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. As a result, the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for Peltier to be freed and France’s former First Lady Danielle Mitterand — then president of the French human rights organization, France Libertés — also called for the release of Leonard Peltier.
Editor Harvey Arden said, “Leonard Peltier’s powerful memoir, a Native American spiritual testament, will shake the conscience of the nation… and the world. It’s a flaming arrow aimed at the circled wagons of American injustice.”
In 2009, for the sixth consecutive year, Leonard Peltier also was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Leonard Peliter was an activist scapegoated for a complex culmination of circumstances in South Dakota. His trial was a mockery, the evidence used to convict him does not exist, and evidence that proved his innocence was ignored. 39 years later, organizations and individuals the world over continue to demand clemency for Leonard, because the only hope he has at this point is a presidential pardon. Beings as Obama is nearing the sunset of his second term, the next year constitutes Leonard’s last hope of receiving the freedom he deserves in time enough to enjoy what life he has left.
Four decades after our government locked up an innocent man, isn’t it time to right this wrong?
Kiriakou concludes: “With his presidency coming to a close and Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s the perfect time for Obama to offer a gesture to help make amends with our nation’s original people. Instead of pardoning a turkey, he should pardon Leonard Peltier instead.”
If a path to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst. It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society, and if we fail to remember our history we’re doomed to repeat it. But as yet another Thanksgiving approaches it should be our goal to right the wrongs of atrocities gone by instead of continuing to mindlessly celebrate the genocide of Native American peoples. This doesn’t mean we sulk off and pout over our guilt or make a public display of our collective shame and self-loathing. It simply means we endeavor to stop doing harm.
As the 46th National Day of Mourning beckons, let’s ask ourselves what the adult thing to do is. Should we defend the lie and celebrate the extermination of a hundred million human beings by eating turkey and watching football? For most of us, national holidays like Thanksgiving are the only times we have to settle down from our wage slave jobs and enjoy time with our families, but reaffirming an archaic celebration of genocide is not the solution. If we never have time to see our families but for a few fleeting evenings during the holiday season, perhaps it’s time we rethink our relationship to the American Empire and analyze why the ownership class allow us so few moments of uninterrupted peace with our loved ones.
If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst. For Native Americans, the idea of celebrating Thanksgiving is tantamount to Jewish peoples celebrating Hitler’s birthday in April.
Does that seem like an exaggeration? It’s an understatement.
While Hitler’s were undoubtedly among the most evil acts ever committed by human hands on Earth, they pale in comparison to those of other dictators throughout history. If we simply analyze the numbers, we see that Hitler murdered somewhere between 10 and 16 million people he deemed unworthy of existence. Numbers like that are difficult to comprehend, but we can at least try to fathom what 16 million people looks like – what the loss of 16 million people feels like – can’t we?
16 million people seems like a lot, but what then are we to make of Joseph Stalin, who killed 40 million people through similar means? He had concentration camps as well, after all. Stalin was directly responsible for the violent deaths of three to four times as many human beings as Hitler. But when we think of the iconic symbol of evil, few of us think of Stalin’s face.
And what about Mao Zedong in China? Estimates of his killing spree top out at round 100 million human beings. Surely, the murder of 100 million people is indisputably more grotesque than the murder of 16 million, isn’t it? So why then is Hitler our symbol of evil in the west?
There is no doubt that he was evil, but by statistical merit, isn’t Stalin more sinister? -wouldn’t we consider the crimes of Mao to be significantly more monstrous than those of Hitler?
By this measure, no empire is more murderous than the Anglo-American world Empire. Between the genocide of the Native Americans and the transit deaths of African slaves across the Altantic, America murdered more than 300 million human beings. That means that America is responsible for the violent deaths of three times as many people as Maoist China, and that’s without including America’s long history of illegal wars. In 239 years of existence America has been at war for 218 of those years – barely two decades of intermittent peace throughout two-and-a-half centuries of history. And yet, despite all of this, we think of America as that shining city on a hill where the edicts of freedom and democracy dwell, while Hitler remains our idea of evil — a man, by the way, whose rise to power was financed and supplied by American and British corporations. Hitler would never have risen to power if it weren’t for Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the Bush family’s Union Banking Cartel, IBM’s punch card system for categorizing Germany’s “human inventory”, IG Farben’s chemical weapons, Rothchild Bank loans, and many other logistical supports. So I’ll ask again – why exactly is Hitler our symbol of evil in the west? What more do we need to have happen on this planet for the majority to understand that the power behind the throne is more powerful than the throne itself?
Is it possible for us to break this cycle, or will we look on as another turkey pardoning transpires at the White House at the hands of a black president as the oppressed remnants of Native nations observe another national day of mourning – as Native activist Leonard Peltier rots in an American prison? If there’s a path to the better, it starts with a thorough look at the worst, and the unjust imprisonment of Leonard Peltier stands as one of the worst ongoing crimes of the American Empire, worsened by the ridiculous charade of turkey pardoning, among the death of 46 million turkeys to celebrate the theft of America from 100 million Native Americans.
Call the White House comment line and demand that Leonard be freed, at (202) 456-1111
Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity.
But silence is impossible.
Silence is a message,
just as doing nothing is an act.
Let who you are ring out and resonate
in every word and every deed.
Yes, become who you are.
There’s no sidestepping your own being
or your own responsibility.
What you do is who you are.
You are your own comeuppance.
You become your own message.
You are the message.
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,
This article was a collaboration between Alexandria “Rain” Smith and Gabrielle Lafayette
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