Published on March 2, 2011 by Carol
Leonard Peltier, a citizen of the Anishinabe and Lakota Nations, is a father, a grandfather, an artist, a writer, and an Indigenous rights activist. He has spent more than twenty-seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Amnesty International considers him a “political prisoner” who should be “immediately and unconditionally released.”
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To the international community, the case of Leonard Peltier is a stain on America’s Human Rights record. Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Dalai Lama, the European Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and Rev. Jesse Jackson are only a few who have called for his freedom. To many Indigenous Peoples, Leonard Peltier is a symbol of the long history of abuse and repression they have endured. The National Congress of American Indians and the Assembly of First Nations, representing the majority of First Nations in the U.S. and Canada, have repeatedly called for Leonard Peltier’s freedom.
Leonard Peltier is 58 years old and was born on the Anishinabe (Chippewa) Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He came from a large family of 13 brothers and sisters. He grew up in poverty, and survived many traumatic experiences resulting from U.S. government policies aimed to assimilate Native Peoples.
At the age of eight he was taken from his family and sent to a residential boarding school for Native people run by the US Government. There, the students were forbidden to speak their languages and they suffered both physical and psychological abuses.
As a teenager Leonard Peltier returned to live with his father at the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. It was one of three reservations, which the United States Government chose as the testing ground for its new termination policy. The policy forced Native families off their reservations and into the cities. The resulting protests and demonstrations by tribal members introduced Leonard Peltier to Native resistance through activism and organizing.
During one particularly difficult winter on the Turtle Mountain Reservation Leonard Peltier recollects protests by his people to the Bureau of Indian Affairs about the desperate lack of food. (The termination policy withdrew federal assistance, including food, from those who remained 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.
As he grew older, he began traveling with his father as a migrant farm worker. While following the harvests, they stayed at different reservations. During this time, he came to learn that policies of relocation, poverty, and racism were endemic issues affecting tribes across the U.S.
In 1965, Leonard Peltier moved to Seattle, Washington, where he 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. During the same period, he was also active in the founding of a Native halfway house for ex-prisoners. 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.
In the late 1960′s and early 1970′s Leonard Peltier began traveling to different Native communities. He spent a lot of time in Washington and Wisconsin and was working as a welder, carpenter, and community counselor for Native people. In the course of his work he became involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) and eventually joined the Denver Colorado chapter. In Denver, he worked as a community counselor confronting unemployment, alcohol problems and poor housing. He became strongly involved in the spiritual and traditional programs of AIM.
Leonard Peltier’s participation in the American Indian Movement led to his involvement in the 1972 Trail of broken Treaties which took him to Washington D.C., in the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building.
Eventually his AIM involvement would bring him to assist the Oglala Lakota People of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the mid 1970′s. On Pine Ridge he participated in the planning of community activities, religious ceremonies, programs for self-sufficiency, and improved living conditions. He also helped to organize security for the traditional people who were being targeted for violence by the pro-assimilation tribal chairman and his vigilantes. It was here that the tragic shoot-out of June 26, 1975 occurred, leading to his wrongful conviction.
Despite the harsh conditions of imprisonment, Leonard Peltier has continued to lead an active life.
From behind bars, he has helped to establish scholarships for Native students and special programs for Indigenous youth. He has served on the advisory board of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, and has sponsored children in Central America. He has donated to battered women’s shelters, organized the annual Christmas drive for the people of Pine Ridge Reservation, and promoted prisoner art programs.
He has also established himself as a talented artist, using oils to paint portraits of his people, portraying their cultures and histories. He has written poetry and prose from prison, and recently completed a moving biography titled Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance (St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1999).
Leonard Peltier credits his ability to endure his circumstances to his spiritual practices and the love and support from his family and supporters.