We thank you for this world.
We thank you for our own existence.
and for your instruction.
The above prayer is published at the beginning of Leonard Peltier’s book, Prison Writings: My Life Is A Sun Dance. President Clinton will be announcing his decision on the Clemency-Freedom of Leonard Peltier before he leaves office on January 20. The following article by Louise Erdich and words from Leonard Peltier show the true light of this man and the importance of a pardon for humanitarian reasons and a healing for all the races of humankind. The second item are excerpts taken from Prison Writings. Please call the White House Comment Line on weekdays and support the cry for freedom and justice in America, before it is too late.
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1) A Time for Human Rights on Native Ground
December 29, 2000
A Time for Human Rights on Native Ground
By LOUISE ERDICH
MINNEAPOLIS – In 1977, fresh out of Dartmouth College’s Native American program, I got a job in Fargo, N.D. I worked only blocks from the federal court building, and one day, from my window, I saw a crowd collect near the courtroom entrance. I walked over to see what was happening and spotted a few friends I had grown up with in Wahpeton, N.D.
My political leanings were all surface, consisting mainly of fashion statements. During the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee and the subsequent murderous climate on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, in which more than 60 Native people and two F.B.I. agents were killed, I had been trying to get good grades.
Now, here were my friends dressed in flamboyant vests, beads and black hats hung with eagle feathers. I, too, wore a hat, a brown Italian fedora, only my feather was a blue macaw’s. On the basis of our hats, rather than any political awareness, I joined the crowd entering the court building and became immediately drawn into the trial of Leonard Peltier.
I changed the hours in my job so that I could sit through the trial and listen carefully until at last the cases were presented. Once I’d heard it all, I was confident that not one scintilla of hard evidence linked Mr. Peltier to the murders of F.B.I. agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. When the jury came back with a guilty verdict I remember extreme shock, a surprise so visceral that I jumped up, shouted, and then found myself quietly weeping in the swirl of subsequent chaos. I had, then, no personal connection with Mr. Peltier. I was not persuaded of his innocence, but that was not the point. I was positive that on the basis of what I’d heard in court that there was reasonable doubt as to his guilt and that he should not have been convicted. My horror was for the United States judicial system.
The court system had been influenced, as had I, by the black hats and the feathers and the aura of paranoia. Only to me, these things were attractive. To others, the mood at the back of the courtroom and the drum beating in the street outside were threatening. No one at the time was capable of impartiality, or dedicated to discovering the truth.
Here are a few truths. There is no exact forensic evidence that links the rifle said to have been carried by Mr. Peltier to the weapon that caused the fatal injuries. There was no witness to the shooting of the F.B.I. agents. The young witnesses who placed Mr. Peltier, along with some 30 other people, in the vicinity of the crime scene have since insisted that they were coerced and intimidated by the F.B.I.
Subsequently, it appears that the F.B.I. sought to avenge the murders on the only person who could still be brought to trial after everyone else involved in the fatal episode was acquitted, by withholding and manipulating critical evidence.
During the next few weeks, President Clinton has an opportunity to demonstrate to Native American people and to the world that our country practices some of what it preaches about human rights. By extending clemency to Leonard Peltier, Mr. Clinton could make an enormous gesture of reparation and healing. Mr. Peltier’s release is urged by the European Parliament, Amnesty International, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights; by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Dalai Lama; as well as Canada’s Assembly of First Nations, not to mention Native rights groups and ordinary citizens throughout the United States. As long as Leonard Peltier is imprisoned, our country’s relationship with its Native people is stained by ongoing dishonor, and our own human rights statements are undermined by hypocrisy.
After the Peltier trial, I immersed myself in writing and then motherhood. Having experienced some of the hysteria and hatreds of those times, I was ambivalent about Mr. Peltier and the attendant posturing of other leaders of the American Indian Movement. I was not a knee- jerk defense committee member, although I am a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, as is Leonard Peltier. But I was haunted because of the high degree of reasonable doubt that existed in the evidence against him. Eventually, I wrote to Leonard Peltier.
He is not a killer and never was. How do I know this? Because of the person he has become. Leonard Peltier lives, physically half-destroyed, in Leavenworth Prison. He is 56 years old, and he has suffered a stroke and a jaw condition that left him in unalleviated pain. Everything has been stripped away from him. He is transparent now; 24 years in prison do that. There is no rage, there is no blame in him. If his life were based upon two murders, he could not have grown, as he has, into a spiritual force, a person of true humility and gentle humor. I believe the only way he could have survived is on the strength of his innocence.
Last summer, I walked my grandfather’s Turtle Mountain land, side- stepping wild prairie roses, flicking off wood ticks, snapping the dry tall stems of sage into a bundle I would wrap and keep through the winter. As I walked, the evening sun blazed beneath a low cloud and lighted all I saw with a shivering golden fire. I felt in that moment the vast blessing of my own freedom, and took out a letter I’d recently received from Leonard. Words are the soul to me, so I neatly folded the letter and buried it, there, in his home ground.
Leonard Peltier has paid a terrible price for all that the American Indian Movement was blamed for during the late 1970’s. While other AIM leaders have trekked to Hollywood, married, remarried, traveled first-class around the world and reaped the rewards of notoriety, Mr. Peltier has paid. He has paid for our nation’s savagery at Wounded Knee in 1890 and 1973, and for the shame of the F.B.I.’s treatment of Pine Ridge people. He has paid for the violence of the AIM “warriors” who trashed government offices, strutted, mugged, brandished weapons and used them. He has paid the debt for whoever actually did commit those murders. He has paid every day for 24 years. He has paid enough.
It is time to let him go home.
Louise Erdrich is the author of the forthcoming novel, “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.”
2) Excerpts from Leonard Peltier’s book
Published by St. Martins Press, NYC 1999
The time has come for me to write, to set forth in words my personal testament– not because I’m planning to die, but because I’m planning to live. This is the twenty-fourth year of my imprisonment for a crime I did not commit. I’m now just over fifty-four years old. I’ve been in here since I was thirty-one. I’ve been told I must live two lifetimes plus seven years before I get out of prison on my scheduled release date in the year 2041. I don’t think I’ll make it. I feel like I’ve lived a hundred lifetimes in prison already. And maybe I have. If my imprisonment does nothing more than educate an unknowing and uncaring public about the terrible conditions Native Americans and all indigenous people around the world continue to endure, then my suffering has has had–and continues to have–a purpose. I know this. My life has a meaning. I believe Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery of which we are all a part, has shaped each of our lives for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is. Maybe I’ll never know. But you don’t have to know the meaning of life to know that life has a meaning.
I acknowledge my inadequacies as a spokesman and my many imperfections as a human being. And yet, as the Elders taught me, speaking out is my first duty, my first obligation to myself and to my people. To speak your mind and heart is Indian Way. This book is my own personal testament as best as I’ve been able to set it down under the circumstances. It was written down on a thousand scraps of paper in the eternal half-light of my prison nights. Each page catches my frame of mind–and heart–at some crucial moment. In truth, to a man in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, every moment is crucial.
It was never my intention in this life to become a symbol, a focus for the sufferings of my people. But all of my people are suffering, so I’m in no way special in that regard. You must understand… I am ordinary. Painfully ordinary. This isn’t modesty. This is fact. Maybe you’re ordinary too. That ordinariness is our bond, you and I. The Creator made us this way. Imperfect. Inadequate. Ordinary. Be thankful you weren’t cursed with perfection. If you were perfect, there’d be nothing for you to achieve with your life. Imperfection is the source of every action. This is both our curse and our blessing as human beings. Our very imperfection makes a holy life possible. We’re not supposed to be perfect. We’re supposed to be useful.
Someday the true reasons for their ill-conceived assault, what really was going on, will come out. The answer or answers, if they haven’t already been shredded, may lie in those 6,000+ FBI documents they admit having withheld to this day, both from us and from the American public, on grounds of “national security.” Lately, I understand, they claim those documents have been “lost.” Certainly it was no accident that the day before the gunfight at Oglala, the head of the nontraditional tribal government was signing over to the federal government one-eighth of the Pine Ridge reservation, an area reputedly rich in uranium deposits.
Many of us believe that the shoot-out at Oglala was specifically intended as a diversion to conceal that illegal deal, which wasn’t revealed to the public for nearly a year. The public furor over the death of the two agents also scotched a planned Congressional investigation of what had happened at Wounded Knee Two in 1973 and the subsequent Reign of Terror on Pine Ridge that led to the Oglala firefight on June 26, 1975.
The FBI’s later assertion that we ambushed its agents makes no sense. We had women cooking, kids playing outside, all of our belongings, clothing and personal items left behind. In fact, we now know (again, through the Freedom of Information Act) that one month prior to the firefight at Oglala, the FBI had issued an internal memo concerning “paramilitary law-enforcement operations” on the reservation. They had obviously long been gearing up for such an assault against us. And they just as obviously bungled it terribly, to their own subsequent grief as well as ours.
I can understand how the FBI hallows its own. To them, Coler and Willams are fallen comrades, heroes, tragic victims, martyrs. Yes, that I also understand. But we, too, hallow our own. We, too, have our fallen comrades, our heroes, our tragic victims, our martyrs…and we have them in countless numbers. I live with the wail of their voices in my inner ear. I hear them always. I can’t forget them. I refuse to forget them.
They are victims of the energy wars, as were agents Coler and Williams, as am I. And so are you, my friend, and your children and your children’s children. The FBI itself is a victim of the energy wars, having strayed far beyonds the bounds of legality and human decency in its misguided eagerness to serve the interests of the multinational invaders in their continuing assault upon the Mother Earth. All these things are acts of war against the Lakota people, against all Indian people, against all indigenous people everywhere, against all humanity. We must continue to oppose these forces of destruction with every fiber of our being, with every breath we take.
My defense committee and supporters have been pushing for many years for a congressional hearing on my entire case, and I’m told that there’s real hope for this in the near future. Scores of U.S. congressmen and Senators have given me their open support. But even a congressional hearing – no matter how revealing – will not in and of itself set me free. Only people of goodwill in the U.S. government, and in particular the president himself, can do that. I await their–and your–consideration and compassion.
I am an Indian man. My simple request is to live like one.
Photo credit – bsnorrell
We Are Not Separate
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 aer they and they are us.
This is how we’re meant to be,
each of us one,
each of us all.
You reach out across the void of Otherness to me
and you touch your own soul!
Let us forgive the worst among us
because the worst is in ourselves,
the worst lives in each of us,
along with the best.
Let us forgive the worst
in each of us
and all of us
so that the best
in each of us
and all of us
may be free.
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.
Editor's Note: Many thanks go to Harvey Arden, who edited Leonard's book, and has given me permission to use these excerpts from Leonard Peltier's Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance. Updated information is available from the Leonard Peltier International Defense Committee: http://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info/.
For more information on Harvey Arden, visit
where you can find information on his other books:
Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders
Dreamkeepers: A Spirit Journey into Aboriginal Australia
Noble Red Man
Travels in a Stone Canoe