A Spiritual Act - A Holy Deed


In Culturlann restaurant on Friday a Cork woman stopped and asked me if I was Danny Morrison. She said she wrote often to Leonard Peltier and had sent him my books, and he liked my writings. I felt very humbled to be appreciated by such a great person as Leonard Peltier who has been in jail for twenty-seven years, falsely imprisoned for killing two FBI agents.

In 1998 he wrote: “This is the twenty-third year of my imprisonment for a crime I didn’t commit. I’m now fifty-four years old. I’ve been in here since I was thirty-one. I’ve been told I have to live out two life-time sentences plus seven years before I get out of prison in the year 2041. By then I’ll be ninety-seven. I don’t think I’ll make it.” (From: ‘Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance’.)

What is happening today to the Palestinian people – a nation being destroyed before our eyes by a militarily superior force which supports seizure of territory and colonised settlements, and which limits the Palestinians to ‘reservations’ – is exactly what happened to the native peoples of North America as a result of European colonisation beginning with Columbus. Throughout the nineteenth century treaties, which the US Congress signed with the Native American Indians, were each in turn repudiated as the greed and demand of the colonisers became insatiable.

In 1968 the American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed to combat police brutality, high unemployment and federal government policies.

Leonard Peltier was born into poverty in a reservation in North Dakota. He had thirteen brothers and sisters. At the age of eight he was taken from his family and sent to a boarding school, run by the US government. Students were forbidden to speak their native languages and suffered physical and psychological abuse. His reservation had been chosen as a testing ground for the government’s new termination policy of forcing Indians off their reservations and into the cities, by withdrawing, for example, benefits, including food assistance, to those who remained on the land.

He became an organiser and fought Native Land Claim issues, then joined the AIM. In 1972 he occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington in the Trail of Broken Treaties’ protest.

In December 1890 the great leader Sitting Bull, who had defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, was shot dead, allegedly resisting arrest. Fearing further reprisals his followers fled but a few days later, three hundred and fifty Sioux, consisting of 120 men and 230 women and children, were rounded up and placed in a camp on Wounded Knee Creek. An order was given to disarm them. During a fracas a shot was fired and the federal troops killed 153 and wounded 44 people, half of whom were unarmed women and children. Survivors were pursued and butchered by US troops. Twenty-three soldiers from the Seventh Calvary were later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for slaughtering these defenceless Indians.

In February 1973 a group of armed members of the Sioux nation, the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organisation and the AIM reclaimed Wounded Knee and for the first time in decades ruled themselves and celebrated death, marriage and birth in their traditional manner. Supporters arrived daily from all over the country, slipping past Federal marshals and the National Guard. They demanded an investigation into the Bureau of Indian Affairs, corruption and the misuse of tribal funds. Food supplies and electricity were cut off and there was daily, heavy gunfire. Twelve Indians were captured by the FBI and were ‘disappeared’ and never seen again. After the 71-day occupation there were 1200 arrests.

Following the siege there was a three-year ‘Reign of Terror’ on the reservations, instigated by the FBI in collusion with vigilantes of the pro-government tribal council, and which resulted in over sixty members or sympathisers of the AIM being assassinated.

These were the preceding circumstances in June 1975 when Leonard Peltier was asked to help protect the people of Pine Ridge Reservation against attack. Two FBI undercover agents chased a pickup truck onto the reservation and there was a shoot-out during which they and a young Native American were killed. Three people were brought to trial. Two, Bob Robideau and Darrell Butler, were eventually acquitted on grounds of self-defence. Leonard Peltier was arrested in Canada on the strength of an extradition warrant, which contained an affadavit from Myrtle Poor Bear. She said she was his girlfriend and saw him shoot the agents at close range.

After he was extradited the prosecution withdrew Myrtle Poor Bear’s evidence. It turned out that she wasn’t his girlfriend, had never met Peltier and wasn’t present at the scene of the shooting. Furthermore, the judge barred her from testifying for the defence on the grounds of mental incompetence. Three teenage Native witnesses testified against Peltier, all admitting later that the FBI had threatened and forced them. Still, they did not identify him as the gunman. During the trial the FBI withheld important documents from the judge, jury and the defence, which showed that the casings from the bullets used to kill the two agents did not come from the gun tied to Peltier.

Leonard Peltier was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment to run consecutively and has been imprisoned for the past twenty-seven years. All of his appeals have been denied and because he will not admit to the murders the parole board refuses to consider him for temporary release and says that it will review his case in 2008. His appeals attorney is former US Attorney General Ramsay Clark, a man who walked on the Falls Road in Belfast in 1981 in support of the H-Block hunger strikers.

Amnesty International, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Tutu and the European Parliament, amongst others, have all called for his release but the US authorities are merciless. Hopes were high that Bill Clinton would issue him a presidential pardon when he left office in 2001. But instead he pardoned fugitive billionaire Marc Rich, who had been living in Switzerland avoiding indictments on charges of racketeering, tax evasion and trading with Iran in violatioin of a US embargo.

Peltier responded: “We can see who was granted clemency and why. The big donors to the President’s campaign [a reference to Rich’s wife, Denise] were able to buy justice, something we just couldn’t afford.”

In prison he has established himself as a talented artist, portraying the culture and history of his people; as a poet and prose writer and author of a moving biography. Despite suffering from diabetes, a heart condition and a stroke which has left him partially blind in one eye he remains unrepentant and unbroken.

“My people’s struggle to survive inspires my own struggle to survive. Each of us must be a survivor.”

His role has been as a symbol of his suffering people.

“In the Indian Way, the political and the spiritual are one and the same. You can’t believe one thing and do another. What you believe and what you do are the same thing. In the Indian Way, if you see your people suffering, helping them is an absolute necessity. It’s not a social act of charity or welfare assistance: it’s a spiritual act, a holy deed.”

Write letters of support to: USPL, Leonard Peltier # 89637-132, PO Box 1000, Leavenworth, Kansas 66048, USA

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison