Leonard Peltier Essay Essay, Research Paper
The existence of martyrs has a profound effect on the people who know them, and on those who feel them to be symbols of grand injustices. A martyr is all it may take to radicalize a movement and to push otherwise peaceful people into violence. A martyr in the making is a man named Leonard Peltier. He is known to the MTV generation as the subject of a Rage Against the Machine video. But to Native Americans, Peltier has long stood as symbol that there is no equitable treatment of American Indians in the American judicial system. Peltier, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, is serving his eighteenth year in a Levenworth, Kansas, federal prison for murdering two FBI agents. He and his defenders claim that they are innocent, and that they have the ballistics tests to prove it. They say they can also prove that there was immoral and illegal conduct on the part of the FBI during Peltier’s trial those eighteen long years ago.
On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents entered the Pine Ridge Reservation without proper jurisdiction in order to arrest Jimmy Eagle, who was charged with stealing a pair of cowboy boots. For reasons that are currently unclear, a gunfight broke out, and the FBI agents were killed along with one Native American. Within a half an hour the farm where the fight had taken place was overrun with 200 FBI agents and federal police. The gunmen fled into the reservation. Convinced that he would not receive a fair trial in the United States, Peltier hid in Canada. In order to extradite him, the FBI produced an affidavit from Myrtle Pooh Bear, who had supposedly witnessed the killing. She later said that she was not at Pine Ridge the day of shooting, and that she was coerced into writing the false affidavit. Furthermore, according to FBI documents released under
The Freedom of Information Act, the FBI had withheld from the defense the fact that none of the bullets, which had killed the officers, could be traced to Peltier’s gun. This key fact would have proved his innocence, but because of the suppression of this evidence Peltier was found guilty of double homicide.
Peltier’s case has drawn national attention, and responses to the situation demonstrate that there is more than one approach to racial justice. The mainstream demand is that our society transcend race in the service of legal justice. Less common is the often divisive, arguably unproductive call for racial guilt and the primacy of group affiliation. The supporters of Peltier’s case who have spearheaded attempts to free him have come largely from the latter category. They have used Peltier as their martyr, and as justification for distrusting white-dominated legal proceedings.
Earlier this year, a group called the “Walk For Justice” tried to reintroduce Peltier’s case to the public in an attempt to get a presidential pardon, or at the very least to convince Attorney General Janet Reno to re-open the case in light of the evidence
of FBI misconduct. Since the Supreme Court has denied an appeal, the case remains officially closed. These protesters are not the only ones who believe that an innocent man is in prison. Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, John McCain, and Daniel Inouye, who all sit on the Select Committee for Indian Affairs, have written to Reno to request a new examination. Peltier remains the only person on Amnesty International’s list of American political prisoners. The FBI opposes reopening the case.
The Walk For Justice started in February at Alcatraz Island. After winding its way across 20 states and 3,800 miles, the walk ended in a Senate caucus room. The group had come to address members of Congress about a number of Native American rights issues: the ecological damage caused by nuclear waste on Indian lands, the use of racial stereotypes in sports team logos, the infringement of hunting rights, treatment of sacred sites to which Native Americans have been denied access, and discrimination against Native American prisoners. The walkers also intended to present petitions representing five hundred thousand names to liaisons from the White House. Only two Senators showed up, each for half an hour, and no White House representative ever appeared. The speakers decided to continue their five-hour presentation to the press and Senate staffers.
The pain in the voices of the speakers was apparent, but the absence of an audience seemed to make a mockery of all the efforts to free Peltier. As the afternoon wore on, hope of freeing Peltier was crushed. Slowly, the protesters’ accusations became less precise and less selective. By the end of the talk, many of the speakers had included phrases such as “it is the white man who,” “it is this white government” that bars, bans, hurts, exploits, discriminates, and kills.
Their grief was understandable. They had traveled too far to deliver their words to an audience of zero. It was almost natural for them to try to gain some psychological comfort in devaluing the elected officials who were snubbing them. However, this
kind of blame placing, based solely on skin color, can easily become a justification for whites to end any meaningful discourse. Once discourse has ended, so too has the opportunity for edification or empathy.
Relations between Native Americans and whites, like black-white relations, contain a legacy of pain. History has told the story of who was exploited by whom. The displacement of Native Americans from the Atlantic region by presidential decree is part of the national record. So too are the machinations of Buffalo Bill to starve the Plains Indians; in California in the 1800’s settlers were given $2 for each Indian they killed, and gifts of smallpox-infested blankets were used in further attempts to depopulate the American territories of their native inhabitants. Leonard Peltier’s case, if one believes the account of his defenders, falls into the same pattern of abuse.
Certainly, some people would like to divide America into racially homogenous enclaves. For these people unbridled and unjustified blame of members of other races is a way of achieving their goal of separation. But those minorities who wish for racial harmony must be sure that all accusations hurled at the majority are legitimate. If the people of America are going to live in an integrated nation, instead of a nation of fortified lands and armed neighborhoods where people of different ethnicities are not welcome, then a more productive way of confronting the past racism of the United States must be found.
Whether it be the internment of Japanese during WWII, the slavery of Africans, or the genocide of indigenous peoples, the government of the United States has a horrific record in its treatment of non-white citizens. However, just as it would be incorrect for modern-day Jews to blame today’s Germans for the Holocaust, it is inaccurate and futile for minorities to blame present whites for the sins of their ancestors. Now that traditionally oppressed groups like Native Americans have become aware of their history of oppression, they want to blame those who are responsible. But the people who are responsible are dead. So the minority looks for someone who is related to the harm, however tangentially. In this case, any white government official will do.
For instance, the statement by one Walk for Justice speaker that, “this is the same white government who took lands from the Cherokee in Georgia and started the Trail of Tears,” is only symbolically true. The accusation makes the white race the sole powerful force in this present government, which has, in modern times, tried to diversify its representation in terms of both race and gender. It also assumes that President Clinton can be held accountable for Andrew Jackson’s actions. But of course, the facts of history limit Clinton’s or anyone’s ability to redress what was done by past administrations. The option to give back what was taken from Native Americans has ceased to be viable. And conflating Clinton with Jackson reduces the likelihood that Clinton will take the protesters or their requests seriously.
Indiscriminately blaming a monolithic white race alienates not only those who need to be reformed, but also those who naturally empathize with minority causes. If the minority’s goal is integration, then they are undermining their own cause by using white people as scapegoats, incensing both racists and people who would like to live together peaceably. The goal of present representatives of American ethnicities must be to find a way of trusting one another and the government so that arms will never be taken up, as they were in Los Angeles.
One way of fostering the sort of trust that is necessary for the forward movement of race relations is the fair treatment of cases of aborted justice, like Leonard Peltier’s. This will require, not a dismissal of the past, but a considered analysis leading to dialogue which can address the grievances on all sides. One reason that the FBI must answer the charges levied against it in the Peltier case is that the FBI is giving disgruntled minorities the excuse to hate, as well as just cause to claim that the American justice system can be manipulated. Clearly Peltier needs to be freed as a sign of good faith that the American justice system is working fairly for all minorities. He will only be released if pressure on Janet Reno continues to reopen the case.