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Out of Hand

An Interview with Leonard Peltier

By Jane Kinney

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"Having tried the case of one of Leonard Peltier's co-defendants, twice argued Mr. Peltier's appeals from his convictions of the murders of the two FBI agents on Pine Ridge (SD) Indian Reservation, and presently handling his motions for a new trial, I can hardly be ranked as a disinterested witness. Accordingly, I must confess... not only do I BELIEVE he was UNJUSTLY TRIED, CONVICTED and SENTENCED, but that his TRAVAILS were the RESULT of FBI MISCONDUCT of SUCH MAGNITUDE that any FAIR MINDED society would have lost no time in CONDEMNING it OUT OF HAND."
Dedicated to William Kunstler (1919-1995) From Messerschmidt, THE TRIAL OF LEONARD PELTIER, 1983 (Emphasis added)

Leonard Peltier is AKACITA.
A Lakota warrior, pledged to the perpetual defense of his people against any and all transgression, and for this he has spent 20 years of his life entombed, his every move monitored and controlled, inside the walls of maximum security prisons.

First, in the US Federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, where for long periods of time Leonard was placed in the infamous "Marion Control Unit," designed for "behavior modification," a prison within a prison, known to prisoners as "the end of the line."

Now, in Leavenworth, "the big, bad Granddadddy of penitentiaries," where Leonard spends his days at his prison job, painting, working with his people, and fighting, continuing the fight for justice and for his freedom.

In 1944, the year Leonard was born, the United States government was embarking upon yet another policy of "dealing" with the Indians. The Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Leonard's people in North Dakota, were the third tribe selected for termination. This policy transferred responsibility for the Indians from the federal government to the States; and it almost completely destroyed what remained of Indian culture and encroached substantially upon their attempts to remain Indian. People lived in poverty. There was little food to eat. There was no work. Alcohol was rampant, devastating entire communities, and Leonard Peltier was trying to grow up.

At an early age, Leonard began actively working for Indian rights and, as a young man, dedicated himself to the struggle. The incident at Pine Ridge, June 26, 1975, for which Leonard is currently serving two consecutive life sentences, is now, after 20 years, a long and complicated tragedy. At this point an in-depth study, not only of the facts surrounding the incident, but of the social, political, and economic conditions of the Indians during that era and before, is required in order to truly understand the grave injustice of his and all Native American struggles. This interview, conducted in the midst of an increased presence in the media by those who oppose Leonard's freedom, was not easy to get. In fact, the in-person interview I had arranged and confirmed was "suspended" upon my arrival at Leavenworth and had to be conducted over the phone, in bits and pieces. It is important, therefore, that we hear Leonard's voice, listen to his words.

Today, he is viewed by many as both a political prisoner and a prisoner of war A political prisoner because of his active membership in the American Indian Movement (AIM). And a prisoner of war, in the war that has been waged unremittingly by the US government against Indian people since the first moments of its existence.

A true victim of this country's rooted and condoned racism, Leonard, because of what he believes in and because of what he represents, like many of his Brothers and Sisters, has not ever been and may never be, free.

On November 11, 1993, after serving 17 years of two consecutive life sentences for a crime that he says and that evidence proves he did not commit, Leonard filed for Executive Clemency.

It may be his last hope for freedom.

Millions of supporters have increased their call for justice. Coupled with the upcoming Presidential elections, with or without a second term for Clinton, this outcry offers a historic and tangible opportunity for our President to begin the process of healing our deeply troubled country.

Jane: What was it like as an Indian, growing up in this country when you did?

Leonard: Growing up on the reservation in my time, in the 1950's, was when it was well practiced and widely believed, by a lot of people in the United States, that it wasn't something to be proud of; to be an Indian. We experienced a lot of racism from business people and the citizens in the towns bordering the reservations. Whenever and Indian would go into town... when they were being waited on in the stores, they were always treated with disrespect and well, you know, just plain, outright racism.

Did you remember your first experience with this?

Yes, very well. I was just a babe. Going to town with my Grandmother. I think I was around 6 or 7 years old. My Grandmother told me "When you go in there, don't touch anything, don't take anything." So what I thought I would do was keep my hands in my pockets... which I did! The store owner immediately thought I had taken something. At least that's what I thought at the time. It wasn't until years later that I learned that this was common practice.

A common practice to be suspicious?

Yeah, to be suspicious and to search.

You were six years old and he searched you?

Yeah. I had to take everything out of my pockets, and he searched me... after that I wasn't too anxious to go town anymore with my Grandparents. I was beginning to understand the meaning of hate and racism. I wasn't like I was before, a kid pleading, "Can I go? Can I go? Can I go?" Years later though, as a teenager, I started going to town more often, and I witnessed a lot of brutality by the police. I heard a lot of stories about the injustices that the Indians faced in those border towns.

Could you give me some examples of what you witnessed and heard as a child on the reservation?

Well, remember at that time, in the in 1950's, the Eisenhower administration was pushing the termination policy. The Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation was selected as the third Indian Nation to be terminated. There were a lot of community meetings organized on the reservation in opposition to it, to fight it. I attended these meetings and I heard some of the speeches made by the Elders. Women, asking for the men to stand up and be Warriors, to be accounted for. To fight and stop the termination that was going on and all of the suffering it was causing for those who did not want to leave the reservations. Off the reservation I experienced, personally, racism from store owners, the police. I also had friends and relatives who had been handcuffed and beaten. On the reservation, people were suffering from malnutrition. We didn't have any running water. No electricity. We basically lived on commodity foods, government issue commodity foods. And of course, I bought all of my clothes out of the mission...

Box or something?

Yeah, well, they called it "bundle day." They would have big bundles of clothing. Some for 25 cents, 50 cents and you would just basically grab... hope you selected a good bundle.

I read somewhere that a relative of yours, Celia Delacourt, speaking at the first Indian meeting you attended, inspired you to become an activist. Could you tell us what she said?

Yes, she was my aunt through marriage... her words affected me deeply. Sitting there listening to her, a young man thinking, well, when I grow up, I am going to do something to help my people. She got up and made a very emotional speech. She was sickened by most of the men not actively fighting for Indian rights. She stood up and stated that it was time for the men to start acting like men. To start acting like Warriors. Her children were at home, and they were hungry. There was no food on the table. These conditions were rampant throughout the reservations. I was living the same type of lifestyle, in the same conditions. I know that what she was saying was true.

Is that when you became a full-time activist?

I really didn't become a full-time activist until later. You have to remember, I was trying to survive, trying to find a job that was decent paying. Something I could live on, you know, half-way comfortable. It was very difficult as an uneducated, unskilled laborer. I was just living to exist... just barely making' it. Don't misunderstand me though, I was involved in different things. But around 26, I just decided that I was going to fulfill a dream that I had from my early youth... and do something to help my people.

You stated earlier that the desperate conditions on the reservations in the 50's were in part due to the government's enforcement of the termination policy. Could you tell us what it was and what it meant for you and your people?

Well, what it meant for Indian people was that they, we, would no longer exists as a race, as a nation. We have always believed that we are sovereign nations of people. Which we are. We had our own lives, our own judiciary system. We had our own societies, and through termination, they would no longer exist. Indian people would no longer exist. That's what Indian people believed... and still believe.

The termination policy ended in 1958 when Fred Seaton, then Secretary of the Interior, acknowledging it was a failure, announced that herinafter, no tribes would be terminated without their consent. Could you tell us what this change meant for Indian people?

Well, of course when we first heard, we were excited. However, there were still programs created by the government to terminate Indians on the reservation, and many programs were still implemented after 1958. The new policies of self determination should mean that we have a right to control and operate our own lives. We are sovereign nations.

You are known for your strong feelings against the use of alcohol. Why are you such an advocate for not drinking?

It has destroyed Indian lives by the thousands, millions. It is a disease that has infested my people... I had a good example in my Father. He wasn't a drinker, a real drinker. Sure, he would have a beer at a bar on a Saturday night, but like many of us, he was just trying to survive. His main concern was trying to put food on the table, trying to keep us kids from going hungry. I have been against alcohol long before I came into prison. I had my share of teenage partying, but when I became a full-time activist, I became adamant. Now there are numerous programs, set up across Indian country and in cities, to help people with alcohol and alcohol related problems.

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