Leonard Peltier: “My Life Has Been Taken One Day at a Time”

Writing 101 assignment: Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met this year?

image from https://www.facebook.com/windchasesthesun
image from https://www.facebook.com/windchasesthesun

I am going to cheat for this assignment. I haven’t actually met Leonard Peltier. I didn’t even first hear about him this year. In fact, I have known his name all my life. I was just a kid when he fled the US and sought asylum in Canada. His hiding spot was close to where a lot of my family lived on small family farms so I paid attention to his situation. I recall hearing his name almost nightly on the CBC news for a few years. And then there was a long silence.

Who is Leonard Peltier?

The short answer: a prisoner of conscience. He has been imprisoned for 47 years for a crime he probably didn’t commit. Members of his parole board acknowledge,

“… the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that (he) personally participated in the executions of two FBI agents.”

However … (and this next fact is so bizarre that you might think for a moment that his story must really belong to a novel by Dickens, Orwell or Kafka) … Peltier has always been denied parole on the grounds that he won’t accept criminal responsibility or show remorse for the murdered FBI agents. The agents being the ones he says he didn’t kill.

Besides his career as a political prisoner, Peltier is also a writer, artist, carpenter, welder and activist.

But I believe a person is more than what has been done to him or what he does. Who Leonard Peltier is today might partially be answered by his image pictured above. He is no longer a young man. In September he will turn 70. The frost of grey has started to leave trails through his hair and is most apparent in his moustache. You might think that with advancing age he has seen many things but actually he has been prevented from seeing much more.

In his spring statement he speaks of his love of the earth but as someone imprisoned, metal and concrete separate him from any meaningful contact with the earth. Even the prison that encases him has been permanently dimmed. Peltier is nearly blind in one eye following a recent stroke. Nor does he see his family. They live more than 2000 miles away: visits are a physical and financial hardship.

Do you see how his hand nearly touches his jaw? He knows chronic pain. If you have ever experienced lingering pain you know how ever-present it can be. Insistent. Demanding. Exhausting. Chronic pain has a way of seeping into every moment of your life.

For many years, Peltier suffered a jaw condition resulting partly from contracting tetanus as a child. Just the act of eating caused great pain. A nearly permanent headache accompanied that jaw pain. Two prison surgeries only worsened his condition — possibly because he was expected to recuperate by being placed ‘in the hole.’ When the physician Dr. E.E. Keller heard of Peltier’s suffering in 1997 he offered his services free of charge. Prison authorities refused over and over again to permit the surgery until the United Nations stepped in and made a strong statement charging the United States for subjecting Peltier to inhumane conditions. The surgery was finally permitted in 2000.

Nearly 70, he continues to cope with pain and a variety of health issues. The jaw pain has returned. He has developed diabetes possibly as result of a lifetime eating a poor prison diet. As mentioned, he recently had a stroke. I suppose the FBI who went out of their way to make a formal statement opposing his parole at Peltier’s last hearing believe he is a dangerous man. Is he? I will write more about that topic in a later post. For now …

Who is Leonard Peltier?

Leonard Peltier is like all of us a complex person but for the moment I will choose a simple answer: Leonard Peltier is a human being worthy of some compassion.

Leonard Peltier Day is June 26th.


16 thoughts on “Leonard Peltier: “My Life Has Been Taken One Day at a Time”

  1. Imprisoning Peltier thousands of miles from his family and ancestral lands should constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment.


  2. When I had a book store in Pennsylvania, I used to send him magazines for his wife (I believe) , who lives close by. He liked hotrod magazines a lot.

    He’s nearly been pardoned several times (once by Clinton), but it was always taken off the table before it went through. It was heartbreaking.


    1. One thing I learned from reading about this was that federal prisons are really strict about correspondence. That was a kindness to send the magazines.


  3. I wonder how many are in prison like him? What a shame that mistakes like this are made. A whole life wasted away. I can not imagine being stuck like him and pining for a view of nature. Lots of time to think though.


  4. thank you for introducing me to this man – if only sanity and sense prevailed
    if only respect and caring flowed…
    what is it about this need to act so shamefully towards each other?
    my question is Who are we?


    1. You nailed it, Sandra. The real question really isn’t who is he but who are we? What kind of society does this to people? I have a lot more to say about him but since this post was already lengthy I decided to break it all into a few pieces.


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