A Lesson From Cultural Anthropology
An idea from Cultural Anthropology — that all human behaviour has a rationale or interior logic — was one of the most important things I learned in school. If you see people doing something that seems really weird it is intellectually lazy to jump to ethnocentric conclusions. Rather than assuming people are stupid or lazy or quaintly odd the anthropologist asks questions like “Why?” and “How does this behaviour benefit the people involved?”
Anthropologists used to look exclusively at other cultures; rarely did they look at their own. I remember a terrible joke about cultural anthropologists and first nations people that went like this: how many people are in a typical Cree family? Answer: 4 … Mother, father, child and anthropologist. But methods like participant observation and the basic questions of Cultural Anthropology can be used for self understanding, too.
Leonard Peltier’s case is a fine example of weird and bizarre cultural behaviour. Only the behaviour isn’t happening ‘out there’ in some exotic location but right in our own society. Why not ask those standard questions of our own behaviour? Is there some kind of internal logic for the most militarily powerful nation in the world to keep a guy like Peltier prisoner? How does keeping him prisoner benefit the culture? What does this society fear?
Or as Anne Carson wrote, “One of the principle qualities of pain is that it demands an explanation.”
What follows are my best guesses for understanding this bizarre situation.
The story begins on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation which is the eighth largest reservation in the United States. It is also one of the poorest counties in the country. It was poor from the time the people were re-located to the area and remains poor today. Pine Ridge is located right by the Wounded Knee Massacre site where 300 people (mostly civilians) were murdered in 1890. The people survive but continuous deprivation has brought hardship and conflict.
Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) moved into the area in 1973 to support the ordinary people who were just trying to live their lives under the oppression of some local but brutal and corrupt officials. At the time, Pine Ridge had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. It was a chaotic and terrifying place to live. AIM members supported local people with a variety of relief efforts but they also occupied the nearby Wounded Knee Massacre site to exploit its symbolic value. A tactic that worked: their action dominated the news and for maybe the first time in history the whole country was talking about Native American issues. Marlon Brando even used his Academy Award win to make a statement to garner mainstream public awareness.
The world was watching but little changed for the people on the reservation. As time passed the violence continued to escalate until one day in 1975 there was a gunfight involving federal agents. Two agents died and one reservation member was killed.
When some order was restored three men (who happened to be members of AIM) were charged though 40 people had been carrying weapons. Peltier escaped to Canada but in a trial by jury the other two defendants were found not guilty through reason of self defence. It was a remarkable verdict because the jury was made up entirely of non-native Americans who were under some pressure to find the men guilty.
I think Peltier at the time of his extradition (1976) and sentencing was a symbol of everything that people in power feared and hated. If you were in favour of the status quo, the whole world seemed to be coming to an end.
The US was running out of oil, the environment was starting to be protected, war protesters were relentless and even willing to die for their beliefs, women and African-Americans were winning legal protections, Native American people were defending themselves with guns and even someone as powerful as the President of the United States was being asked to answer for his behaviour.
Peltier was extradited from Canada during the American Bicentennial. I kind of think that because of all these factors, officials decided to make a cautionary example of Peltier — to do whatever was necessary to ensure his conviction in a kind of backlash of patriotism.
A FOIA request has since brought to light that the US prosecutor withheld 140,000 pages of FBI documents from the defence. Those documents included a ballistic test proving a gun casing did not come from Peltier’s gun and that the witness used to extradite Peltier was coerced by the FBI to give false testimony. Without the full picture being presented, Peltier received two life sentences.
Surprisingly, following the FOIA insights Peltier was not given a new trial even though the Eighth Circuit ruled:
“There is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government’s case.”
Judge Heaney, one of co-authors of the report believes Peltier ought to be released. He has stated that not only did the FBI use improper tactics to convict Peltier but that they were equally responsible for the shoot-out.
Leonard Peltier always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He has had two parole hearings. In 1993 his case was continued for a 15 year reconsideration. In 2009 the FBI demonstrated and successfully ran a public relations campaign against his release. His next parole hearing is scheduled for 2024.
Both President Clinton and President Bush have denied clemency petitions. Peltier’s continued incarceration has been a bi-partisan effort.
Those presidential denials could be explained away as an accident of history. The 1990s was a time of slogans like zero tolerance and getting tough on crime.
But I think there was something else at work. Actions speak more clearly than slogans. Basically, rich people make better friends than poor activists. President Clinton did grant clemency to Marc Rich who happened to be a billionaire with many connections to the world of finance and various extraction industries. President Clinton received some personal benefit from that decision including more than $1 million dollars for the Democratic Party, $100,000 for Hilary Clinton’s Senate campaign and $450,000 to the Clinton Library. The 90s was also a time when globalization was being pushed into place. Extraction industries were not going to welcome complications coming from native pride and/or environmental movements.
After President Clinton’s refusal, George W. Bush’s denial of clemency was predictable. Bush used to be a CEO of an extraction company. His friend Dick Cheney was a CEO and stock holder of Halliburton — the company that invented fracking. Fracking almost always takes place in remote rural areas — the kind of areas inhabited by first nations people.
So, Leonard Peltier may just look like an older man to me but to the US government I guess he is scary — someone they fear may unite rural people who have a vested interest in stopping the harm we are causing to the environment. Judging by what happened in Nebraska, they were probably correct to fear him. By uniting native, farming, ranching and environmental communities, Nebraska was able to strike down a law that would have allowed the Keystone XL pipeline to proceed across the Oglala reservoir.
So to return to the original questions of “Why” and “How does his imprisonment benefit this society?” it seems fitting to let the person most affected answer …
“I am in this prison because I was a part of a people that tried to right a wrong. I am in this prison as a statement by the corporation controlled government forces that want to say, “Give up your resources, give up your freedom, don’t stand against us” That, is their message in keeping me in here.
But if I had it all to do over again I would still choose to stand up for my people and your people and our future generations to protect our freedoms and our Mother Earth, and in doing that I am honored that you remember me.” –Leonard Peltier
Some People Who have Endorsed his Release:
The list includes respected names like Nelson Mandela, the late Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and so many more. A very long list of respected supporters can be found here. The people who seem to want to keep Peltier in prison are the FBI who are likely ashamed of their wrongdoings, corporations fearful of losing profits and presidents who have nothing to gain from his release.
Some Awards Leonard Peltier has Received:
1986 Human Rights Commission of Spain International Human Rights Prize;
1993 North Star Frederick Douglas Award;
2003 Federation of Labour (Ontario, Canada) Humanist of the Year Award;
2004 Silver Arrow Award for Lifetime Achievement;
2009 First Red Nation Humanitarian Award;
2010 Kwame Ture Lifetime Achievement Award;
2010 Fighters for Justice Award; and
2011 Mario Benedetti Foundation (Uruguay) – First International Human Rights Prize.
He has been nominated 6 times for the Nobel Peace Prize and made it to the short list though other people like Commander in Chief Barack Obama have a tendency to win these days.
Want to learn more?
In his own words: Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance
The well regarded documentary film Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story is available from Netflix or can be seen online here
This link to Amnesty International’s site gives a good summary of the serious concerns about his trial and conviction
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Mattiessen
Free Leonard Peltier is an up to date and information dense website
Wikipedia summary here