Political Matters: Native Issues in the Halls of Government

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I was contacted in January about a physical attack on imprisoned American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier. According to various accounts, Peltier was transferred from the Lewisburg federal prison to another prison in Canaan, Pennsylanvia. Shortly after arriving at the Canaan facility, Peltier was jumped and beaten by some younger inmates on Jan. 13.

Peltier may have suffered a concussion, and injuries to his hand, ribs and knee, according to his lawyer, Michael Kuzma.

“It is clear that Mr. Peltier is in grave danger at USP Canaan,” Kuzma wrote in a letter to Harley G. Lappin, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Following the attack, Peltier was placed in solitary confinement and meals were restricted, despite his having diabetes and other medical conditions, according to the newly formed Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee.

In letters sent to the Bureau of Prisons in November and December 2008, Kuzma requested that Peltier be transferred to the Turtle Mountain reservation (No. Dakota), or as an alternative, to either the federal prison in Sandstone, Minn., or the prison in Oxford, Wisc.

Peltier was arrested in 1976, by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Canada’s version of the FBI), and later extradited to the U.S. He was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents in a June, 26, 1975 shootout near Oglala, on the Pine Ridge reservation (So. Dakota), and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. The firefight at the Jumping Bull ranch (in which an Indian man, Joe Stuntz, also was killed), erupted during a period of heightened tension between AIM and traditional Indians and a tribal administration backed by the U.S. government. In fact, Pine Ridge, after the 1973 AIM-led occupation of Wounded Knee, became a kind of laboratory for domestic counter-insurgency warfare by the FBI and other police agencies.

Some 33 years after Peltier was arrested, the FBI is still dedicated to

its mission of keeping Peltier in prison until he dies. The recent

assault at the Canaan prison recalls a 1979 incident, when Peltier

learned from another federal inmate that he was targeted for

assassination. The inmate, Standing Deer (Robert Hugh Wilson), who has

since died, stated that he was approached by prison and FBI officials

and offered various inducements in exchange for his participation in a

plot to murder Peltier. Instead, Standing Deer confessed the plot to

Peltier, who later escaped for several days after being transferred to

the federal prison in Lompoc, Calif.

Since it appears that the renowned AIM activist’s life again is in

danger, it would be good if concerned readers contacted Warden Ronnie

Holt at the U.S. Penitentiary-Canaan at 570-488-8000, or e-mail:

caa/execassistant@bop.gov, and inquired about Leonard Peltier’s health

and welfare. BOP director Lappin’s phone number in Washington, D.C., is

202-307-3250.

I’m sure these public servants will be happy to provide updates about Leonard Peltier’s condition.

Definitely a change

On O-nauguration Tuesday, a day when I’m usually quite busy getting my

weekly newspaper to the printer, I called for a pause and we huddled

around the small TV in my office to watch the inauguration ceremony. I

especially enjoyed the benediction by the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who

confronted the reality of racial exclusion in this country.

President Obama has a hard row to hoe in the coming months and years,

but I am cautiously optimistic. At the least, we have a person with

considerable intellectual capacity in the Oval Office.

Returning to the inauguration, I did read a quibble about Obama’s

speech by Julius Lester, professor emeritus of Judaic and Near Eastern

studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Writing in the

Forward newspaper, Lester, who happens to be a Jew and an

African-American, found that in Obama’s address there was a “lapse in

his understanding” of our common humanity.

“He exhorted us to remember those who had helped to build this nation,

those who ‘toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash

of the whip and plowed the hard earth.’ If I were Native American,”

Lester wrote, “the reference to those who ‘settled the West’ would have

left me feeling excluded, yet again. The West was not ‘settled.’ It was

conquered by murdering the people who lived there and forcing the

survivors into prison camps called reservations. It hurts when I hear a

black person, especially, accepting so unthinkingly the American

mythology of triumph.”

President Obama’s speechwriters should probably review the passage

cited by Lester. Yet Obama should do well, or better, by Indian

country, and for everyone. And we all have to be vigilant in protecting

our rights, civil rights and treaty rights.