In the Spirit of Leonard Peltier

Robert Redford and a host of celebrities have organized a two-day art exhibit and benefit to raise legal funds for the upcoming battle to free Native American activist Leonard Peltier. Jane Fonda and Bonnie Raitt are also among the 14 entertainment industry artists rallying behind Peltier's 28-year battle with the FBI. The exhibit, entitled "The Warrior's Eye -- In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," will feature paintings from Peltier's latest works.

peltier"It is very strong Native American art and it spoke to my heart," says producer-director Robert Greenwald, co-founder of Artists United. "I realized that there was an opportunity to recognize him as an artist and to raise some desperately needed money for upcoming court battles."

Leonard Peltier, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, has gained worldwide status as a political prisoner and attracted the support of Amnesty International and many other organizations. He has been the subject of a CBS 60 Minutes segment, a Robert Redford documentary and a book, Peter Matheson's, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse."

Taking AIM

Peltier has played a major role in the American Indian Movement (AIM). In 1970, he participated in a dispute over the occupation of Fort Lawton, Oregon. The property was located on federal land designated as "surplus," however; Indians had first right to it under the law. Peltier and his group won that round against the feds with the establishment of an Indian cultural center.

Participation in the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) drew the attention of the FBI. Shortly after the BIA incident, Peltier was threatened with a gun in a Milwaukee restaurant by two assailants who turned out to be plainclothes policemen. Testimony from witnesses supported Peltier's assertion of a set up, and a former girlfriend of one of the police officers testified that he had told her about plans of "catching a big one for the FBI." Peltier was arrested for attempted murder and spent five months in jail at high bail; eventually he went underground before his pre-trial hearing.

In March 1975, amid unrest between the Oglala Tribal Council and traditional Oglala elders, an AIM spiritual group established a camp on the property of the elders, near the village of Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In June, two FBI agents entered the property without a warrant or jurisdiction, allegedly to arrest an Indian man accused of stealing a pair of cowboy boots. An all-out firefight ensued, with 150 FBI and government agents responding to the scene. Five hours later, one AIM member and two FBI agents were dead.

Peltier and three other men were indicted for the murder of the FBI agents. Peltier was extradited from Canada based on an affidavit tainted by what would eventually be proven as fraudulent testimony from a woman claiming to be Peltier's girlfriend. Peltier's attorneys say the affidavit was never produced during the extradition hearings and was concealed from them.

In the trial that followed, the original judge excused himself without explanation, and the court location was moved to a town with strong anti-Indian sentiment. Peltier's defense team charges that it was denied critical cross-examinations in its efforts to prove FBI misconduct and was prevented from presenting key defense witnesses. In a different trial, a jury acquitted two of the other defendants, but Peltier's judge excluded the use of their evidence in his trial.

Peltier's attorneys also presented evidence showing that the prosecution produced false testimonies obtained under FBI coercion, perjured testimonies by FBI agents, and withheld a crucial exculpatory ballistic test document. In 1977, Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life terms and entered a federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.

A Long Battle

In 1979, the Supreme Court refused to review Peltier's case, and he was transferred to Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution in California. A known thug of the Oglala Tribal Council appeared amid rumors of an assignation plot, and fearing for his life, Peltier managed to escape prison. He was captured and seven years was added to his sentence.

Through the '80s, defense attorneys obtained 12,000 pages of declassified FBI documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Yet, the bureau refused to release an additional 6,000 pages, classifying them "in the interest of national defense or foreign policy." Into the '90s, new defense motions came and went, each frustrated in some way by the government. In 1993, Attorney Ramsey Clark even filed an Executive Clemency request with the White House.

In a different strategy, attorneys filed a civil rights suit in April 2002 against the FBI and other government officials for false and misleading statements. According to attorney Bernard Kleinman, the FBI evaded the service of their summons, employing a "classic FBI obstruction."

Today Peltier attorneys are pursuing an appeal of the recent denial of Peltier's 1999 Habeas Corpus petition. They seek to overturn the U.S. Parole Commission's denial of parole consideration until December 2008. Parole Commission guidelines for prisoners convicted of homicide offenses is 200-plus months served. By those standards, Peltier should have been freed more than a decade ago. However, the Commission refuses to consider setting a parole date until 2008 -- when Peltier will have served almost double the normal time.

Transcendent Art

The years of incarceration and poor medical treatment have taken their toll on his health. During 27 years in prison, Peltier suffered a stroke, leaving him partially blind in one eye. Now 58, Peltier suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart condition.

Yet through it all, Peltier has managed to persevere and create a body of artwork that transcends his incarceration. Robert Greenwald visited Peltier at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary a few months ago and despite concerns about his health, he has high hopes for the appeal, and the community's efforts to help. Say Greenwald: "This is where the progressive community can work together, and it's very encouraging."

"The Warrior's Eye: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" opens Aug. 1, 6-9pm, at Frumkin Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif. Admission $100 (may be applied toward the purchase of artwork). For more info or to RSVP call (310) 288-7338.

Ed Ritchie is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.>

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