Leonard Peltier: Silence Screams
by Carolina Saldaña
Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity.
But silence is impossible.
Silence is a message,
just as doing nothing is an act.
Let who you are ring out and resonate
in every word and deed.
Yes, become who you are.
There’s no sidestepping your own being
or your own responsibility.
What you do is who you are.
You are your own comeuppance.
You become your own message.
You are the message.
--In the spirit of Crazy Horse,
¡31 years behind bars!
Leonard Peltier will be 63 years old on September 12, 2007. It’s an international day for demanding the immediate, unconditional freedom of this Native American artist, writer, and activist––one of the most widely recognized political prisoners in the world.
Leonard has spent more than 31 years in some of the cruelest prisons in the United States, unjustly condemned to a double life sentence for the shooting death of two FBI agents in 1975. His situation is now aggravated by health problems.
From his cell in the federal prison at Lewisberg, Pensilvania, he keeps right on struggling for the rights of indigenous people. He’s contributed to the establishment of libraries, schools, scholarships, and battered women’s shelters among many other projects. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and again in 2007.
“My crime’s being an Indian. What’s yours?”
In his autobiography My Life Is My Sun Dance, Leonard explains that his bloodline is mainly Ojibway and Dakota Sioux and that he was adopted by the Lakota Sioux and raised on their reservations “in the land known to you as America....but I don’t consider myself an American.”
“I know what I am. I am an Indian--an Indian who dared to stand up to defend his people. I am an innocent man who never murdered anyone nor wanted to. And, yes, I am a Sun Dancer. That, too, is my identity. If I am to suffer as a symbol of my people, then I suffer proudly. I will never yield.”
Leonard tells us that when he was nine years old a big black government car drove up to his house to take him and the other kids away to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school in Wahpeton, Dakota del Norte. When they got there, they cut off their long hair, stripped them, and doused them with DDT powder.
“I thought I was going to die...that place...was more like a reformatory than a school...I consider my years at Wahpenton my first imprisonment, and it was for the same crime as all the others: being an Indian.”
He goes on to say that “We had to speak English. We were beaten if we were caught speaking our own language. Still, we did....I guess that’s where I became a “hardened criminal,” as the FBI calls me. And you could say that the first infraction in my criminal career was speaking my own language. There’s an act of violence for you....The second was practicing our traditional religion.”
When Leonard Peltier was a teen-ager, President Eisenhower launched a program to eliminate the reservations and move the people off, giving them a small payment. Leonard remembers that the words “termination” and “dislocation” became the most feared words in the people’s vocabulary. The process of fighting against dislocation was his first experience as an activist.
During the 60s, Leonard worked as a farm worker and, later, in an auto body shop in Seattle. At that time he got his first taste of community organizing. At the beginning of the 70s, he joined up with the American Indian Movement (AIM), initially inspired by the Black Panthers.
In 1972, he participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties, a march / caravan from Alcatraz in California to Washington D.C., and also in the occupation of the BIA in the nation’s capital. He became a target of the FBI program to “neutralize” AIM leaders and was set up and jailed at the end of the year.
1973: The Occupation of Wounded Knee