“They still don't want to admit to the world that this isn't the best and the fairest and most equal justice system. And that they are guilty of railroading people into jail. They don't want to, or never will, admit these things.”
- Leonard Peltier, 1994
Let me begin with an understatement: what we have done as a nation to the Native Americans is appalling. I know it was another era and the politics and attitudes of the day, like slavery, allowed good people to be complicit in evil deeds. I am not going to bother to wrestle with the morality of manifest destiny or the atrocities perpetrated on either side of this bloody battle of our past. It happened. There is nothing we can do about that. However, it is 2012 and there is absolutely no reason nowadays to allow further oppression. It makes no sense.
In August of this year, the white Reynolds family that had owned and controlled sacred lands of the Lakota Sioux people since 1876, put 1,942.66 acres of this land up for auction to the highest bidder. Despite being an underdog, the Lakota actually won the auction for a sum of $9 million. However, that was just a bid. The Lakota, an extremely impoverished people, do not actually have the money and are frantically trying to raise it in order to secure the land before the deadline expires. They have until November 30th, just a few days after the Thanksgiving holiday our nation loves to dress up in the feathers of the people we slaughtered.
Call me crazy, but it doesn’t seem like this should be an issue in 2012. Just give them the land back. You see, this parcel of land that no one is using just happens to be known as Pe' Sla, an area in the Black Hills of South Dakota (just west of Rapid City) that is considered by the Lakota people to be the Center and heart of everything that is. It is part of their creation story. It is a sacred place. They perform ceremonies at Pe' Sla which they believe sustain the Lakota way of life and keep the universe in harmony. To deny them ownership is to deny them who they are.
Now the Lakota had managed to work out arrangements with the Reynolds family over the years in order to continue their use of the land. But if the land is turned out to the next highest bidder, the likelihood that land would be developed for either mining or road construction is quite high. In fact, the Dallas-based Hyperion Refining has been mentioned as the next likeliest bidder. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Hyperion wouldn’t bother working out any sort of arrangement for Pe’ Sla to continue as the Lakota’s beliefs demand.
Of course, this is nothing new. This tale has been told and retold so many times on this continent, it’s pathetic. For those of you who have never seen the movie Thunderheart or heard the tale of Leonard Peltier, let me state a quick lesson. Peltier was born of a Lakota Sioux mother in 1944 and grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota. In 1965, caught up in the sweep of civil rights movements throughout the US, Peltier joined the American Indian Movement. He became involved in the 71-day siege of the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1971 known as the Wounded Knee Incident. After his escape from the area, he was listed as a fugitive. Despite that, he returned to Pine Ridge in 1975 on a quest to calm the divisive factions of the reservation that had sprung up in the wake of the Wounded Knee Incident. Over 50 of his people had been murdered between when the incident occurred and when Peltier returned.
Shortly after he came back to Pine Ridge, FBI agents entered into a shootout with members of the reservation. Peltier was arrested and charged with the murders of two of the FBI members. Peltier and numerous witnesses claim he was awakened by shots as he slept in a tent nearby and that he never picked up a weapon. Regardless, he’s been in the federal penitentiary ever since.
I know in this day and age that if it hasn’t happened in the last two weeks, its ancient history. But this isn’t history, its present. Peltier is still in jail and the case against him is thoroughly flawed and politically motivated. It’s wrong and it is indicative of a continuing racist act of aggression on the Native American people.
I made peace long ago with the fact that no amount of protest, or letter writing, or movies starring Val Kilmer, or gripping music videos by Rage Against the Machine will ever result in Peltier’s release. But, somehow the irony of Bill Clinton parading around with Nelson Mandela back in the early 90s when Peltier’s case for clemency was before him seems to have escaped everyone. Fine. He’s never getting out because I’m sure a 68-year-old man is a real danger to us all.
But, for the sake of our own humanity, I hope the Lakota are allowed ownership of Pe ‘Sla. Seems the least we can do.