One of your comrades of those days, Leonard Peltier — America’s most well-known political prisoner to everyone in the world but Americans — is still locked up after all these years without a retrial. Have you had a chance to talk with him recently? How’s he doing, and what’s happening with his case?
I talk to Leonard about once every two, three weeks. …I did talk to him a week ago. I’m going to lead a walk across America for him beginning February 11th , a five-month walk across the U.S. to Washington D.C., asking for executive clemency. ’Cause the courts convicted Peltier and the courts will not let him out. The court system is gonna protect itself. So executive clemency is gonna be the only way… As long as he’s been in prison, we’ve been getting petitions together and it’s now before the pardon people. [Shows a copy of an appeal letter by Peltier addressed in part to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton.]
Is there any reason to believe the Clinton administration might be more sympathetic than those of the past?
I think if Clinton is gonna move, he would’ve moved in his first year. Otherwise, if he does it too late, it’s gonna be too close to his re-election campaign, and the right-wing and police people are gonna use that against him. He should’ve moved real early. He’ll either do it soon or when he’s leaving office. If it’s when he’s leaving office, we have to look at his re-election: three, four more years. Those are always political decisions, no matter how right or wrong the situation is. Executive clemency always pulls on the political strings of America....
But Peltier will be freed. I made that prediction 17 years ago. There’s no way they could find him guilty. Even coming on the heels of the other trial of [Darrelle] Butler and [Robert] Robideau, they found [Peltier] not guilty by reason of self-defense. And all of a sudden, when we got to North Dakota, the judge says, “You cannot use that defense here.” Whoa, man! If you can’t use it, then there’s no defense! So Peltier was doomed before the trial even began.
But you see, at the [June 1976] Cedar Rapids trial, even [Clarence] Kelly came out to testify, the head of the FBI. And the counselor asked him: Do Indians have a right to defend themselves when people are shootin’ at ’em? And he said: Yes, yes they do. [laughs] The FBI did not want him to testify again and say those same things in North Dakota; so they moved the trial back into Dakota territory. Can you imagine the head of the FBI sinkin’ their own case?
How are Leonard’s spirits these days?
Very high. Very, very high, for a man who’s been in prison 17 years. But you know, when you think about it, he’s angry, he’s mad. And the madness is like depressed mad sometimes: Damn it! What the hell am I doing in here?! I was in Minnesota at the last appeals hearing, which was last November 9th, and the U.S. attorney was there. This is the same U.S. attorney who said 17 years ago, summing up the trial to the jury: “And so Peltier grabs his gun and he goes to the first agent and the agent is saying, ‘Please don’t shoot me! Please don’t shoot me!’ And Peltier, in his cold-blooded mind, shot him through the hand and through the forehead and blew off his head. And then he turns to the other agent and says, ‘And you’re next!’ And the agent is crying for his life and Peltier shoots him dead!” He says: “That’s that man right there: Peltier.” That’s on the transcript.
Of course, there were objections all the way through his argument: Nobody saw Peltier do anything. Not even the FBI, nobody. But yet the U.S. attorney is painting a picture for the jury, and putting words into the dead agent’s mouth. But the judge let that go! And the jury convicted Peltier, sentencing him to two life-terms.
Seventeen years later: I was in a courtroom in St. Paul last November, and before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the judges says, “Well, what do you mean you don’t know who killed the agents?” And the U.S. attorney says, “We don’t know who shot the agents.” And the judge says: “You don’t know who shot the agents?!” Then he starts going through all these papers and says, “Are you the same U.S. attorney that said Peltier shot the agents in cold blood, and said, ‘No, please don’t shoot me!’ Are you the same U.S. attorney?” And [Lynn] Crooks says, “Yes.” The judge says, “Now you say you do not know who shot the agents? Isn’t that rather significant?”
So anyway, they say that — because he could not use his self-defense theory — two agents were killed, Peltier was there and, please ladies and gentlemen, draw your own conclusions as to who shot the agents. And that’s the government’s theory right now.
…[A judge in one of Peltier’s trials wrote an opinion and sent it] to the president of the United States, listing five reasons why Peltier should be freed. He says: “I am the judge who wrote the opinion that he should be denied a new trial. I wrote that based on the technicalities of the law and the framework of what we had to work with.” He says, “Even though I wrote that, it does not change my mind that I think he should be freed, because the government started that fight.”
And you’ve got to understand the situation [at Pine Ridge Reservation on June 26, 1975]: The camp was asleep and all of a sudden shooting is going on, and people are getting up and running. What’s going on?! The shooting’s coming from everywhere; people began to fire back in massive exchange, and all of a sudden people are on the road, and nobody in the camp knew who was shooting. When it was all over, Joe [Killsright Stuntz] was dead, [FBI agent Jack] Coler was dead, [agent Ronald] Williams was dead. Because they wanted to arrest, they said, a man who stole a pair of shoes. You do not go in shooting to arrest somebody for stealing shoes.
But that’s why I say Leonard’s spirit is fine, is great. When we talk privately, even though we know they’re listening, he breaks down every now and then. But he comes back strong. Five minutes later, he’s talking differently.
Over the years you seem to have moved out of the political arena of Indian rights and more toward cultural promotion. Why?
Well, it didn’t start out that way. I felt in the beginning that it was extremely important we strengthen our political position. Because that has always been the arena where the battle takes place. Whether that arena involves actual engagement in war or negotiation about our land, water, natural resources — that’s where it’s at. And I felt that we must develop a political strategy for our future. Now I believe that is very secure. Now that a lot of elders and people understand the direction we must go in that arena, I thought it was very necessary for me to return to strengthen the cultural base. Whatever we do culturally will end up with a political move. It can’t be the other way around. We can’t make a political move and then expect the cultural side to support it. It’ll never happen that way, and I would be opposed to it myself.
On the same subject, does your participation in movie roles the past few years [“War Party” in 1988, “Thunderheart” in 1989 and “Last of the Mohicans” in 1992] indicate any meaningful change in Hollywood’s infamous stereotypes of American Indians?
It sure does, yeah. I would’ve never done a movie in my life if it involved John Wayne or a character like Tonto. Those days are gone. The American Indian Movement sent those guys packing in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Hollywood’s been involved, ever since it started making movies, in degrading Native people, demeaning our lifestyle, and stereotyping entire races of people.
There is the oral history of an event, there is the printed record of an event, then there’s the Hollywood version. Because the Hollywood version can be seen by masses of people, that fictional version usually becomes assumed fact. And that has been the dilemma we’ve found ourselves in. It takes away the buying of a book for eight or nine dollars [and the week it takes to read it]. You can see a movie for three bucks and then it’s over. The craziness of that is that movies put visuals into your mind, and the very serious problem with that is the visuals rarely go away. So a visual distortion, a visual lie, becomes truth. An assumed truth. When we began to attack Hollywood, we never realized that we would be stepping into some of those roles [laughs] — in front of the cameras, as actors.
I’ve done three movies, but I’m not chasing that career. There is some big money there. But somehow, for me, it’s something I won’t do again. I will be a consultant on any movie, but I will not pursue acting. People say I’m an actor anyways, without the movies.
As for reality outside the movies: Over the past few decades, how have conditions on the reservations been changing?
The attitude of the government has changed from one of covert activities to one of overt activities. They’re still trying to swindle Native people out of their land. They’re still trying to support Corporate America, and Corporate America has a lot of hands on Indian lands. So their attitude, as I said, is one of covert to overt business. I will never trust the policies that come out of Washington — ever. Individually, the Congress people I’m sure are good persons. But something happens to them when they become a collective body. They corrupt themselves, as honest as they are individually.
An Oglala Sioux woman was quoted not too long ago as saying, “I tried to make myself believe in the white people’s ways but I couldn’t. Now I want to believe in the Indian way. …Without our ceremonies I’d probably be just another old drunk.” Are today’s generation of American Indians keeping such a strong identity about their cultural heritage, or do you find it fading away?
One quick answer: It’s getting stronger. Our schools got total-immersion programs with language. We have 24 junior colleges across the country right now, and every one of them emphasize cultural education over academic and economic education. So, it’s getting stronger.
Can you tell us a little about some of the North American Indian traditions like the Sun Dance and the Sweat Lodge Ceremony, and why they are still considered so sacred to the Indian community?
Whether it is the Sun Dance or the Sweat Lodge, those are the ceremonies that we derive our strength from. That strength — that’s what gives us the desire and the will and the courage to keep going. If those were taken away from us, we would still find a ceremony or we would create one, just like they did in 1887. [The authorities] forbid ceremonies, but we created ceremonies on our own. The Sun Dance was forbidden, the Sweat Lodge was forbidden. But the old men who later became chiefs — who were very young at that time — still had ceremonies, still practiced them. The Ojibwa people practiced them, the Oglalas practiced them, the Diné, Hopis. And they even threw a lot of our people in jail. But the strength of Indian people came through because of the ceremonies. The rituals attached to ceremonies are so important. It’s truly the essence of who we are.
Can you tell us a little about the rituals themselves, what you have to do when you go through the Sun Dance or the Sweat Lodge?
Oh, that would take a lot of time. But you would enjoy the explanation, and you would in part understand why they are so sacred to us. But I would rather leave that to another hour — a total hour for that.
Let’s go on then… 1993 has been the United Nations’ “Year of Indigenous People” and there have been major summits. How do you appraise the consciousness-raising effects of such programs?
Well, I also see the United Nations as being a group of people who have declared war on indigenous lands. I saw that before the “Year of Indigenous People.” What I would like to see happen is an indigenous United Nations. I say I’d like to see that because I’m part of a group that is organizing a summit for 1995 for Okinawa…
I have not been the first to say that the United Nations has not listened to indigenous people. And I won’t be the last. [In the past] I kept attacking the schools in Minneapolis, saying that “We gotta change, they’re not listening to us,” and then finally I realized that they were never gonna listen to us. Ninety days later, we were moving to do that. We withdrew all our kids from the schools in Minneapolis. Started in a church basement, and today we have two big schools, one in Minneapolis, one in St. Paul. And these schools are visited by Congressmen. Now our schools are teaching what our children need.
The public school system in Minneapolis is like the United Nations. They’re not listening to us. So we build our own!
In major crises involving the United States over the years — the Cold War and Persian Gulf War being just a couple examples — American Indians have consistently approached the countries targeted by the U.S. in an attempt to help “put out the fire,” so to speak. Your thoughts on that?
Our position was to tell those people that we were not involved in the war effort against their countries. I have taken that stand since I was in the military. When I was asked at Sunagawa [Air Force Base, Tokyo] to fire on protesters if they crossed over the fence, I made a decision then that I would not fire — that this is their land and the U.S. military has no business there, and that we would have no moral or any other right to shoot anybody over the expansion of a military base.
The position that Black Elk took in the Middle East also had to do with human rights, saying, “We’re not on the other end of shootin’ on you, but we are concerned about the many complaints about human rights, you know, in your country.” We weren’t pointing a finger at anybody; those were reports that we were getting. Those are published at the United Nations and at the International Indian Treaty Council.
But as I said, the goal of what I’m pursuing is to strengthen our own ceremonies. We’ve got to do that. And perhaps through that, people will begin to understand that ceremonies and rituals have to take precedence over political ambitions and activities. We can’t search for a political answer to an issue where human emotions are involved. Political decisions, they’ve never been right, always favoring majority rule. What about the minorities? What about people that say, “No, don’t do it this way! Let’s try some other way”?
You partly answered my next question: As a country whose inhumanity to others seems to have caught up with itself, what lessons does the United States need to learn now from American Indian peoples?
Well, [laughs], I don’t know if the U.S. will ever learn. But I do know that there’s a lot of young people, white people, in America that said “no” to Bush, “no” to Reagan, and “no” to Nixon. And they elected the youngest president ever, Clinton, the first president born after World War II ended. So those young people who are booting out their old leaders are looking for spiritual direction. And a lot of them are coming to Native people. You know, they’re not saying “Lead us”; they’re saying, “Be with us and show us some guidance here.” I’m ready to help them out right there. The strength of any country depends on spiritual foundation. If there is none, they should just hang it up.
Speaking on the global level: The elders of various American Indian tribes have warned that the human race must drastically change our course of history or perish with the Earth. As a spiritual leader in your own right, where do we go from here?
Maybe you might’ve misstated that: Mother Earth is gonna be here, will survive. Will survive the nuclear holocaust that she is suffering through right now, will survive the pollution. She’ll survive the contaminants. And Mother Earth will replenish, purify herself over an extended period of time.
What America, Corporate America, must do now: It must totally abandon its policies and redirect them. Not conquering the Earth, not using the Earth. It should be one of getting along with the Earth. It should be one of harmony. There is a way to use forests for human beings, to build homes. There’s many reforestation programs; that’s what planting and harvesting are about. But when there’s all harvesting and no planting, then Mother Earth will rebel sooner or later, and will refuse to be abused any longer. The abuse which human beings inflict upon Mother Earth will haunt us. And the only way we can change the end result is to make those massive changes now. They have to be dramatic, and they have to be in harmony with the Earth. Not against it.
You have seen and experienced many things in your lifetime. Someday when you have departed this place for the spirit world, what lasting message do you want to leave behind to future generations?
The perpetuation of life. We must always think about the seventh generation ahead of us. We must always respect the elders. By thinking of the seventh generation, we guarantee a future. By respecting the elders, we preserve the heritage handed to us seven generations ago.
Culture and heritage are extremely important. To look for answers for the future, we need only look at our past. Because culture will always guide us, and that is where the answers are. They are in the oldest teachers. Our real teachers are the trees, who were here thousands of years before human beings. Our teachers are the animals: the buffalo, the deer, antelope, elk. They were here thousands of years before humans. The eagles, hawks, owls — those are our teachers. We must look to them for the answers.
BRIAN COVERT is an Osaka-based independent journalist who writes for Japanese and overseas newspapers and magazines.