Leonard Peltier, to some, is the country’s most unjustly convicted political prisoner. To others, he’s a cop killer who should never again see the light of day.
Either way, nearly four decades after his conviction for killing two FBI agents in a 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Peltier remains incarcerated at a federal maximum-security prison in Florida.
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both denied Peltier’s applicants for grants of clemency. Barring that action from President Obama, the 70-year-old Indian activist and self-taught, prolific prison artist is likely to die behind bars.
Chauncey Peltier, 49, a life-long Oregon resident and Leonard Peltier’s oldest son, is fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Long reluctant, on the advice of his father, to get involved in the “political stuff,” the younger Peltier has just taken over as interim head of the Who is Leonard Peltier Defense Committee – the most prominent of several international groups advocating for Peltier’s release.
The committee is trying to generate a worldwide push for clemency, as well as carrying on an informational campaign rooted in the notion that Leonard Peltier was wrongly convicted.
“Now matter how someone looks at my dad’s case, it’s clear that he’s served more than enough time,” said Peltier, who grew up in the Hillsboro area and now lives in Banks. “It’s time to set him free.”
And, at his father’s direction, Chauncey’s now in control of more than 70 original, Indian-themed oil paintings, all produced during Leonard Peltier’s confinement.
The works, ranging from six-by-eight-inch portraits of tribal elders and eagles in flight to two-by-three-foot paintings of thundering buffalo herds, will soon be heading for galleries in locales such as Vancouver, B.C., Albuquerque, NM and San Francisco.
Since Peltier donates all of his works, he doesn’t run afoul of regulations prohibiting prisoners from profiting from their works while incarcerated, according to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman.
A dealer from Spain called last week, asking if Chauncy Peltier would be interested in some European showings.
“If I can swing it, of course I’d go,” Peltier said. “But the whole point is to sell some of these works. Dad has ongoing legal bills to pay and, someday, I’d like to build a memorial for him. The world needs to remember who he is and what he stands for.”
Shootout and Trial
Chauncey Peltier was 9 years old when rising tensions at Pine Ridge led to the 1975 shootout that left FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler dead. Leonard Peltier, then a rising name in the American Indian Movement – an activist group promoting Indian rights — fled to Canada.
Prior to his 1976 arrest and extradition to face trial, Peltier crossed the border several times, Chauncey Peltier said. Unknown to many, the elder Peltier traveled to Oregon during that time.
“A network of white friends around here hid Leonard,” the son said. “They gave him money, too.”
In late 1975, an Oregon State Police trooper attempted to stop Peltier and another leading figure in AIM, Dennis Banks, as they drove along Interstate 84. Shots were exchanged before Peltier and Banks escaped, according to FBI records.
Peltier then fled to Hinton, Alberta, Canada, where he hid on an Indian reservation until his arrest by the Royal Canadian Mounted Patrol.
Peltier’s trial remains a point of contention. Supporters still accuse the government of collusion and submitting false evidence. The FBI and other law enforcement organizations defend the jury’s guilty verdict, citing ballistics tests that matched casings found near the dead agents to a weapon owned by Peltier.
The U.S. Supreme Court, on two different occasions, has denied requests to hear the case after reviewing defense arguments.
“The facts of this case have not changed,” Thomas J. Harrington, an executive with the FBI’s special services branch, wrote in opposing Peltier’s 2009 parole request. “These same facts formed the basis for Mr. Peltier’s conviction, and have been fully set forth in multiple records.”
Father and Son
Many prominent world figures and organizations continue to argue for Peltier’s release on humanitarian grounds. Desmond Tutu, the European Parliament, Amnesty International, the late Mother Theresa and Hollywood notables such as Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and Pamela Anderson all have called for him to be set free.
Now, Peltier’s son hopes to play a significant role in finally achieving that result.
“There were stretches of years there that I never saw my father,” Chauncey Peltier said. “He wanted it that way. He told me to stay in Oregon and live a peaceful life. He didn’t want me to get dragged into any of that other stuff.”
That changed last May, when Chauncey traveled to Coleman, Florida, to see his father for the first time in 13 years.
“He begged me to help him and I said I would,” the younger Peltier said. “And I haven’t looked back since.”
The first order of business was rounding up paintings that had been gathering dust in storage facilities in Green Bay, Wisc., and the North Dakota towns of Fargo and Grand Forks.
“It was quite a road trip,” said Chauncey, who had recently “self retired” as a logger and hod carrier. “It felt like the first step in a long, long journey.”
He has since launched a website to display many of the paintings. Delaney Bruce, a Portland resident and long-time Leonard Peltier supporter, developed the site.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that Leonard’s family is doing his prison time right along with him,” Bruce said. “This has had a series effect on all of them, but it’s great to see Chauncey stepping up to help.”
The paintings are all drawn from memory.
In one, a spear-carrying warrior, painted against a backdrop of swirling colors of red, orange and yellow, stares into an undefined distance. Another ponders every line and crease in the face of a dignified, unsmiling Indian woman.
“Dad says he feels like he’s outside when he paints,” Chauncey said. “Like he’s part of the free world again.”