It was bound to happen.
When Ms Ché contemplated her first week as a student at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, she warned me, saying, "I just might turn into a radical Indian, yanno."
I said, "It wouldn't surprise me at all. I can just see you marching and carrying a sign reading 'Free Leonard Peltier.'" That's when she gave me the side-eye and a little grin. "That's only the beginning," she said.
So Friday we were up in Santa Fe for that talk on Native American women sculptors mentioned in the previous post, and we stopped by the Indigenous Fine Arts Market in the Railyards afterwards where we ran into the Free Leonard Peltier booth, manned by Peter from the Indigenous Rights Center in Albuquerque and Leonard's son Chauncey, featuring dozens of Leonard's paintings, prints, posters, and all sorts of minor items-- buttons, patches, t-shirts, etc -- with that theme: "Free Leonard Peltier."
I think he is the longest-held political prisoner in the nation's history. Not even Geronimo was held as long as Peltier has been.
The story is complicated, and I won't go into the details here, but from our perspective, he's been held in Federal prison (for the murder of two FBI agents in 1975 at the Pine Ridge Reservation) not for the crime -- which he may or may not have had some role in (the evidence is more than sufficient for reasonable doubt) but because he was and still is an outspoken advocate of Indian rights which at the time had led to remarkable events throughout Indian Country, events which still reverberate. In other words, he's been an effective activist, advocate, and voice for the Indian peoples -- all oppressed peoples, really -- and that is, in this country, unforgivable.
Ms Ché has been moved by injustice all her life, as have I been throughout my own life. Injustice seems to be rampant these days, but in some ways it's been worse, oh far worse, in the past. Ms says she was awakened to the necessity to express and defend her own Native heritage by the AIM occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971. Prior to that, she, like many other de-tribalized and urban Indians, had learned to suppress and almost keep secret her Native roots. It was not something to be widely, frequently or openly mentioned.
In fact, I didn't know she was an Indian when I first knew her. It literally did not occur to me. When she told me, after we'd known each other for a year or more, I was surprised, even delighted. But my ignorance was profound, and I've spent a lifetime learning the rudiments of her Cherokee culture, and I have been blessed to be part of her family -- both her immediate relatives and her extended family through various Cherokee and other Indian organizations and associations.
The occupation of Alcatraz and the subsequent AIM and other Indian rights actions galvanized her sense of being an Indian, but the context of our lives in California and our peripatetic travels around the country in the show business didn't include a lot of "Indian-ness." After settling down, much later in our lives, to a more mundane routine and lifestyle, there still wasn't a lot of Indian cultural integration -- because in California, there really isn't much of it to speak of. California was all but wiped clean of its Native peoples soon after the Gold Rush though pockets of Natives were allowed to persist on rural/remote scraps of land called "rancherias" scattered here and there, most of them were either slaughtered outright, kidnapped and turned into slaves, or assimilated willingly or not into the dominant (white) culture.
Not till the casinos arose was there more than an historical awareness of California's Native peoples and heritage, and it's still somewhat of an exotic topic among Anglos in California.
Meanwhile, Indians from other parts of the country were being sent to California, or -- like Ms Ché's mother -- were leaving their tribal lands and going out to California on their own to make another life.
Once they did, in so many instances, they didn't mention their Indian heritage -- at least not around white folks.
As a sidenote, I think I mentioned previously that in my genealogy research the past year or so, I discovered a purported Indian ancestor on my mother's side. There is some dispute over whether Prudence Eldridge was actually a Ketchemeche Lenape (ie: Delaware) Indian or whether the claim that she was arose in the 19th century after her death as a sort of romantic fiction that tied her, and thus the Thompsons and the Piersons who descend from her, to the the Native people of New Jersey's Cape May peninsula where my mother's ancestors (her grandmother was a Pierson descended directly from Prudence Eldridge and her husband Benjah Thompson) originally came from. At any rate, even if Prudence was a full (or perhaps half) blood Indian (other descendants claim she wasn't an Indian at all) it was so long ago, that my mother not only had no knowledge of her, she had no inkling she might have had Indian ancestry.
I had no knowledge of it, either.
Back to the topic at hand. We made initial contact with the "Free Leonard Peltier" booth at the Indigenous Fine Arts Market in Santa Fe on Friday. We did not know it was there prior to encountering it, though we found out later there has been quite a lot of press about it, and not a little controversy, too. John Torres Nez, who founded the IFA Market after he and a number of others quit SWAIA a little over a year ago (I won't get into the politics of it at this time) invited Leonard's people to exhibit his works and be part of the Market as part of his overall commitment to justice, and their presence at the IFA Market was galvanizing. Some people disapproved and a few exhibitors refused to participate because of the Leonard Peltier booth, but for the most part, they were eagerly welcomed with open arms.
Yesterday, there was a reception at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice for Chauncey Peltier and there was a small exhibit of Leonard's works. We learned that the Indigenous Rights Center, housed at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice since its formation in May, is a project of Leonard Peltier's struggle for human rights and his own freedom, and that the Indigenous Rights Center is fully involved not only with Leonard Peltier's campaign for clemency from the Obama administration but with a range of human rights and Indigenous support projects. Though still in the initial stages, it's really quite wonderful.
Chauncey Peltier is Leonard's son. He said he was not involved in the "Free Leonard Peltier" campaign before last year because he wasn't ready. When he'd visit his father in prison, his father told him to live his own life and not feel obligated to help or serve his father. Then, after he had lived his own life, raising a family, working in construction, conquering alcoholism, and so on, he realized he was ready, and he did have an obligation to help his father. He said he asked his father what he needed and what he could do, and he found himself put in charge of marketing Leonard's art, and serving as head of the International campaign to free Leonard Peltier, and he's never looked back. The past year has been the most rewarding and fulfilling aspect of his life. A transformative aspect as well.
Ms Ché was asked to read a prayer Leonard had composed in prison as part of the ceremony last night. She did so, eagerly and with aplomb. She was not the only other Indian there (besides Chauncey) but she was someone "new" -- a recruit if you will -- and she was ready:
Grandfather,Ms Ché and Chauncey Peltier became family yesterday, and through Chauncey, she and Leonard Peltier became extended family joining millions who already express their support for Leonard and his freedom. There is much more to come... The Great Healing continues...
We search for you along
this Great Red Road you have set us on.
We thank you for this world.
We thank you for our own existence.
We ask only for your blessing
and for your instruction.
Put our feet on the holy path
that leads to you,
and give us the strength and the will
to lead ourselves and our children
past the darkness we have entered.
Teach us to heal ourselves,
to heal each other
and to heal the world.
Let us begin this very day,
this very hour,
the Great Healing to come.
Would you like to know more?
Incident at Oglala -- The Leonard Peltier Story
Incident at Oglala - The Leonard Peltier Story from CivilDisobedienceCompany on Vimeo.