Liberty and justice for all has been denied to Native Americans
A column by Terry Doran, Ft. Wayne, IN
In 1989, Theater for Ideas presented “And Justice for All?” that featured Native American Leonard Peltier calling in to the show from Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, where he was serving a life sentence for allegedly killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Widely believed to have been framed, his case continues to generate international concern and actions, most recently a hearing this month in Geneva, Switzerland, which inspired vigils throughout the U.S., including one here.
A few years later, I went to Pine Ridge with my brother Chris, where, thanks to the assistance of women at Sophia's Portico, I had the opportunity to interview a relative of Peltier's in her home where Peltier often visited. We also went to the Jumping Bull compound, where the two FBI agents and a Native American were killed and to Wounded Knee on the outskirts of the reservation.
We visited the school where Indians were sent to become us, pale imitations of themselves, forbidden to speak their own language, dress in their own clothing, practice their own religion. As a result of such contempt, Pine Ridge is one of the poorest areas in the United States, a place where residents freeze to death because they don't even have the money to pay heating bills.
The Sioux didn't always live in such squalor and neglect. A once-proud people who roamed freely in the western U.S., they are now reduced to being wards of the state, placed on a reservation against their will. In 1868, they were given the Black Hills in a treaty signed by the U.S. government. That treaty, like all treaties with the American Indian, was broken. The images of four U.S. presidents, all of whom contributed to the oppression of the American Indian, are carved into Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills.
The very name Wounded Knee is a scar on the American character, a place where soldiers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry massacred some 300 peaceful Indians in the snow on Dec. 29, 1890. It was the 7th Cavalry under the direction of George Armstrong Custer that was handed a humiliating defeat by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. Although Wounded Knee is perceived as the last battle of the Indian wars, the war against the spirit of the American Indian has never stopped.
In 1973, the American Indian Movement, AIM, formed to help the people of the reservation and to stand up for traditional ways, staged a protest at Wounded Knee that lasted 71 days. It was in this climate of fear and dissent that two FBI agents entered the Jumping Bull compound on June 26, 1975, just two years after AIM's occupation of Wounded Knee, years that have been described as a “reign of terror.” A shootout took place. The FBI sent reinforcements and had the compound surrounded. Eventually Peltier and two other members of AIM were arrested and tried. Two were found not guilty by reason of self-defense. Peltier was tried separately and in 1977 was found guilty. The U.S. government needed a patsy. His name is Leonard Peltier.
When I speak of a climate of fear engineered by our government against the Indian, and the contempt that follows – such as two FBI agents entering private property for no apparent reason – Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan leap to mind. And when the innocent dare to stand up, they are called communists, insurgents, terrorists, savages.
This climate of fear goes back to before the founding of this country, to the day the first Europeans stepped foot on this land and began the systematic destruction of the greatest culture this country and perhaps all the world has ever seen.
For in its glory of wandering the land, the American Indians had a society based on caring for each other, and the ground they walked on and all the creatures in it. They were a spiritual people, believing in the great mystery. They were not perfect. They went to war against each other, but within their own tribes, they had community, which to me means caring about others. Helen Tanner, author of “Great Lakes Indian History,” and a noted authority on area Indian history, pointed out on a Theater for Ideas program that when the first French fur traders arrived here, they scratched their heads in bewilderment. Where are the jails? Where are the old-people's homes? There weren't any because the Indians took care of each other. Peltier himself explains that being a warrior for his people doesn't mean carrying a gun and acting tough, but helping his people.
Sharing, taking care of each other and in the process feeling you matter, is the greatest enemy, perhaps the only enemy, of the greed that permeates America, a lust for money and power that stains our souls and keeps us mired in mediocrity. As Albert Einstein said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
Those who best embrace the brutal elements of this value system become rich and idolized. The name of our city offers a perfect example. Peltier, who did nothing but stand up for his family, his people and his way of life, is in prison.
Anthony Wayne, whose fame in this area rests solely on his ability and willingness to invade and conquer native people, got a city named after him. Named Fort Wayne in 1794, a name of military and war, the area was home to the largest collection of Indians in the area, mostly Miamis, whose war chief Little Turtle handed U.S. forces crushing defeats when the settlement was named Kekionga.
The name of this city is a disgrace to the concept of community. Unable or unwilling to live up to our stated ideals, we make up stories that turn Wayne into a hero. That ideal is best expressed in a pledge that schoolchildren across this country take every day that ends with these words: “and justice for all.”
Isn't it time we make those words mean what they say?