In a maximum-security prison in Coleman, Florida, a 71-year-old Native man sits at an easel painting. His back hurts so much it's hard for him to walk. He needs someone to help support him for the first few steps. Squinting through reading glasses, he carefully applies paint to the canvas and slowly pictures of Lakota warriors and elders and scenes from his people's history come to life. The artist's name is Leonard Peltier and in his mind the paintings are a door to the outside world, the world of free men, into which his creativity can escape from nearly 40 years of incarceration.
But not if the FBI can help it.
A week before Thanksgiving, four of Peltier's paintings were removed from a Washington State exhibition of Native art due to complaints from ex-FBI agents. I first heard of this when a friend posted a link to a story by King 5 news in Seattle. The headline read, "State Agency to Remove Convicted Cop Killer's Artwork." My friend wrote above it, "Can we get a rally together to oppose this?"
I watched the news clip in which ex-FBI agent Ray Lauer, spoke on-camera saying, "The State of Washington should not be honoring this person, who's not a hero. He's a criminal. This person should not be honored by anyone, much less by taxpayer dollars. He's nothing but a thug. He's an unrepentant cop killer."
I sat up, clenched my teeth and thought, Oh no you didn't! I wrote back to my friend saying I'd be happy to help organize a rally.
The term "Cop Killer" brought up images of drug-slinging gang members, not the Native activist who fought alongside Nisqually leader Billy Franks Jr. in the early 1970s to gain fishing rights, not the warrior who helped occupy Fort Lawton in Seattle, which culminated in the land being returned to Native people and renamed Discovery Park, home of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. Leonard Peltier fought for Native people on many fronts, wherever he was needed. The FBI was attempting to rewrite history. This could not stand. A response must be made. I began looking into how all this started.
On November 11, the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI sent a scathing letter to Joel Sacks, director of the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, demanding Peltier's paintings be removed from their lobby exhibition commemorating Native American Heritage Month.
Larry Langberg, president of the society, wrote, "Peltier is simply a vicious thug and murderer with no respect or regard for human life, especially when law enforcement officers are involved." Another organization, the No Parole Peltier Association, run by ex-FBI agent Edward Woods, sent a similar letter to Governor Jay Inslee. I contacted L&I spokesperson Tim Church to get the lowdown.
"We received complaints from a handful of people, including some close to the families of those who were killed during the incident in South Dakota, the Society of Former Special Agents and others. After listening carefully to their concerns, and wanting to keep the focus on the purpose of the American Indian Heritage Month [sic] celebration, we decided to return the paintings loaned to us by Mr. Peltier's family."
In other words, they caved-in to FBI pressure. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, this was a blatant infringement of Peltier's First Amendment right to freedom of speech. I went from being bothered to being angry.
I'd first heard of Leonard Peltier when I myself was incarcerated in Washington Corrections Center, Shelton. From 1992 to 1993 I was inmate number 984121, convicted of forgery and drug possession. My 21-month sentence at the medium-security prison was easy time compared with the two consecutive life sentences Peltier was serving in a much harsher federal prison.
Soon after arriving I joined a Native Spirituality group called the Tribal Sons. We met twice a week and talked and drummed and sang Lakota songs. Once a month we held a Sweat Lodge and passed the C'anunpa and prayed. Leonard Peltier was a hero to us, a fellow convict who had fought for his people against a government who wanted to destroy Native traditions and steal Lakota land. To us he was just as much a warrior as Geronimo or Crazy Horse.
Cop Killer. Thug. Who were these people to call him that? They were the thugs. They were the killers who'd armed and trained the GOONS, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, and encouraged them to murder over 60 AIM members and Oglala Lakota traditionalists in the months preceding the famous 1975 firefight between American Indian Movement warriors and the FBI. That battle had three casualties, FBI Special Agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler and AIM soldier Joe Stuntz. No one ever paid for the death of Joe Stuntz. But the FBI made sure someone paid for Williams and Coler. They coerced witnesses, falsified evidence and lied on the stand. Ultimately, the administrative pressure of the FBI brought the whole mess crashing down on the shoulders of one man: Leonard Peltier.
Hell yes, let's rally. Let's rally in front of the King 5 studios. Of the 70 or so news stories that appeared about this incident, King 5's was the only one that used the term Cop Killer in their headline. They even displayed a graphic with the words "Cop Killer's Art" underneath a picture of Leonard.
I wrote to Drew Mikkelson, the reporter of the King 5 story, and told him of the protest rally we had planned with the help of the Seattle Chapter of the United Urban Warrior Society. Would he care to make a comment?
Silence. Nothing. Two days before the planned Thanksgiving Day rally I called and spoke to Mikkelson. "I referred your email to my boss. He will respond to you," was all he'd say. He shut me down and hung up. I never heard anything more from King 5. I can only assume Mikkelson was being coached by powerful forces on the side of the FBI.
Seven of us showed up with signs and handouts. We'd sent press releases to every newspaper and news outlet we could think of. No one covered our rally. Lots of cars passed, but only 12 or 15 honked and waved at us. Similar protests advocating for Leonard's release were being held all over the country. Ours was probably the smallest.
I was discouraged at first. Then I thought of Leonard. He had written to me through his defense committee.
"My art helps me escape from this nearly 40 years of torture. It is a relief from the hell hole of prison, and I know I will paint or sketch as long as I'm allowed and/or alive and able to do so."
After 40 plus years of continuous persecution by the FBI, including their most recent attempts to rewrite history, the warrior Leonard Peltier still fights for Native people, only now he uses a paint brush instead of a gun.
Frank Hopper is an Alaska Native (Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan clan) freelance writer and investigative journalist born in Juneau and raised in Seattle..