“Seconds before this photo was taken, I kindly told the FBI Director, ‘Thank you for the award, but I came here to ask you to look into the case of Leonard Peltier, please free Leonard Peltier.’ He just smiled and said, ‘Thank you for all your work and I will look into it.’ Then we took the picture.”
Samuel Johns, the Ahtna Athabascan rap artist who goes by the stage name AK Rebel, posted this status to his Facebook page the same morning the picture was taken, April 15. That’s when FBI Director James B. Comey presented the Director’s Community Leadership Award to Johns for founding the Facebook-based group “Forget me not,” which, as the FBI website explains, helps “homeless Alaskan natives reconnect with their families, friends, and culture.”
The site goes on to state, “Since he created the group in June 2015, Mr. Johns has helped many Alaskans get back to their villages or find sober living environments.” Fifty-five others from across the country also received the award for having “demonstrated outstanding contributions to their local communities through service.”
As Johns met Comey, and posed with him for a picture, he asked something he’d been thinking about for months. He asked about Leonard Peltier.
“Some people were telling me not to do it because it might spark some controversy. But I tried to say it in a peaceful way when I was right next to him, just casually bringing it up and not saying it like I’m telling him to do it. I’m just casually asking him to look into the case and, if he can, to free Leonard Peltier. And he had a real respectable answer. He said he would look into it,” Johns told ICTMN.
But what would cause an Alaska Native rap artist to ask the FBI director about Leonard Peltier, the Chippewa/Sioux activist and American Indian Movement member many consider unjustly convicted of murdering two FBI special agents in 1975? For Johns the reason was simple.
“I could have just stayed quiet and soaked it all in and been happy about an award, but I felt I had a duty as a person who has a voice. I was never going to have that opportunity again. I’d probably never see the FBI director again, so what is the one thing I should bring up to him?”
As a Native man with the FBI director’s ear for only a brief moment, he felt it was his duty to ask about Leonard Peltier. From a different perspective, Johns was simply caring for another homeless Native, displaced from his people, just like the homeless Natives from Anchorage he helps with the Facebook group he founded, “Forget me not.”
The group began last year, when Johns decided to take a break from performing at schools in the remote towns of rural Alaska. Normally he performed sobriety-based hip-hop songs for students and presented traditional Ahtna Athabascan songs. But as the birth of his second daughter grew near, Johns looked for a project he could manage from home.
In May, he was stopped by a Native woman asking for spare change. Johns asked where she was from and the woman told him Angoon. When Johns asked if she wanted to return there, the woman nodded and her eyes filled with tears. Johns told her he’d see what he could do.
Courtesy Mike Williams
Samuel Johns shares traditional Ahtna Athabascan songs and stories with children from the Akiak School in Akiak, Alaska on September 22.
After returning home, Johns realized he didn’t even know the woman’s name. How could he help her? If there were just some way to harness the magic of that moment when his desire to help met with her wish to change, the combination would be powerful. Lightning in a bottle. But how?
Johns realized he had the answer in his pocket. With a smartphone he could snap a person’s picture and post it on a Facebook group he would create. He eventually called the group “Forget me not,” after the Alaska State flower, and began posting pictures of homeless Alaska Natives that he encountered in Anchorage. With permission, he would post their picture, name and the town they originally came from. He also included any message the person might want to make to their family and friends back home.
Within days thousands of people became members of the group. Offers of help poured in, from donations of food and clothes to airline miles. Getting the word out on “Forget me not” caught the lightning of compassion in a cyberspace bottle. Within a month there were over 8,000 members and the current total is over 23,000.
Soon, success stories began appearing. People were found by relatives who had been desperately looking for them. People were sent home with donated airline miles. Even Teri Deschene, the woman from Angoon who originally inspired Johns to start the group, was eventually contacted. FMN members sent her home to Angoon in October, where she now lives a sober lifestyle.
Courtesy Forget me not/Facebook
A mix of pictures from the “Forget me not” Facebook page show the smiles of homeless Alaska Natives helped by the group. In the center square is Teri Deschene, who inspired Samuel Johns to create the group. The left side shows her while still on the streets in Anchorage. The right side shows her new sober life in Angoon.
The magic lightning that “Forget me not” captures comes mainly from seeing homeless people as human beings and not stereotypes. E.J.R. David and co-author Ali Marvin, in a column published last October in Alaska Dispatch News, call the tendency not to see homeless people “dehumanization.” They wrote:
“What is perhaps the most profound aspect of “Forget me not” is that it allows us to see the homeless as individuals—humans—rather than anonymous faces holding signs on the street. In essence, it addresses the phenomenon known as dehumanization....”
Scrolling through the pictures posted on “Forget me not” a visitor is greeted with page after page of smiling Native faces, each with a personality and a message. “Don’t forget me,” they all seem to say. “I’m human just like you.”
Courtesy Mike Williams
Samuel Johns visits one of his mentors in Akiak, Alaska, Yupiaq elder Mike Williams, Chairman of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and frequent participant in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
Johns extends this clarity of vision to our country’s most famous incarcerated Native, Leonard Peltier, who’s been locked up in a maximum security federal prison for the last 40 years. For some, the barriers to returning home are alcoholism or drug abuse. For others, like Peltier, they are metal bars. Whatever the barrier, Johns knows the first step to healing is seeing the human and acting as a community.
Johns himself sums it up best in a message he posted December 13:
“I am no CEO of a corporation, I have no political agenda, I have not been funded by some federal grant and no I am not qualified to do what I have been doing. What I did was take the word ‘I’ out of what I’ve been doing. Then ‘WE’ put our hearts together and made an unforgettable impact in Alaska. I can’t change the world, but we can... #ForgetMeNotMovement.”
Note: ICTMN wrote to Director Comey asking for the status of the investigation he promised regarding Peltier. As of this writing, he’s yet to respond.