By Frank Hopper
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.