Leonard Peltier turned to art as an escape; now his son is trying to use it to open prison doors
Somewhere in the 40 years Leonard Peltier has been serving two consecutive life sentences in a maximum security prison for a crime he still says he didn’t commit, he found his way to paint and a canvas. What unfurled there were images that conjured the sense of home, the sense of spirit and ritual and resistance—the core love of his Native tribe—that first drove him to the ranks of the American Indian Movement. He grew up sketching and carving among tribal elders, but in prison, he has matured as a self-taught artist who turns time and again to Native Americans and wildlife for his oil paintings, rendering them with a poignancy that relays both sadness and persistence. He paints Mother Nature, he has said, because he gets to see so little of her.
…In the 1970s, the American Indian Movement, known as AIM, began a series of occupations, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington DC, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to call attention to unsafe living conditions on reservations and ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans. Conflicts with the FBI escalated over the years. About 60 deaths and disappearances of Native people remain unsolved, but when a shootout led to two plainclothes FBI agents being gunned down, the government went after three men known to have been nearby that day. Two of the three pointed to evidence of the “reign of terror” on the Pine Ridge Reservation and were found innocent on the basis of self-defense, but Peltier was not allowed to use that evidence and has been in prison since 1975.
Since then, a prosecutor has admitted he has no evidence to prove Peltier guilty of murder, a key witness has admitted to being coerced into providing a false statement, others have confessed to firing the fatal shots, documents have shown the gun Peltier was said to be carrying doesn’t match the ballistics found on the shots that killed those agents and a judge who heard the case has said he ought to be released. Despite all that, Peltier, now 70, continues to be held in a maximum security prison, his parole hearings having come and gone.