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.
"Painting is a way to examine the world in ways denied me by the United States justice system, a way to travel beyond the walls and bars of the penitentiary," he's quoted as saying on the website of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. "Through my paints I can be with my people—in touch with my culture, tradition and spirit. I can watch little children in regalia, dancing and smiling; see my elders in prayer; behold the intense glow in a warrior's eye. As I work the canvas, I am a free man."
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.
"They wanted Leonard to take responsibility for the death of the agents, even though Leonard has always maintained that he didn't shoot the agents, that like his co-defendants, and with everybody who was shooting that day, it was an act of self-defense," says Peter Clark, founder of the Indigenous Rights Center, an Albuquerque-based organization that launched in May with this case at the top of its to-do list. "It was a battle. There was a war going on for the better part of five years there in Pine Ridge."
Leonard Peltier's son, Chauncey, says he doesn't know exactly when his father started painting. They've gone long stretches without Chauncey being able to make the cross-country journey to the prison in Florida now housing his father. But a year and a half ago, he made the trip from his home in Portland, Ore.
"I asked if I could help in any way, and he asked if I could do something with the art," he tells SFR. "He just likes people to have it, and enjoy it in their house, and look at it…Some of his work, if you look at it for a while, you'll see stuff you never noticed."
So Chauncey has been working to get the paintings into galleries in Portland, and several will be displayed at the Indigenous Fine Art Market this year. He will be manning booth 500 in his father's place, alongside Clark.
The pastime that has kept Leonard Peltier's mind free for all these years now has the chance to fund efforts for his actual release. Having exhausted the appeals system and been denied parole, the campaign to free Leonard Peltier has turned to petitioning President Obama for clemency. Proceeds from the sale of his art will go to the legal costs of that effort. Clemency is likely to come from a lame duck president, and in another eight years, Peltier's health issues, which include diabetes, high blood pressure and lingering effects of a stroke, may have rendered the question moot.
"If he doesn't get out under President Obama, his chances of getting out before he dies a natural death from his different ailments that he has..." Clark says, trailing off. "Even though prisons are overcrowded, even though there's this mandate to give some relief to elderly prisoners, this hasn't happened, and we're very skeptical that it will happen with Leonard."
A maximum-security prison is a rough place for a 70-year-old man, Chauncey says.
"It's hard for him to defend himself in there," he adds. "I tell people, 'I'm not going to give these paintings away. These could be the last 50, 60 paintings. These are works coming from my father. He could be gone any day now.'"
Amnesty International has issued a statement supporting his release and called Peltier's ongoing imprisonment unconscionable and a "grave miscarriage of justice."
"My father, he's an old man…He has remorse; he said himself, he didn't want nobody to die that day. He feels bad for the FBI agents' families," Chauncey says. "All we're asking for is justice. Let him go home. He says if he got out, all he'd do is go home and stay there. Go up to his land, build a house, paint in his studio and work on cars."