Celebrate South Dakota statehood by letting Leonard Peltier go
It’s hard to throw a party when some in the room don’t share your excitement, or worse, when they resent the occasion or even your very existence.

There is so much to celebrate in South Dakota’s 125 year state history and yet there are painful atrocities in our past and lingering present issues we ought not ignore. Revisiting them can facilitate healing. If not this year, when?

We share this state with Native Americans who have a very legitimate historical and ongoing beef with us wasi’chus. When Governor Daugaard announced he was setting up a commission to plan our statehood celebrations, he asked for public input to solicit ideas of things we could include. It provoked this September 18 tweet from me:

SD seeks ideas to celebrate statehood. Giving the Black Hills back ain’t happning but how about a meaningful reparation gesture of some sort.

For the last number of weeks I’ve given prayerful thought as to what might constitute a meaningful gesture. Since the offenses are by and large justice-related, key pardons come to mind. What if we let Leonard Peltier go free? In native circles here and far abroad, Leonard Peltier has become a modern symbol of a couple centuries of horrific Indian injustices by our government.

Sick and now just shy of seventy, he’s not hurting anyone and since his kangaroo trial nearly forty years ago, reasonable doubt has surfaced that he ever did. At best he was convicted on circumstantial evidence and since his incarceration several decades ago, the case against him has been seriously compromised. In 1986, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged there had been the fabrication of evidence, withholding of exculpatory evidence, coercion of witnesses, improper conduct by the FBI and willful illegality on the part of the government. His trial is certainly one of the lower moments in American justice.

Even if you are of the opinion this guy killed two FBI agents (and there is no evidence he pulled the trigger or even had the gun), my suggestion to let him go is an appeal to the fact that these murders were in the midst of a civil war-like situation aggravated by FBI agents terrorizing the Pine Ridge reservation in the wake of Wounded Knee II. Certainly, as a judge stated in 1992, the government is “equally responsible” for the death of its own agents.

My appeal is also in consideration of that fact that there were more than a couple hundred natives mysteriously murdered during this period of time in hits and drive-bys—- some would say plausibly committed by U.S. Marshalls, tribal police, state-sanctioned paramilitary GOON squads, white vigilantes and government agents. If we are judging people on circumstantial evidence as we did with Peltier, why stop with him?

Letting Peltier go is not about what he did or didn’t do or whether he is innocent or guilty, it’s an acknowledgment and admission of so much that “we did do” and so much that we have done.

Recently I’ve floated this idea with elected officials in our state. I’d like to think Senators Johnson and Thune, Congresswoman Noem, Governor Daugaard and my colleagues in the South Dakota legislature would join me in formally seeking Presidential clemency for Leonard Peltier. Only President Obama can make this happen and he could do it today. If our Great Chief in Washington is truly empathetic toward the plight of the “REDSKINS,” he will do it.

We can’t go back and fix Wounded Knee I, but it’s still not too late to redress Wounded Knee II. If we want to move into a new era, we need to let go of some things from the previous one. Time to let Leonard Peltier go and let that wound heal.

An addendum for my conservative friends: Every ammo-stocking, liberty-loving conservative in South Dakota fearing the Federal government (NSA overreaches, enemy lists, infringements by law enforcement and the like) needs to look past their Indian animosities for a moment and take a long hard look at what happened to Leonard Peltier. Martin Niemöller’s line comes to mind and so I’ll redact it for use here… first they came for [Leonard Peltier] and I did not speak out… then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me. Yes, the genocide of American Indians does warrant a likening to the eradication of the Jews.