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Ben Carnes on the film "Warrior: The Life of Leonard Peltier"

by RP Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009 at 5:23 PM

In advance of his appearance this week at an L.A. screening of "Warrior: The Life of Leonard Peltier," Ben Carnes of the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee discussed that film, Leonard Peltier, and a variety of other Native American issues.

Ben Carnes on the fi...
peltierflyer.jpg, image/jpeg, 500x707

LA IndyMedia: Could you talk about the film which is going to be shown this week?

Carnes: In the late '80s and early '90s we had began to develop the peak of the movement for the Leonard Peltier campaign. Suzie Baer was one of those [see:], along with Robert Redford and others who utilized forms of media to try and bring more attention to Leonard Peltier's case. Warrior: The Life of Leonard Peltier is really a good film. It needs more exposure along with Incident at Oglala [which can be watched here]. It gives background about why Leonard was there and why the government is so adamant about keeping Leonard in and not allowing the truth to come out.

LA IndyMedia: I did see “Incident,” and I learned a lot from it.

Carnes: The one thing that I saw in Suzie Baer's film that I didn't see elsewhere and which brought the point home was that in the Black Hills there's hundreds of millions of dollars in gold is supposedly buried within every acre of land. It's always been the natural resources that the government or the corporations have been after.

When the American Indian Movement went to Pine Ridge their thoughts were the treaty rights. What they hadn't realized was they were standing in the way of these multi-national corporations [and the] government getting their hands on the natural resources: gold, coal, gas, uranium.

LA IndyMedia: The events leading up to the arrest of Leonard Peltier are involved. One of the most concise explanations I've heard was Buffy Sainte Marie recently saying that Leonard Peltier wasn't the kind of guy who would get caught up in an FBI shootout. He was the kind of guy would come over to your house on the weekend and fix your car, and the FBI really had no business being on Pine Ridge that day anyway. (Buffy Saint Marie discussed briefly this with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman on October 12, 2009.)

Carnes: No, they didn't, and even though they were there, the FBI had been to the area they call the Jumping Bulls a few times earlier. And a few days before the shootout they knew that Jim Eagle wasn't there because they had asked about him. The people at the camp said, “Well, Jimmy's still drinking and partying, so he wouldn't be around here.” They were living an alcohol-free life and involved in their spiritual traditions such as sweat lodge ceremonies and pipe ceremonies. So the feds knew that he wasn't there.

As far as Leonard getting targeted, I don't think that was their intention. They just wanted to arrest a group of AIM (American Indian Movement) people and have a big media riff because there was such a propaganda campaign that was going on against the American Indian Movement—that they were being trained by communists in Cuba, all kinds of derogatory things to help discredit them. But on the day of that shootout there were just strange things that happening that day that screwed their plans up. When the agents went in, there was another agent

LA IndyMedia: Over the years you've been heavily involved with trying to get Leonard Peltier free. Could you discuss your action earlier this year to get him paroled?

Carnes: . . . I went to Washington, D.C. and took a seven-day fast in the hopes that Obama would meet with me.

. . . We had a lot of things planned early in the year as far as the campaign for Leonard, and we wanted to plan a much larger event. [However,] some things came up.

For example, we had hoped to get him transferred elsewhere. In August of last year Leonard went for a classification hearing. His security level was assessed at 16 points, which is the lower end of the legal security level. If he had had 15 points, he would have been classified as low to medium, which would have given him a lot more privileges, and he should have been in a different prison. But in January, instead of being transferred to a medium security prison, he was transferred to another maximum security prison that was design for more violent and younger inmates. He was attacked there upon his arrival. So w got everyone on the phone and sending e-mails to the White House and the justice department, and we were successful in at least getting him transferred back to Lewisburg. They still wouldn't send him to a medium security prison.

[Also] in April we had come up with a campaign plan with several different tactics and strategies that all worked together. One was that we challenged the FBI to a public debate moderated by a well-known jurist and journalist. We hoped to have it in Washington, D.C. They have never responded that they wanted to do this debate, they have also danced around it. We had other things planned, but Leonard had talked to one of his attorneys, Eric Seitz. Eric assured him that based upon his 30-year parole and all the time he'd been there that it's was not a matter anymore of his guilt or innocence, which the parole board had always used as the basis for the denials, he just has to show that he he's not a threat to society once released and that he has a good institutional record. So Leonard decided to go for parole, [and] that changed some of the plans that we had been gearing up for for August and September.

It was on the 20th that the parole commission issued a denial, but it wasn't released until the following day. On the following day I was at my computer when I got the notice through Google Alert that he got denied. My e-mail program was ringing for the next hour-and-a-half from e-mails from all over. A lot of people were very angry and very upset about what had happened. I thought: “We have to do something to keep people positive about it. We can't conduct/take actions that would portray Leonard in a negative light.” I had a talk with other members of the Defense Committee

I am a Sun Dance Chief, it's not something that we carry business cards or advertise. Leonard is a Sun Dancer. When we become Sun Dancers we're in the service of the people. We're there to help in any way that we can. I thought that the best thing we could do on such short notice [was] to bring people back and look at what we're doing in a positive way, to bring positive thoughts and positive energies flowing into this.

I just [inaudible] to pursue an executive clemency from President Obama. Technically Leonard has exhausted all his legal remedies. All of the administrative remedies would be pretty futile. [During] the denial, they claimed that he had committed armed robbery and assaulted a corrections officer—criminal conduct. However, when Leonard was tried on his attempted escape, those charges against him were dismissed. He was never convicted or tried on any of those charges.

. . . [After my seven-day fast] I came away with a whole other thought and feeling about what it's going to take to free Leonard. I've been involved with his case since I read about him in 1981. I've been to the White House, I've been to Washington, D.C. several times in support of Leonard, in support of other Native issues. What I've got to noticing was/is that as native people it seems like we always get patronized: we don't ever get taken seriously by the government, we hardly ever get taken seriously by many other organizations that would be used for support. And with the economy getting so bad a lot of non-profits are struggling to maintain their own, so everybody's kind of withdrew. Also, I don't feel that we have that wide network and that wide alliance that we used to have back in the '70s and '80s. So there's some dynamics in place here, things have changed.

I'm trying to follow up on some thoughts and ideas on [how] we can launch another campaign, but it's not so much a single on Leonard Peltier, but it's all the issues of native people. We've had these treaty rights that have never been honored, never been respected. We've had these issues with the Crow Creek tribe who has indigenous sovereign land that has been taken by the IRS for taxes, and if we allow it to happen to them, it's going to happen to others.

There's also another aspect of who we are that people need to be educated about. When everyone hears the term “tribal leaders” they think, “These are the Indians' tribal leader.” Well they're not, these are elected officials through a congressional enactment called the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The U.S. government says you cannot be recognized as an Indian nation or a tribal council unless you follow our rules. It's like being a prisoner in a federal prison: if you want to have an inmate council, you have to follow the rules on how to do your council and conduct your business.

When they [congress] did this, they had never consulted with our traditional leaders. The only only time since the passage of that act through now that they consulted traditional leaders was during the Wounded Knee occupation. They had there Chief Frank Fools Crow and many other traditional chiefs, the real leaders, who the government came and spoke with. Many of the tribal council people we had knew something about the ceremonies, something about the traditions.

Now let's even take those who are really sincere and have a traditional background: once you get involved in Washington, D.C. politics it isn't what people think, it's all an illusion. It's a trade-off. So we were successful in the past 30-something years to gain over about 40 tribal resolutions, but we knew that when they made that meeting with Obama in November that there wasn't going to be a single person who was going to stand up and address the case of Leonard Peltier. Even if you portray a tribal representative in a good light, they're there to represent their people. They've got to do what they can to help get support for the people, funding for the people. They all know that if they start bringing Leonard Peltier up, they will get pushed into the back of the line. They may not get any funding, they might not even get any grants, they might not get support. So it's a hard position when you put the tribal council people up there.

I've talked to some people, and there is an interest in having council of traditional leaders: traditional chiefs, headsman, clan mothers, and spiritual leaders come together and revisit all these issues. And at the same time I feel like we can make a broader and stronger approach by including non-Native people as well. It's going to take a little while, but I hope that it can get done. We can finally get to where we can have a gathering, a council of these traditional leaders, and we can talk about the issues of the environment, the criminal justice system, treaty rights, [and] Leonard Peltier. Then we have a statement again together, and we send to it Washington, D.C. to the congress and the president and let them know that we're coming and that we want to meet with them. Then we'll also want to go and set up 541 tipis to represent each nation and then see if they'll meet with us. This has to happen.

The whole idea would help teach the general public about the native people, that there's a whole other side of who we are rather than the romanticized notions or the angry militant Indians. In early November or late October Oliver Red Cloud, a traditional chief on Pine Ridge, went to the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) office on Pine Ridge or the tribal council office, and they did a peaceful occupation there and were able to get some of their issues addressed and looked into. Those are the ways that it needs to happen now because we're in the days of Homeland Security. Going up and doing these armed occupations, armed confrontations is not going to kelp us one bit. We have to do it in a way where we have our traditional leaders, our elders, and the people there together. By doing it the other way we'll just make ourselves targets--we'll have more people going to jails and prisons and getting killed. When we do bring in weapons like what happened at Wounded Knee in '73, there was a lot of people who weren't actually involved felt the violence of the FBI. They were terrorized, their homes were searched by the Feds. So we gotta try and keep everyone safe these days because we're losing our constitutional civil right “to protect our freedoms,” they tell us.

LA IndyMedia: How do you feel about Obama's performance so far in regards to indigenous issues?

Carnes: I feel we're just being used as tokens. He's patronizing us—again—already. There's been nothing of real substance that I feel is honoring our sovereignty and treaty rights.

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