Len Foster in Geneva
International Indian Treaty Council Seeks Justice for Peltier
GENEVA—Len Foster (Dine) took Leonard Peltier’s plight to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination on Racial Discrimination (CERD) this past week where he asked the CERD to recommend that Peltier be released from prison.
Peltier has been incarcerated for the past 39 years. Now serving time in the U.S. Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida, he was convicted in 1977 of the 1975 murders of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Many people consider Leonard Peltier a political prisoner of war.
Foster is a member of the International Indian Treaty Council’s board of directors and also has served as Peltier’s spiritual advisor for many years.
In addition to his remarks relating to Peltier, Foster spoke about the rights of other indigenous prisoners.
Below is the text of Foster’s message to the CERD:
Good afternoon my relations,
My name is Lenny Foster. I am the Program Supervisor for the Navajo Nation Corrections Project in Window Rock, Arizona. I also serve as a Board Member for the International Indian Treaty Council which promotes sovereignty and self determination of Indigenous peoples and recognition and protection of Indigenous rights, treaties, traditional culture, and sacred lands.
In our Parallel Report to the CERD concerning the United States, we raise issues regarding racial discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, specifically in the US Criminal Justice system, and even more particularly Leonard Peltier.
With regard to the US Criminal Justice system we cite available data on rates of victimization, prosecution, sentencing, imprisonment and other indicia, in the U.S. which show continuing and intolerably discriminatory disparities between Indigenous Peoples and people of other races, colors, and national or ethnic origins.
This report documents that Indigenous Peoples in the United States (American Indians/Native Americas, Hawaiian Natives and Alaska Natives) endure the highest incarceration rate of any racial or ethnic group, at 38 percent higher than the national rate. Available statistics indicate that rates for youth are even higher. In addition, Indigenous Peoples within the United States receive proportionately higher sentences for the same crimes, and are consistently denied equality of freedom of religious and spiritual practice while incarcerated.
Furthermore, when reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013, the United States recognized the federal government’s responsibility to assist Tribal governments in protecting the lives of Indigenous women. Unfortunately, this Act fell short of assuring that those responsibilities are met. Of grave concern is Section 910 of the VAWA. Known as the “Alaska exemption” this section excludes the 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, leaving these Indigenous Peoples without even the narrow protections provided within the Act.
Leonard Peltier, incarcerated since 1976 in relation to the deaths of two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during a shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, is a important example of these forms of discrimination and the overall failure of the criminal justice system in the U.S. to provide real justice for Native Peoples, as well as the government-generated environment of racism that led to both the shoot-out and Peltier’s unjust conviction.
It was in fact the FBI, itself an arm of the U.S. system of justice that armed and trained the GOON squad, a paramilitary unit trained and armed by the FBI to terrorize and control the Lakota community of Pine Ridge Reservation.
Judge Gerald W. Heaney, the 8th Circuit Court judge who wrote the opinion denying Leonard Peltier a new trial, wrote a letter to Senator Daniel K. Inouye in 1991 citing various reasons why Leonard Peltier should be released. He cited governmental culpability for the events at Wounded Knee and the legitimate grievances of Native Americans, among other things, in recommending the President’s commutation or mitigation of Leonard Peltier’s sentence.
In that 1991 letter Judge Heaney states:
“… Leonard Peltier was tried, found guilty and sentenced. He has now served more than 14 years in the federal penitentiary. At some point, a healing process must begin. We as a nation must treat Native Americans more fairly. To do so, we must recognize their unique culture and their great contribution to our nation. Favorable action by the President in the Leonard Peltier case would be an important step in this regard.”
In 2012, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya addressed the continued incarceration of Leonard Peltier as “one of the open wounds of historical events’ in the United States: He further noted that:
“Pleas for presidential consideration of clemency… have not borne fruit. This further depletes the already diminished faith in the criminal justice system felt by many Indigenous People.”
The word “icon” refers to a symbol of greater significance than itself. Leonard Peltier, for many Indians in the United States, is of greater significance than his own personal situation. Justice for Leonard would be an important step in the great healing still necessary between Native Americans and the United States.
In conclusion we urge the CERD to question the United States on the gross disparities between Indigenous Peoples and others in the United States, found by its own data, and recommend that the United States take full and purposeful action to remedy these deprivations of fundamental rights.
We also request that the CERD consider the case of Leonard Peltier not as an individual case of racial discrimination but as the icon of repression, an open sore of racism on the body politic. Recognizing that it continues to affect the trust and the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the government, we ask the CERD to recommend Leonard Peltier’s release from prison.