Expanding the Discussion of Race to the Nation's Indigenous Peoples

The Gates arrest and its aftermath proves that the discussion of race and its impact on life in the United States continues to stir emotion. The discussion is nonetheless important. It's too easy for members of one racial or ethnic group to ignore or remain ignorant of the perceptions commonly held by members of other races and ethnicities.

Too rarely does the discussion include the nation's indigenous peoples. Brenda Golden provides this brief account of the injustices Native Americans have endured from the days of conquest to the present. She reminds us that the native leaders who resisted conquest or mistreatment "were branded an enemy and thrown in prison if not killed in battle."

Many of these leaders were imprisoned for long periods of time; Geronimo died a prisoner of the US at Fort Sill, Oklahoma on February 17, 1909.

This reminder is particularly timely given that Leonard Peltier's "first full parole hearing in 15 years" was held today. The results should be known in about three weeks. [more ... including a new addendum to the original post]

Peltier has long maintained that he was framed for the murders of two FBI agents. Whether or not that's true, his position won't help him win the sympathy of the Parole Commission, which typically views remorse and acceptance of responsibility as essential preconditions to parole. The Parole Commission is also likely to give considerable weight to the FBI's insistence that Peltier die in prison. This is from an interview with Eric Seitz, who represents Peltier:

AMY GOODMAN: Will the FBI be weighing in, as well? I remember the pressure in the last days of President Clinton around the issue of granting executive clemency to Leonard Peltier, and the marches of the FBI.

ERIC SEITZ: Yeah, the FBI can’t let it go. They take the position that two FBI agents died, and somebody’s got to pay for that. And so, Leonard is the person to whom they look to for that purpose, and they want him to stay in prison until he dies. So we expect that there will be a letter from the director of the FBI. We expect the FBI will be represented there. A US attorney from Fargo, North Dakota, apparently, is coming and is prepared to give a litany of reasons why Leonard should remain in prison and should never be paroled. And that’s just a part of this case, which we have to expect.

The evidence against Peltier was far from overwhelming, but the Parole Commission isn't likely to relitigate his convictions.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the Parole Commission itself says it recognizes “the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions”?

ERIC SEITZ: They have conceded that, and the US attorney himself has conceded that on several occasions. And as many of your listeners undoubtedly know, the only two people who were charged with the conduct which they say that Leonard is guilty of, those two people were acquitted in the separate jury trial. So the whole situation is one that is horrendous, in terms of the history of the case.

Despite the long odds against Peltier, Seitz told a crowd of supporters after the hearing's conclusion that he feels optimistic about his client's release. (The preceding link will take you to a website that provides a brief but comprehensive background to the Peltier case, as well as a detailed account of the facts, including links to the trial transcripts and other source documents.)

While controversy surrounds Peltier's guilt, a less controversial proposition, except perhaps within the ranks of the FBI, is that Peltier did not receive a fair trial. After Peltier's direct appeal ended with an affirmance of his conviction, it became clear that the government withheld crucial evidence from the defense that casts doubt upon Peltier's guilt. The Eighth Circuit acknowledged the "possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government's case," but affirmed his conviction because the legal standard for overturning a conviction in a collateral proceeding, as opposed to a direct appeal, is much more difficult to meet.

Circling back to the beginning of this post, Golden reminds us that Peltier is far from the only Native American to receive shabby treatment from the United States government.

According to a Department of Justice study, in some Native jails resources are so scarce that inmates do not have blankets, mattresses, or basic hygiene items, such as soap and toothpaste. Many Native Americans have lost faith in the criminal justice system in Indian Country, in part due to its inadequacy and in part due to a perceived bias. The Commission and its State Advisory Committees have held numerous meetings with Native communities over the years, and the sentiment remains unchanged: Native Americans face disparate treatment by law enforcement officials at every level.

Golden concludes:

When it comes to American Indians there is a systemic injustice in applying legal and penal rules. There is an injustice that is felt throughout Indian Country and reverberates down to our youth and children. Study after study has documented this lopsidedness when it comes to the American Indian in the “justice” system. But we see no movement to fix what needs to be fixed to treat American Indians equally with the whites of this land.

To "fix what needs to be fixed" so that the constitutional right to equal protection of the law and the American ideal that all persons are created equal are not just platitudes expressed in dusty documents, we need to move beyond quibbles about whether Prof. Gates or the officer who arrested him were more in the wrong. The discussion of race, ethnicity, and gender, and their impact on social justice, needs to become more productive and more inclusive.

Addendum: As Lincoln Mitchell observes, discussing race in the context of the Gates arrest (or the Rodney King beating or the O.J. Simpson trial) can impair meaningful discussion because the "specifics of the case often get in the way of addressing the broader and more significant problem of which the case is only one example." The same could be said of discussing the plight of Native Americans in the context of the Peltier case or the problem of gender discrimination in the context of the last Democratic primary. Specific incidents can provide a jumping-off point for deeper discussion, but they just as often (maybe more often) invite distracting disagreement about the incident. This point has occasionally been made in comments to TalkLeft posts, and it's worth keeping in mind as we think about how we can discuss these issues more usefully.

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    Speaking of the Constitution (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Cream City on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 05:45:35 PM EST
    and law, I read that not until 1924 did Native Americans get citizenship rights in this country.  That's 56 years after African American males got citizenship, at least under the Constitution (if not in reality in too many parts of the country).

    (Of course, the majority of Native Americans, African Americans, and every other sort of Americans still don't have equal rights under the Constitution.  The Equal Rights Amendment still has a name instead of a number.)

    Btw, I think we need a Sorry Day (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by Cream City on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 06:01:27 PM EST
    and other steps, solid as well as symbolic, taken by Australia toward its aboriginal and indigenous peoples (I learned that the difference is significant to them -- there are indigenous groups, i.e., pre-white invasion, that are not aboriginal, etc.).  

    Being there recently, talking with Australians a lot lately, it was a tremendously important moment in its national conversation about race.  And a moment, an event, has its importance, as it means that there still are signs and other indicators about it there.  (There are videos of the speech in its parliament, interviews, etc., on YouTube.)


    Australia's history isn't many years past (none / 0) (#7)
    by Inspector Gadget on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 06:40:10 PM EST
    I lived in Australia in 1982, and 1984. Unless the people were pulling my leg, blacks still could not even get visas to enter for tourism. I know there was no visible diversity in that country.

    I love what they are doing to progress rapidly, though they aren't being pulled in nearly as many directions as this country is for equality.


    They were pulling your leg. (none / 0) (#14)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 12:05:47 PM EST

    What exactly are you sorry for? (none / 0) (#15)
    by MyLeftMind on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 12:30:22 PM EST
    What have you ever done to hurt members of other ethnic groups? If you have personally benefited from white privilege, own it and do what you can to correct it. Most of us put a lot of effort into halting and preventing racism. Many of us have ancestors who died in the Civil War defending the emancipation of slaves. Some of us have ancestors who immigrated after Caucasians and Hispanics killed American Indians. Others immigrated long after slavery ended. All of us pay taxes that are used to promote the well being of disadvantaged minorities, including free college, housing, medical care, etc. I'm not saying racism and racial disadvantages no longer exist, but if our country and most Caucasians are taking action to establish and maintain racial equality, they don't have to go around apologizing for what other people have done wrong. Pushing white guilt gets us nowhere. We can't stop contemporary racism when people are busy blaming the white population for what someone else did, even it they happen to have the same color as them.

    When you look at human history for the past few thousand years, the savagery within ethnic groups far outweighs oppression between groups. Six million Jews killed by Nazis, 30 million whites killed by other whites in Russia, 25 million whites (mostly women) tortured to death so the Catholic Church could steal their property and terrorize the rest of their population, millions of Africans murdered or dispossessed by other blacks in their own countries. The number of native Americans killed by other natives will never be known, but 10,000 years of tribal conflict means untold deaths, with many tribes completely wiped out. But what's the focus now? "You bad white people did us wrong." This in no way justifies any wrongs done from one ethic group to another, nor am I overlooking contemporary racial problems, but the continued focus on bad, bad white people is unreasonable and non-productive. Unfortunately, some ethnic groups continue to use white guilt to their own personal benefit.

    Demands for restitution to African Americans is a good example. Why should a second generation Japanese American pay taxes that would give cash payments to black Americans? Why should whites with ancestors who died fighting for emancipation and equality now be burdened with monetary transfers to black Americans, even those who do not have ancestors who were slaves?! The problem with falling in to white guilt is that no one should have to apologize for what someone else with their skin color has done.

    In 1993, the U.S. Congress officially apologized to the kanaka maoli people and as soon as Pres Clinton signed the Joint Resolution (PL 103-150), kanaka maoli groups took the apology to the UN to demand Hawaii be given back to those American citizens who are in any way related to the original native Hawaiian people, even with blood quantities as low as 1%. These citizens who would receive an enormous transfer of wealth if they were declared to be the legal owners of the Hawaiian islands or even if they were designated as a native American tribe. They are not in any way living tribally, most have regular old middle class lives with big SUVs, big screen TV and a nice house on a tropical island. Many are very wealthy and don't even live on the island of Hawaii. The ancestors they claim had land stolen from them never actually owned land, they were subjects to a monarchy that ran their lives, owned the islands and made and enforced social rules. But because of kanaka maoli demands, the state of Hawaii already spends about $20 Million a year on "native Hawaiian" programs that are ethnic based instead of need based. The federal government spends even more. That means that an immigrant family from the Philippines who work 2-3 jobs to pay the rent and feed their kids, who live crammed into an apartment with yet another Filipino family now have to pay taxes for programs that could be directed toward disadvantaged poor Filipinos or any of the other Pacific Islanders, but instead are targeted toward so-called "Native Hawaiians" regardless of their financial needs. These programs range from helping kanaka maoli buy homes, free college, inexpensive housing, even bus service to school while other ethnicities have to walk! Shouldn't any kid get a bus ride to school? Nope, too expensive for the school districts, but there's this other pool of public money that can be used for kanaka maoli kids, so they can get bus rides on the public's dime. Why should the poor Samoan kids have to walk when the bus comes right down their street? Programs that target specific ethnic groups are problematic and unfair to disadvantaged people in other ethnic groups. Period.

    In the end, the best way to change racist attitudes is to stop pitting different ethnic groups against each other. That can't be done until whites get over their white guilt.


    Yep, (none / 0) (#16)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 04:03:48 PM EST
    it ain't nearly as simple as some think it is.

    Leonard Peltier (5.00 / 2) (#5)
    by Dadler on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 06:33:04 PM EST
    Absolutely no one who reads the definitive book on this case, IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE by Peter Mathiessen, and/or sees the definitive documentary on it, INCIDENT AT OGLALA, can come away with anything but the conviction that Peltier's conviction was anything other than fraudulent and a disgrace to our "justice" system.

    Absolutely (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by ruffian on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 07:14:00 PM EST
    That book was the one that opened my young eyes to the fact that the police and FBI will flat out make things up. Doesn't mean they always do, but it always must be considered a possibility. Wonderful book that influenced me a lot.

    I'm sorry the chances do not look good for Peltier's release.


    Speaking generally... (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by sj on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 06:39:22 PM EST
    What a predicament for wrongfully convicted persons:  to be required to show remorse for a crime when, in fact, they are victims themselves.  

    Speaking specifically... I've always had a resentment regarding the conviction of Peltier. There is plenty of mitigating information that the Parole Commission could take into consideration.  And should, imo.  The FBI's position is no credit to them.

    Yavapai Tribe (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by Inspector Gadget on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 07:19:50 PM EST
    just northeast of Phoenix is a fairly wealthy tribe. I had the privilege of working with the tribal government a few years ago on community development on the reservation.

    I was astonished by how far we still have to go in our relations with them. The indians do leave the reservation, but not for long and they are profiled (especially by traffic cops) so fast, it's not funny. They have a very high rate of alcoholism, teen death because of alcohol, and a lack of education. The money each receives every month is quickly spent at Walmart and on gambling and alcohol.

    Some told me they wish for any help they can get in learning how to budget the money they receive, improve their educational opportunities, and change their current destructive habits.

    The kindness of spirit in these people is incredible. They don't trust the "white man" to this day. This tribe had a number of people working in the gov't offices who were from other tribes, and from them I learned that every single tribe and reservation lives under completely different circumstances. If people knew the truth of how the Native Americans live, they'd be ashamed of themselves for allowing it.

    Thanks (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by lentinel on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 07:47:36 PM EST
    for posting this, TChris.

    Hard Truths (none / 0) (#2)
    by vicndabx on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 05:54:13 PM EST
    The discussion of race, ethnicity, and gender, and their impact on social justice, needs to become more productive and more inclusive.
    One thing Gatesgate also showed us, folks on both sides (if there is such a thing with this topic) need to be prepared to step up and deal if we are going to make any progress.

    Thanks TChris... (none / 0) (#4)
    by kdog on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 06:12:52 PM EST
    I had no idea Peltier was up for parole..something to root for.

    The tribes still getting their chops busted to this day...the oldest self-governing tribe in America, the Shinnecocks, are freakin' still waiting on federal recognition...unbelievable.

    Barbarians (none / 0) (#8)
    by squeaky on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 06:42:20 PM EST
    She reminds us that the native leaders who resisted conquest or mistreatment "were branded an enemy and thrown in prison if not killed in battle."

    Some things never change. We are still able to be just as brutal to other human beings just because we decide that they are a lower life form, uncivilized, a terrorist or a barbarian.

    The long and short is the US snagged Madni, beat him up, put him in a coffin on a flight to be tortured by our Egyptian partners for at least 92 some odd days and then shuttled to Gitmo to be warehoused in misery for six years. All before releasing him with the attitude of "no harm, no foul".


    Think this is any different from what we did to the NA peoples, when we were a young and naive country. Or the abuse we heaped on AA in the last century.

    We have obviously not evolved one iota, imo.

    I do believe that acceptance (none / 0) (#9)
    by Inspector Gadget on Tue Jul 28, 2009 at 06:43:24 PM EST
    starts with every individual, and the effort to achieve equality must include every single group feeling the pain of exclusion and discrimination.

    What does this mean? (none / 0) (#13)
    by ColumbiaDuck on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 10:12:45 AM EST
    And as many of your listeners undoubtedly know, the only two people who were charged with the conduct which they say that Leonard is guilty of, those two people were acquitted in the separate jury trial.

    Does that mean two other people were charged with the same crime but acquitted?  The sentance is a little confusing.

    Yes. (none / 0) (#18)
    by TChris on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 11:05:14 PM EST
    Two other people charged with the same crime were acquitted.  The evidence in their trial that they acted in self-defense was compelling.

    Playing the race card (none / 0) (#17)
    by diogenes on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 04:57:10 PM EST
    So Peltier was convicted of murder (rightly or wrongly) and that has some connection with the political imprisonment of native americans one hundred years ago?  You don't think that the FBI would want a poor white Georgian guy who allegedly was in a shootout with cops to die in prison too?