Letter from Leonard Peltier | Portside – As the First Peoples of Turtle Island, we live with daily reminders of the centuries of efforts to terminate our nations, eliminate our cultures, and destroy our relatives and families. To this day, everywhere we go there are reminders — souvenirs and monuments of the near extermination of a glorious population of Indigenous Peoples. Native Peoples as mascots, the disproportionately high incarceration of our relatives, the appropriation of our culture, the never-ending efforts to take even more of Native Peoples’ land, and the poisoning of that land all serve as reminders of our history as survivors of a massive genocide. We live with this trauma every day. We breathe, eat and drink it. We pass it on to our children. And we struggle to overcome it.
Like so many Native children, I was ripped away from my family at the age of 9 or so and taken away to get the “Indian” out of me at a boarding school. At that time, Native Peoples were not able to speak our own languages for fear of being beaten or worse. Our men’s long hair, which is an important part of our spiritual life, was forcibly cut off in an effort to shame us. Our traditional names were replaced by new European-American names. These efforts to force our assimilation continue today. Not long ago, I remember, a Menominee girl was punished and banned from playing on the school’s basketball team because she taught a classmate how to say “hello” and “I love you” in her Native language. We hear stories all the time about athletes and graduates who face opposition to wearing their hair long or having a feather in their cap.
With this little bit of my personal history in mind, I think it is understandable that I would then, as a young person in the 1960’s and 70’s, be active in the Indigenous struggle to affirm our human, civil, and treaty rights. Our movement was a spiritual one to regain our ceremonies and traditions and to exercise our sovereignty as native or tribal nations. For over 100 years some of our most important ceremonies could not be held. We could not sing our songs or dance to our drum. When my contemporaries and I were activists, there were no known sun dances. Any ceremony that took place had to be hidden for fear of reprisals. One of our roles as activists for the welfare of our Peoples was to create space and protection for Native peoples who were trying to reconnect to our ancient cultures and spiritual life. This was dangerous and deadly. It meant putting our lives on the line because people who participated in these ceremonies, and people who stood up for our elders and our traditional way of life, were brutally beaten, killed or disappeared. Paramilitary groups and death squads ruled some reservations and each day was a battle. If an uninvited, unknown or unrecognized vehicle pulled up to your house, the first reaction was that you were being visited by someone who meant to do you harm in some way. This was learned behavior on the reservations. This was excruciatingly true in the 1970’s.