Sovereign Imagination: The Art of Leonard Peltier

Doing time creates a demented darkness of my own imagination…
Doing time does this thing to you. But of course you don’t do time.
You do without it. Or rather, time does you.
Time is a cannibal that devours the flesh of yours
day by day, night by night.

 — Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance

Leonard Peltier could not be present at the exhibition of his artwork at the second Indigenous Fine Arts Market (IFAM) in Santa Fe, NM, held on August 20-22, because he’s been incarcerated in the U.S. federal penitentiary system for the last 40 years. He’s currently in Coleman (Florida), a known “gang prison,” a brutal and violent place subject to frequent lockdowns lasting not uncommonly for as long as a month.

Maybe next year?

While the primary focus of this article is not the case for clemency, the reality is that presidential intervention is his only remaining avenue to freedom. Barring the appearance of some staggering new piece of evidence, all appeals for a new trial have been thoroughly exhausted. The feeling among his inner circle is that a new president, whoever it may be, is unlikely to risk involvement; but a lame duck president just might quack Peltier’s way. The mere fact that this show has almost miraculously manifested whets the appetite for hopefulness.

A few points by way of context: There has been an established Indian art market in Santa Fe for the last 93 years, operated by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, or SWAIA. They claim to bring in $100,000,000 of revenues to Santa Fe, and it is the oldest and largest Indian art market in the nation. The word venerable is often invoked. But two years ago three of their Native American staff resigned and formed a cheaper, more inclusive, more varied, less hierarchical and more participatory, alternative Indigenous arts market — IFAM; they held their first market in 2014, simultaneously with SWAIA’s (much to SWAIA’s consternation). Afterwards, the editorial board of the Santa Fe New Mexican weighed in with a Solomonic “Our View” column accepting the renegade market. How could they not? By all metrics it had been a raging success. All to say, these issues of self-determination — who gets to show, what they are permitted to show, booth affordability — are very much alive in the present moment, and the example of IFAM itself as a successful challenge to stasis, complacency, even rot (venerable rot, naturally) is empowering.

Second, (and also empowering) Melanie K. Yazzie of the Diné Nation, co-founder of The Red Nation and American Studies PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico has written a brilliant, if scathing, takedown of some of the major museums in New Mexico, calling them out, exhibit by exhibit, for their less than honest portrayals of colonial violence against Native peoples. It’s called “A Native Critique of New Mexico History,” and critique is putting it mildly: she makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. She argues that in the interest of pandering to tourism, the history museums are guilty of erasing the truth about the barbaric consequences to Native peoples from colonization.

…the tropes of benign enchantment and tri-cultural harmony cater to a specific audience whose primary interest is learning about “something new and different” through associative markers like the American Dream, historical objectivity and multiculturalism. In the end, this approach seems to be a veiled attempt, routed through the narrative of tri-cultural harmony, to testify to the promise of progress and prosperity that whiteness and U.S. nationalism has brought to New Mexico. It also evokes the privileged position that Whites occupy in New Mexico’s economic juggernaut comprised of tourism (here I’m thinking about the railroad and Fred Harvey exhibit), resource extraction and exploitation, militarism (lots of guns, rifles and uniforms on display), and nuclearism.

Colonization, Yazzie makes clear, is not relegated to the vicious exploits of Olde Tyme Spanish conquerors of yore, but is ongoing with a vengeance.

Today, the colonial project exceeds practices of native enslavement and cultural destitution. It now includes catastrophically inadequate health care and other public health services, rampant poverty, criminalization and incarceration, disease and contamination from resource plunder and the rape of sacred lands, substance abuse, militarization and police violence, gender and sexual violence, homelessness, child and elder violence, and the general disposability and dehumanization of Native peoples.

To Yazzie’s “criminalization and incarceration” point, the Peltier Art Committee has issued this terribly relevant statement:

Leonard Peltier is the longest held Native American political prisoner in the U.S. He was wrongfully convicted in the 1975 killing of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Leonard was at Pine Ridge at the request of the traditional elders who witnessed the brutal murders of over sixty Native people in what is termed the “reign of terror.” To date, no one has been charged or brought to trial [for those 60 murders] and yet he has served over 40 years for standing between the line of fire and the Keepers of our Sacred Ways on the very soil that was witness to the massacre at Wounded Knee. The trial for Leonard consisted of numerous documented constitutional violations, intimidation and coercion of government witnesses, falsifying of information, and manufactured evidence. Although the prosecutor admits “we don’t know who killed the agents,” and Mr. Peltier was denied the right to present a defense, he remains in a super-max penitentiary…

The Peltier capture and incarceration story is an important through line in the ongoing narrative of colonization of Native peoples. As much as one might desire to assign him dual hats — a jaunty beret for artist, a feathered warbonnet for AIM freedom fighter — the identities are merged, and not readily separable; donning and doffing haberdashery is a privilege a man in Leonard Peltier’s position does not possess. He has but one vulnerable hatless, head, and it’s been on the chopping block for a very long time.

I’m skipping ahead, but in the presence of the canvasses themselves one feels every brush stroke as a droplet of water that might cumulatively erode the walls and rust the bars that isolate him from most everything and everyone he holds dear. There’s nothing casual or recreational or hobbyistic about his paintings: whatever else they are — aesthetically, symbolically, or discursively — stroke by measured stroke, each one is a quiet demand for personal liberation.

(Photos by Kerri Cottle Photography) Read the article in Red Wedge Magazine