Since the passing of fellow Indigenous tribesman Madiba Nelson Mandela, much of mainstream media has attempted to paint him in their own colonial image, once again revising history to make the Federal Government and it’s allies look good, and thereby use him to suit their own purposes.
Memorials project Mandela as a gentle elder statesman, who championed peace and reconciliation. This is true, in fact Mandela was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize- but this rosey and passive portrayal of the international icon and his life is far from complete.
Yes, Mandela’s end goal was one of peace and self-determination for Africans, but he didn’t strictly adhere to non-violent means. Like Malcolm X, Mandela held that there were times when armed resistance and civil disobedience were necessary to fight a subjugating colonial government.
Grandfather Mandela, named “Rolihlahla” (translated “Troublemaker”) by his father, was once a young freedom fighter Mandela. He fought in a guerilla war against apartheid, white supremacy, and the plague of colonialism that forcibly relocated Natives of South Africa from their traditional homelands and segregated and oppressed his people.
While politicians are busy patting each other on the back for supporting Mandela, know that collectively, those hands are unclean. During his lifetime, Mandela was wrongfully labelled a terrorist. In the 1960s, Nelson Mandela was the living embodiment of dissent in the face of colonial oppression. The United States government was involved in his initial capture and imprisonment. The CIA told South African authorities where Mandela was. As a result, Nelson Mandela was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent 27 years in a very small cell, and the health problems he suffered due to spending all those years in prison conditions contributed to his death. It is a miracle that he lived to 95.
Mandela was a smart man and saw beyond the revisionist history of the United States largely perpetrated by mainstream media, stating, “if there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings.”
If anyone knew what a political prisoner was, it was Nelson Mandela. He had 27 years to think on it. He recognized Native American activist Leonard Peltier as a fellow political prisoner, and called for his release. Mandela is far from alone in his request. Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, the National Congress of American Indians, various governing bodies around the globe, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama, among many others, have all called for Leonard Peltier’s freedom.
Leonard Peltier (Anishinabe/Dakota) is currently serving two consecutive life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents shot during armed conflict on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. The Pine Ridge Reservation was established in 1889 by the U.S. Government. After breaking Treaty with the Lakota, the U.S. military forcibly relocated the Oglala there.
During the 1970s, Pine Ridge was a dangerous place. The community was virtually at war with itself as traditional Oglala, assisted by members of the American Indian Movement, defended themselves against pro-government Tribal members, backed by the chairman’s private militia “Guardians of the Oglala Nation” (GOON), and the FBI. Lakota along with AIM, who took over Wounded Knee in 1973, were subjected to a 71 day siege by federal forces. Over the next three years, some 60 AIM members, along with their supporters were murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation. This is the atmosphere in which the shootout leading to the deaths of the two FBI agents occurred.
Leonard was extradited from Canada after two other individuals were found not guilty of the murders. That extradition was based on an affidavit that was later recanted. Leonard’s trials and subsequent appeals have been replete with error, including the manufacturing and hiding of evidence, false testimony, the withholding of over 900 FBI documents related to the participation of 24 other people in the shootout, and multiple constitutional violations.
Even Mr. Peltier’s parole hearings have been erroneous. In 1993, the Pennsylvania Parole Commission unjustly denied his parole, conceding later that prosecution in the case “lack[ed] direct evidence that he personally participated in the execution of two FBI agents.”
Leonard, who has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has suffered severe beatings and mistreatment behind bars. Today Leonard Peltier is at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida.
Leonard Peltier, now an elder, has already spent nearly 40 years behind bars. His next parole hearing is set for July 2024, over a decade from today. Without parole or Presidential clemency, Peltier won’t be released until 2040. He maintains his innocence.
Madiba is Nelson Mandela’s clan name, so taken from an 18th century Thembu chief. Mandela understood the complex Indigenous and colonial dynamics at play in the Peltier case. He knew that Leonard should be freed, and said so.
President Obama, photo ops and handshaking at the White House Tribal Nations Conference is a nice gesture of solidarity, but for true healing and reconciliation to begin, we must acknowledge our painful history and set about fixing those injustices.
Like Malcolm X said, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress…”
Honor Nelson Mandela’s legacy by doing what your Presidential predecessors failed to do and free Native activist Leonard Peltier. Please, let our Mandela come home.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, speaker,former science professor and tribal attorney. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and LastRealIndians.com.