Barack Obama plainly aspires to join the select ranks of United States presidents who led the nation through national crises with relative wisdom and resolve. Obama and his supporters often invoke Lincoln, Kennedy, and FDR as historical exemplars. But in one important respect, Obama need reach no higher than to emulate the precedent set by Republican president Warren Harding.
Rightly reviled as one of the worst presidents in American history for the corruption and mendacity of his cabinet (known, for good reason, as the Ohio Gang), Harding should nevertheless be acknowledged for freeing 24 political prisoners (excluding, of course, most IWW activists) in his first year of taking office in 1921. Among the beneficiaries of Harding’s conciliatory gesture was Eugene V. Debs, the socialist party candidate for president who polled nearly one million votes in the 1920 election from behind federal prison walls. Perhaps due to his unique status, Debs was granted special dispensation to leave prison unsupervised to meet with attorney general Harry Daugherty.
Debs, to his credit, spurned the attorney general’s request that he renounce his revolutionary views in return for a full pardon Yet Harding commuted Debs’ sentence and released him and other political prisoners less than one year into his term and two and one-half years into Debs’ 10-year sentence, which he landed for speaking out against then-President Woodrow Wilson and the military draft at a socialist party convention shortly before the conclusion of what was then known as the Great War.
At first glance, Harding’s call for a return to “normalcy” and Obama’s ringing but amorphous promise of change would seem to have little in common. Yet both campaign slogans signified a sharp break from the immediate past, in the case of the former from the imperious and imperial presidency of Wilson and in the latter from the reckless and lawless regime of George Bush II. Like Harding before him, Obama has sought to reach out to his ideological opponents in the spirit of reconciliation and to bring the office of the presidency back down to earth. Harding went so far as to meet personally with Debs after liberating him from captivity to the cheers of his guards and fellow inmates alike.
Instead of extending his hand to the unresponsive GOP, however, Obama should be reaching out to Leonard Peltier and apologizing for two centuries of violence, oppression, and empty promises to the indigenous peoples of the United States. If ever there was a sphere in which change, and one might even say a return to normality (in terms of normalized relations with Americans), is needed, it is in Indian Country. Reservation Natives live in something of a parallel legal universe in which they are the only racial group victimized in a majority of criminal assaults by members of other races, yet tribal police are granted no criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives.
When it comes to civil rights, tribal governments, which again with limited exceptions have jurisdiction only over Indians, are virtually beyond the reach of not only the United States constitution but even their own tribal constitutions. With rare exceptions, tribal courts are subordinate arms of tribal councils, unable or unwilling to uphold any semblance of civil rights and liberties. As if by cruel joke, that great guardian of civil liberties, the FBI, is responsible for upholding the civil rights of tribal members.
Likewise, individual voting rights on reservations have no protection under federal law, nor are there any reporting requirements on campaign contributions in tribal elections. This allows not only for electoral fraud and dictatorial governance, but also opens to door to external influence through unreported contributions to pliable candidates. Thus, while the U.S. has no qualms about critically evaluating elections throughout the world, even imposing sanctions on Haiti for failing to conduct runoff elections in two legislative races, it routinely turns a blind eye to vote fraud on reservations. Yet despite this elevated deference to tribal sovereignty, one of the unchallenged premises of federal Indian law is that Congress (in which indigenous nations have no formal or informal representation) has the unilateral authority to limit or obliterate tribal sovereignty without the consent of affected peoples. This happened most recently in the wake of World War II under Truman and Eisenhower, when the federal government embarked on the termination program, which sought to achieve the original American dream of extinguishing tribes as such and negating indigenous identity.
It is little wonder that Leonard Peltier’s generation, which grew up in the shadow of termination in boarding schools, white foster homes, racist schools, and penal institutions, rose up in the turmoil of the Vietnam War and civil rights era to demand sovereignty and recognition under international law. The American Indian Movement, led by urban Natives seeking to return to their traditional roots, came to the aid of tribal members against state and federal discrimination, but soon found to its chagrin that tribal government was more often than not part of the problem.
On Pine Ridge reservation in the 1970s, tribal chairman Dick Wilson was Richard Nixon’s right hand man. Wilson denounced AIM after its takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington DC at the culmination of the Trail of Tears march in November of 1972. He banned AIM members, including reservation enrollees, from meetings on the reservation and created with federal funds a private security force known to all as the goon squad. Led by officers of the official BIA reservation police, the goons terrorized Wilson’s opponents, shooting up and burning down houses, beating, raping, and killing untold numbers of Oglala people with benefit of FBI ammunition, training, and protection. At the same time, the FBI was engaged in an intensive COINTELPRO operation against AIM tin an effort to create and exploit differences within the loosely-organized movement through various tactics, including infiltration and snitch-jacketing of activists.
Contrary to its media image, AIM did not respond with violence or retaliation. Its credo was armed self-defense of individuals and of tribal sovereignty, and it was never accused of shooting up houses or targeting goons or BIA police. Even the best-known FBI informant and provocateur, Douglass Durham, admitted publicly that AIM was non-violent and community oriented, though he later found profit by regurgitating the commie-terrorist hype on the John Birch Society lecture circuit. In the best tradition of guerilla resistance, AIM activists on Pine Ridge attempted to provide the space for people to develop community organizations that reflected their own traditions and served their needs. By no stretch of the imagination did a camp of a few dozen activists intend to engage in a shootout with the FBI on June 26, 1975, much less precipitate what was initially claimed as an ambush by the FBI. Unlike his codefendants, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, Peltier was never allowed to present a self-defense argument, and the government withheld exculpatory evidence that only surfaced due to FOIA litigation that continues to this day. The 8th Circuit recently held that the F BI is allowed to suppress more than 10,000 pages of documents relating to Peltier’s case, which has never been retried despite ample evidence of investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial bias and misconduct.
Executive clemency for Leonard Peltier is but a small first step that the Obama administration might take toward repairing relations with indigenous peoples, but it is an essential one. Many anticipated some action on the Peltier case in his vaunted first 100 days, but Obama is evidently no modern-day FDR. He can, however, still aspire to the more modest historical stature of Warren G. Harding.
JEFF ARMSTRONG is a longtime writer on Native affairs, a graduate student in history, and a volunteer with the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org