Daughter of native rights activist wants apology from Assembly of First Nations
HALIFAX – To many aboriginals, Leonard Peltier is a hero of the American native rights movement in the 1970s and a wrongfully convicted political prisoner whose story has inspired films, books, songs and T-shirt slogans.
But in the Mi’kmaq community of Indian Brook, N.S., the former member of the American Indian Movement is a largely reviled figure, considered unworthy of his cult-like status.
Those competing visions clashed Wednesday when the daughter of a murdered native rights activist from Indian Brook demanded an apology from the head of the Assembly of First Nations for suggesting Peltier should be freed from a U.S. prison.
Denise Maloney Pictou, daughter of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash, said Perry Bellegarde’s comments earlier this week were insensitive to the plight of murdered and missing aboriginal women because of Peltier’s ties to the men convicted of killing Aquash in 1975.
“To have an entity like the AFN endorse him marks a sad day,” Pictou said in an interview. “It sends a mixed message … It’s certainly a slap in the face.”
In a series of previous court cases in the United States, the FBI has implied that Aquash was executed by members of the American Indian Movement because the group’s leaders believed she was an informant.
Bellegarde said Wednesday he planned to apologize to Pictou for the pain his comments caused.
“I regret that my statement on TV caused some hurt and pain for her and I want to make sure she knows that,” Bellegarde said in an interview.
“I don’t have as much information as the family has, so I’ll be mindful and respectful, and if they’ve got requests for support, I can also look at that as well.”
However, he said the AFN’s position on the matter has been clear since 1999 when the organization adopted a resolution urging the Canadian government to ask the U.S. attorney general to free Peltier.
“The Peltier family has been living with an injustice as well,” he said. “We have chiefs’ resolutions that call for his release, in addition to (a similar call) from Amnesty International and … the Dalai Lama.”
The national chief, in an interview broadcast Monday on CBC, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should ask U.S. President Barack Obama to pardon Peltier when Trudeau visits the White House on Thursday.
Bellegarde said Peltier was the victim of a miscarriage of justice when he was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting two FBI agents in South Dakota in 1975.
Cheryl Maloney, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, said native leaders in the province, including the regional representative for the AFN, “had no clue” about Bellegarde’s position.
“I think the national chief has to retract what he said,” Maloney said in an interview. “He’s been very insensitive to the (Aquash) family.”
Maloney said the timing of Bellegarde’s comments couldn’t be worse, coming on the eve of International Women’s Day and in advance of the federal government’s promised inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.
“Leonard Peltier has been romanticized as a hero,” Maloney said. “The (Aquash) family has taken great offence to that.”
In 1973, Aquash was among American Indian Movement militants who occupied the village of Wounded Knee on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in a 71-day standoff with federal authorities.
The simmering conflict came to a head in 1975 when the two FBI agents were shot on the reserve.
In 1977, a jury in Fargo, N.D., convicted Peltier of first-degree murder. The resident of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota was sentenced to life in prison, but he has always maintained his innocence.
Aquash’s body was found in a remote area in southwest South Dakota in February 1976, but U.S. authorities didn’t file an indictment until March 2003.
Arlo Looking Cloud was convicted of Aquash’s murder in February 2004 and was sentenced to life in prison.
In April 2004, Aquash’s remains were exhumed from the reservation and later buried near her childhood home in Indian Brook, a small native community about 70 kilometres west of Halifax. Mi’kmaq and native leaders came from across Canada to mark the occasion on National Aboriginal Day.
In December 2007, a member of the Southern Tutchone tribe in the Yukon, John Graham, was extradited to the United States from Vancouver to stand trial for Aquash’s murder.
Graham was sentenced to life in prison in January 2011 for felony murder. Prosecutors said Graham and two other AIM activists, Looking Cloud and Theda Clarke, killed Aquash because they suspected she was an informant.
Clarke, who was never charged, died in October 2011.