Boulder, Colorado March 16, 2007
Live theater can be magic. The goal of actors and directors is to
perfect illusion onstage so as to transport the audience into their
world; to become one with them, to care about them. Those moments are
sometimes rare but always beautiful. The illusion of theater, perfected
as an art, becomes true magic.
Last night, in a small blackbox theater on an upper floor of the
Boulder [Colorado] Museum of Contemporary Art, an audience of about a
hundred people witnessed something that far transcended magic and far
transcended theater as it is normally experienced. They witnessed
theater become sacred, in the most spiritual, most powerful sense.
Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance, was a book published
in 1999 by the Native American political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, with
Harvey Arden as his editor. It is a collection of Peltier's essays,
poems, and reflections on his life and his work from within prison
walls, his love for his People and cultural traditions, and his
understanding that through forgiveness, through "forgiving the
unforgivable", comes healing; that forgiveness and fair treatment is the
real power within each person.
Peltier's words were originally adapted to solo readings by his
editor, devoted friend and supporter, Harvey Arden. Now, in 2007 and
ever-more timely, the words have been adapted to stage by Harvey Arden,
Cathie Quigley-Soderman, and Doug Foote, directed by Quigley-Soderman,
and produced by Warrior Artists Productions along with the Museum's
internal Theater 13. The production stars Lakota actor, Doug Foote, as
Leonard Peltier, and features Doug Foote's Good Feather Drum/Singers
(Robert Ironshield, Nick Foote, and Mark Silentbear). Intermission
speakers and singers vary by performance.
Those are the facts. But what the facts don't depict was last
night's opening night performance. Transcendent magic. A performance
so profound, so powerful, that it brought the audience to tear-flowing,
stunned silence followed by a standing ovation. That 71 year old Harvey
Arden stood during intermission, with a talking feather in his hand and
tears in his eyes as he spoke authentically of the real power and
tragedy of Leonard Peltier, was enough to touch the hearts of everyone
there. Southern Cherokee singer JD Nash stopped in for one night, one
intense song, giving his own searing message of choice and hope as a
gift to the audience. Cast singer Mark Silentbear offered up his own
composition, Peltier, as a haunting, evocative memory while the
Good Feather Drum, singing and playing from time to time, brought the
reality and the beauty of the Lakota Traditional Ways alive. Moreover,
the "technicals" were superb with the so-brief historical film clips,
back-lit shadow work, and the unique lighting techniques which brought
attention and emphasis to the riveting words.
But it was Doug Foote, Wiyaka Waste, from the Standing Rock Lakota
Reservation of South and North Dakota who created the greatest miracle.
A champion Fancy Dancer and Ceremonial Singer, fluent in his Lakota
language, not long back from being injured during two Tours of Duty in
Iraq, Foote is new to lead-acting but obviously not new to pain,
individual or collective or cultural. Doug Foote walked onto that stage
but, as was witnessed by everyone there, a gripping, indisputable
metamorphosis took place. As spirit flowed through him, the face, the
body language, the soul became Leonard Peltier. Rarely does an actor
obtain this level of transcendence. But Doug Foote not only managed it
but merged the audience right along with him, into the prison cell, the
life, into the heart, the song, and into the forgiveness of Leonard
It all started during the time of the horrific 1970's Reign of Terror
on the Oglala Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, an
infamous time of great violence and mutual corruption between tribal
officials and U.S. government employees. Two FBI agents were killed
during a gun battle on Reservation land on which numerous Lakota men,
women, and children were camped. A Lakota man was also killed but his
death has never been investigated. Leonard Peltier was convicted of
murdering the two FBI agents after everyone else was acquitted as having
acted in self-defense. His was the sole conviction, a conviction based
on untruth and hate, a vendetta.
The United States Courts have since admitted that Peltier's
conviction of murder was based on incomplete, misleading, withheld, and
out-right fraudulent evidence. The U.S. Prosecutor has even conceded
they do not know who actually shot the two FBI agents.
It was the Freedom of Information Act which allowed Peltier's
attorneys to discover the lies, manipulation, and deceit perpetrated in
his original trial. Yet, a new trial was denied with the accusation
that Peltier, by virtue of his presence at the time of the gun battle,
had "aided and abetted" even though that was never defined as to how he
might have aided and abetted anything. Clearly, the government's "own"
had been killed and someone must pay. Peltier didn't shoot those FBI
agents but he has sacrificed for it with his life's years.
For 31 years, exactly one-half of his lifetime now, Peltier has been
behind prison bars. Over and over, misconduct and malfeasance on the
part of the legal system seems to have permeated every facet of Leonard
Peltier's life in prison and his court case. Yet he remains a model
prisoner, establishing numerous humanitarian projects within the prison
system as well as back on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The late Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Amnesty International,
International Indian Treaty Council, the UN Commission on Human Rights,
the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Sister Helen Prejean,
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Mikhail Gorbachev, Gloria
Steinem, Wilma Mankiller, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Robert Redford, Barbra
Streisand, The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy
Memorial Center for Human Rights, the Human Rights Commission of Spain,
the Belgian Parliament, the European Parliament, and a host of other
notables all have worked, petitioned, and pleaded for his release.
Yet, still, the United States government bows to the pressure of
vengeful FBI protests and demonstrations and allows this man, now 62
years old and in ill health, to continue to be unfairly imprisoned.
If the FBI had hoped to send a "message" to indigenous people with
his imprisonment, they were successful. But it isn't the message of
fear they intended. In truth, for the American Indian Nations as well
as the world at large, the continued imprisonment of Leonard Peltier has
shown that the best of humanity is found right in himself, in the
nobility of a spirit so confronted with the treachery and ugliness of
life that it has transcended and become a beacon and message of hope,
courage, and integrity for his People and for all people. Leonard
Peltier has become the Nelson Mandela of America.