The wooden statue of imprisoned American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier. Photo: AU Museum at Katzen
A statue of imprisoned American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier is being removed from the campus of American University in Washington, D.C.
The 9-foot-tall wooden statue is located outside of the AU Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. Its placement there in early December was announced by the school with the following disclaimer: "American University regards this statue as an exhibited piece of art and takes no position on the advocacy movement."
But administrators changed their minds just days after hearing from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents Association, a non-profit organization of active and retired agents. The group sent a letter to university president Neil Kerwin on December 29 to complain about the installation.
"The subject matter and placement of the piece improperly suggested that American University has assumed an advocacy position of clemency for Mr. Peltier, when no such institutional position has been taken," a statement announcing the removal of the statue on Monday read. "Further, the nature and location of the piece called into question our ability to honor our responsibilities to ensure the security of the art and the safety of our community."
In a December 22 post on Twitter about the statue, the AU Museum highlighted the history of presidential pardons. Peltier's supporters -- a group that includes nearly every major tribal organization, Republican and Democratic politicians and human rights groups around the world -- have asked President Barack Obama to release the activist from prison, where he is serving two life sentences for the murders of two FBI agents in 1975.
"Mr. Peltier has been in prison for 41 years," Chairman Dave Archambault of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wrote in a December 22 letter to the president. "He is in ill health; requires urgent, specialized medical treatment; and just lost his youngest son. Continued incarceration serves no purpose."
Tom Poor Bear, the former vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, poses with the feet from the wooden Leonard Peltier statue. Photo: peltierstatue
Peltier, who is a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, was convicted in 1977 for the murders of FBI agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams. The incident took place on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in June 1975, a time of "tumultuous history," Archambault noted in his letter. Just two years earlier, FBI agents laid siege at Wounded Knee on the reservation and mistrust of law enforcement ran strong.
Throughout numerous legal appeals, Peltier has steadfastly denied being responsible for the deaths of the two men. His stance has derailed his chances for parole so supporters believe a pardon, commutation or other executive action is the only way he can enjoy freedom again.
But those efforts have consistently run into fierce opposition from the law enforcement community. The late Janet Reno, who was the first woman to serve as Attorney General of the United States, faced intense pressure at the end of the Bill Clinton administration to push for Peltier's release.
Reno, who passed away on November 7, refused to disclose her position on the issue. Former president Clinton ultimately left office without taking action.
Peltier's supporters essentially gave up once George W. Bush took office. Obama, who has promoted his policy advances in Indian Country, has granted 70 pardons and more than 1,000 commutations, according to the Department of Justice.
Artist Rigo 23, also known as Ricardo Gouveia, created the statue based on a recent self-portrait from Peltier. He took it on a cross-country journey from California and stopped on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation before coming to D.C.
"Leonard Peltier has now spent four entire decades behind bars for a crime he has not committed even though, by most countries’ standards, he has now fulfilled both of the consecutive life-sentences to which he was wrongly sentenced," Rigo 23 wrote on the statue's website.
Peltier's efforts are being discussed on the nationally-broadcast Native America Calling on Tuesday.
Sioux Tribe credits the late Janet Reno for Indian Country initiatives
Peltier: My last best hope for freedom lies with President Barack Obama
Heiss: There's still time for President Obama to set Leonard Peltier free
Risling Baldy: Don't let Leonard Peltier die in prison system (02/08)
Hopper: Leonard Peltier persecuted by FBI even behind bars (12/07)
Peltier paintings being removed after complaint (11/16)
Dunne: Justice has been served in Leonard Peltier case (07/27)
We need to be careful about who we choose as heroes (06/19)