Leonard of his life in prison. Examining Peltier’s experiences

Leonard Peltier is a Native American man currently imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. Peltier is currently serving time in Leavenworth, Kansas, and it is likely that he will live the rest of his life in prison. Examining Peltier’s experiences through several different community systems frameworks will push human service professionals to help not only individuals but whole communities as well. In particular, the ecological systems theory, historical trauma, and the theory of social capital are helpful in making sense of Peltier’s experiences, and seeing them not as random events but as the culmination of years of mistreatment, oppression, and marginalization.SynopsisLeonard Peltier, author of Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance (1999), is a 73 year old Native American of the Lakota/Dakota nations. He was a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an advocacy group that fights for the rights of Native Americans, and he has paid a high price for defending his people. In 1975, there was already a warrant out for Peltier’s arrest involving an attempted murder, and he was considered a fugitive. At this time, there was continuing violence in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Incident, and, as a member of AIM, Peltier was staying on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to try to reduce tensions and offer protection. There, he and two other members of AIM were involved in a shootout that resulted in the death of two FBI officers. Though the other two AIM members were found to be innocent, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two life terms in prison. Much of the evidence against Peltier has been disputed, and it is well known that the FBI both fabricated and concealed evidence that could have swayed the verdict in Peltier’s favor. Peltier has been imprisoned since 1977, and has repeatedly been denied appeals for clemency. It is unlikely that he will ever be released. His memoir details not only his life in prison but also the historical context and the events that lead to his imprisonment. It also serves as a social commentary, highlighting social issues such as the injustices and abuses inflicted upon Native populations in the United States, and systemic and institutional racism. A few of the central themes include spirituality, unity, and persistence. These themes and issues do not highlight flaws within individual people or populations, but rather flaws within social systems as a whole.For human service workers, especially those working with Native populations, a number of complications arise. For instance, the history of Native Americans in the United States is one of mistreatment and vilification, the effects of which can still be seen today. It can be difficult to see the direct cause of an individual’s or population’s problem because it may go back much further in time that it may initially seem. The problem may not at all be the fault of the individual or population. Rather, it is the result of decades, if not centuries, of injustice and mistreatment. Furthermore, this also highlights the need for cultural humility for human service workers. Workers must be aware of their biases, triggers, and assumptions, and make an effort to understand and learn about their clients’ culture. This is crucial in order to serve clients in the best possible way. Finally, it is critical that human service workers understand the ways in which systems often work against entire populations. Often times, systems are built in such a way as to purposefully disempower certain people or groups of people. For this reason, populations are often at a disadvantage through no fault of their own. If the worker does not understand this, it becomes much more difficult to make any long term change in oppressive systems.AnalysisEcological Systems Theory    Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory stems from the field of psychology. Bronfenbrenner, a developmental psychologist, developed key theories about child development and the impacts of environments on individuals (Garbarino, 2005). The theory poses that there are four systems with which one interacts, and those systems shape individual experiences (Bronfenbrenner, 1977). The first and most basic level is known as the microsystem. These are the interactions that one has every day and that have a direct impact on a person’s development, such as family, school, and the workplace. The next level is the mesosystem, which can be defined as interactions of several microsystems. An example of this would be the child’s family interacting with the child’s teachers. The third level is the exosystem. The individual does not necessarily have direct contact with the exosystem, but they are affected by it nonetheless as it interacts with one’s microsystems. For example, a parent might have a very stressful job which puts strain on the child and their family. The fourth and final level is known as the macrosystem, and it describes the very large systems that affect an individual, such as culture, laws, and government. Bronfenbrenner says the macrosystem creates the “blueprints” for the systems below it. For instance, the economy could make it difficult for people to find employment, which trickles down to the child whose parents cannot provide for them. In short, this theory posits that individuals are most significantly impacted by their environments, rather than their innate characteristics and conditions.    Peltier’s story is one that can be examined from this systems perspective, and it becomes clear that systems very much shaped his development as a child and impacted his life as a whole. Growing up, his microsystems included his family, his school, his church and religion, and his peers. These microsystems interacted at the mesosystem level to shape his experiences as well. For example, there was a significant amount of tension between his family and surrounding white families. At one point, Peltier was harassed by his white peers who began taunting him and throwing rocks at him. When he threw rocks back at them, it caused an uproar. A boy’s mom threatened to have Peltier’s entire family arrested, all the while using racist slurs against them, and his family had to move out of the area. This foreshadows the discrimination he faced later while trying to defend his people on Pine Ridge. Peltier also felt tension between his family and his peer culture. He says that he felt conflicted, as if he had each foot in a different culture. At the exosystem level, there were also very few jobs and opportunities on the reservation. When Peltier’s grandpa died, leaving Peltier’s grandma to support herself, Peltier, and two other children, it was extremely difficult because she was unemployed and spoke very little English. This shows the effect of a larger problem of few job opportunities affecting children who have to go hungry because their caregivers cannot provide for them. Finally, at a macrosystem level, the Eisenhower administration wanted to terminate reservations and relocate Native Americans, effectively stealing land that was rightfully theirs. Peltier did not have direct interaction with this government system, but it trickled down to dramatically affect his life. His race was also a big factor, and the discrimination and marginalization that he faces because of it had a direct correlation to his eventual imprisonment. This shows that all of these systems, at every level, have defined Peltier’s life. He did not choose any of this, nor could he have known at a young age how these systems would affect and shape his life. His interaction with every system throughout his life culminated in his eventual imprisonment. Overall, ecological systems theory shows that people are a product of their environment. It shows that systems, rather than individuals, have the biggest weight in one’s experiences.    Theory of Community Capital    Homan’s theory of community capital stems from the field of social services and community health, and is an important framework to consider when looking at underserved communities (Leadership in the Real World, 2006). The theory states that healthy communities have several different forms of capital or wealth. These types of capital include environmental, physical, economic, political, human, information, spiritual, social, and cultural (Homan, 2011). These “forms of wealth must continue to grow and be easily linked to bring new community features to life” (p. 40). This framework is a strengths-based approach, whereby communities can be considered “rich” if they have many different forms of capital. Focusing on a community’s already existing capital, rather than the capital it is lacking, will help human service professionals see communities as sources of strength rather than sources of weakness. This is crucial in the act of building and strengthening community systems. This framework shows that community systems can be healthy or rich in many different ways that do not have anything to do with material wealth. It shows that communities who have access to even just a few resources have the potential to grow and attain more resources.    Peltier’s story contains many references to various forms of capital in his life. These help him to cope with the horrors of prison life, and he says that they give him strength. His social capital is an immense part of his identity in particular. He very rarely talks about himself in an individual context. More often than not, he talks about himself in relation to other people, and he refers to all Native Americans as his “people.” He draws strength from his tribe, his community, and his connection to others. It’s selfish, he says, to “go off and live the good life and forget the struggle. Yes, of course, I have some living to catch up on when I get out of here, but my life will still be my people’s” (p. 36). The struggle, in this case, refers to the survival of his people. He discusses the long history of broken treaties, abuse, and persecution inflicted upon Native Americans, and says that they must help themselves and never forget their connection to each other. At one point, he describes the ceremonial sweat lodge that he and other Native American inmates participate in, and he cites the camaraderie as powerful, happy, and holy (p. 198).This also alludes to his spiritual capital. His religion and spirituality is intertwined in nearly everything in Prison Writings, and he frequently cites it as a way to accept the pain of life, the pain of being seen as the “other.” His religion makes him feel wanted, loved, and cared for. When he is recounting the events at Pine Ridge, he says that amidst all of the chaos, panic, and fear, they gathered together and prayed for guidance and strength. The power of both prayer and camaraderie gave them strength that day. Peltier also talks about participating in the ceremonial sweat lodge every Saturday, saying that he often skips breakfast and postpones visits from his family in order to be fully focused on the ceremony. After the ceremony, he says he feels invigorated, almost like being reborn. “Sun Dance is our religion, our strength. We take great pride in that strength, which enables us to resist pain, torture, any trial rather than betray the People” (p. 11). For Peltier and his people, spirituality is a huge source of strength, happiness, and richness.    Homan’s theory of capital is an important framework to consider when analyzing Peltier’s experiences. This framework shows that Native American populations are immensely rich in many types of capital, regardless of material wealth. It shows the strength in community. Furthermore, it also shows that assumptions and stereotypes about Native Americans being poor, lazy, or criminals are not correct, and that they in fact make unfair assumptions about the fault of Native populations. Rather, institutions were built in such a way as to disadvantage and disempower them, seeking to crush their existing capital.Historical TraumaYellow Horse Brave Heart, Chase, Elkins, and Altschul (2011) define historical trauma as “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma” (p. 283). This theory stems from the field of social work and psychiatry, as Yellow Horse Brave Heart is a mental health expert. She is also a Native American (Conversations About Historical Trauma, Part One, 2013). The theory of historical trauma is central to thinking about the Native American experience, especially when considering “histories of genocide, colonization, forced assimilation, and exclusion that undermine intergenerational health and well-being” (Yellow Horse Brave Heart et al., p. 283). This theory shows that interactions with systems, such as those posited by Bronfenbrenner, have ripple effects that can last for generations. It also shows that the direct cause of a problem may not be immediately visible, and may not be an individual’s fault. It may, in fact, be the cause of years of exploitation, abuse, and disempowerment. This is particularly important for Native Americans because they continue to be disproportionately affected by extreme poverty, substance abuse, depression, and other health issues. For human service professionals, it is important to remember that clients may have an entire history of traumatic experiences that the professional may know nothing about.    “We Indians are born, we live, and we die with inconsolable grief” (p. 14), Peltier says of his people. Throughout the memoir, Peltier details the history of horrors faced by Native Americans and the effects those horrors have had even many years later. He says that his story does not begin with his birth, that it in fact starts much earlier with the colonization of America. Peltier’s story is not a singular event. Rather, it is intertwined with a long history of injustice. He cites the erasure and “sugar coating” of historical events, dehumanization, forced assimilation, poverty, boarding schools, prison sentences, and much more as the continued effects of “the white man.” One idea that emerges in the book as well is that the “American Dream” is not for Native Americans. This means that the ideal life circumstances, the goal that “everyone” should be working toward is simply not possible for them. Furthermore, it has been made clear that the American Dream was never for them because there continues to be a plethora of institutional barriers put into place to keep Native Americans from achieving it. Peltier’s statement that every Native American is “born a criminal” also reflects this idea. Throughout the memoir, Peltier often cites the anger, sadness, and hurt that he feels as a result of his circumstances. However, just as often he discusses the things that give him strength and make him carry on each day. This shows that both Homan’s and Yellow Horse Brave Heart et al.’s theories have the power to balance each other – they are closely connected.    Historical trauma is an extremely important framework to keep in mind while considering the experiences of Peltier, and it helps put his experiences in context. His life and the things that happened to him were not necessarily the result of individual choices but rather centuries of marginalization. The system was working against him. In fact, it was never really for him. He was punished for defending his people, for trying to beat the system.Implications    From this analysis, it can be drawn that social problems are not random. They start as a conscious choice by those in power and the problem progressively magnifies. Social problems are generally the result of years, if not centuries of marginalization. The problem is often attributed to the individuals being affected because society fails to see the historical context. However, sometimes there is a catalyst, a martyr, that emerges from such social problems. In Peltier’s case, his arrest sparked an uproar, leading to prison reform and protest that still occurs today. Frank Dreaver became an advocate for prisoners and prison reform following a nine-year prison sentence in Saskatchewan. Since his release, Dreaver, an Indigenous Canadian, has committed himself to fighting on behalf of Peltier. In 1986, he formed the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC). He has taken a formal oath, swearing on a sacred pipe in front of elders that he will not rest until Peltier has been freed (Sexsmith, 2000). The committee is still lobbying on behalf of Peltier (International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, 2017).For human services professionals, it is important to understand the historical aspects of marginalization and oppression, and the continuing and long-lasting effects of that. From an analysis of Peltier’s story, it becomes apparent that capital is one of the most important things in community building. It is important to recognize the already existing strengths of a community in order to further empower it. This will help professionals to see communities and populations not as oppressed or “poor” but as sources of strength and potential.Conclusion    Leonard Peltier’s story is not a singular event. He did not wake up one day and decide to be a criminal. His fate was decided long ago, beginning with the colonization and vilification of an entire race. Using the ecological systems theory as a framework, it becomes clear that Peltier’s life is the result of systemic interaction rather than individual choice. His life continues to be affected by the trauma of such marginalization, and the theory of social capital shows that communities have immense potential. For the human service professional, it is more important than ever to consider these frameworks when working within community systems. Understanding systems and the ways they have affected the lives of clients is essential to putting an end to oppressive systems.