The Peltier Song

In the late winter of 1977 John Trudell came to the University Of Washington to speak about Leonard Peltier. I had never heard about Leonard, but John was AIM chairman and I had been doing some stuff around the American Indian Movement, playing at rallies and so on, and thought I would check it out. Somebody I knew was probably involved, I thought, as I headed out to the campus in the early evening. Sure enough, Steve Robideau was there and I asked him if I could play a few songs. No problem, but you’ll have to ask John, and I did and it was fine with him too. Trudell was a wiry, quick looking man a few years older than me. He had that look on his face that told you he was up to something. He seemed pretty smart.

I played and John spoke, and I was impressed. Afterwards I told him, “I like how you talk,” and he said, “I like how you sing. Would you be interested in coming out to the Midwest to see what the people are doing?” “I sure would,” I said, and I handed him my phone number on a piece of paper. It was before business cards…

free_peltier_cropA few months later I got a phone call from John Trudell. He apologized for taking so long to get back to me and said that they had booked me a flight out on Northwest Airlines for the following week, would I be able to make it. I recognized a familiar sense of time and said of course. A few days later I got a one-way ticket to Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

It was early May with a scattered Seattle overcast sky as I headed out to the airport. I hadn’t flown much and all I had for my guitar was soft case that went over my shoulder. I just walked on board with it. The stewardess told me that they would put it in the closet at the rear of the plane where it would be safe. I said okay and took my seat. My neighbor was a man who trained attack dogs. He looked like an attack dog. He was on his way to testify in a case where a dog had mauled an innocent party. His job was to determine the cause. When he talked about the different kinds of wounds and the directions of the teeth marks his mouth made a wise-crack grin, and I knew that since there was only so much room in those lunatic asylums, I would have to just put up with it and hope for the best. Many of his dogs were working for police departments…

Circling over the Twin Cities airport I saw why they called it the Land Of A Thousand Lakes. The ground below looked like someone had broken a mirror and scattered the pieces all over the place. Some of the lakes looked no bigger than parking lots, and there were hundreds of them. My attack dog friend and I touched down with all that metal around us, skidding like it does, and coming to a stop outside the terminal. Because my guitar was in the rear of the plane I had to wait until everyone else got off before I could go back and get it. Consequently I was the last passenger off the airplane.

As I walked down the ramp I saw two men in suits waiting at the bottom. One of them had a camera. He took two pictures and they both walked off. Hmm, I thought, welcome to Minnesota. A few seconds later a very pretty native woman approached me and introduced herself. She was Tina Trudell, John’s wife. John, she said, was due in momentarily on another flight. He showed up carrying a small duffle bag and we walked out into the Minnesota heat, 98 degrees and 98 percent humidity. We headed into the city. They had organized for me to stay at a house in Minneapolis where some really interesting people lived. They had a printing press in the basement and ran a little operation called “Haymarket Press.” Once I was settled John and Tina went on their way but I would see them again soon, they said.

I always liked to be self supporting, so once I learned how to move around in the heat I made my way out to the university with my guitar. I figured out what would be the best place to start and what the class change times were and got to work. There was no technique really, just open your mouth and start talking real loud, rhyming and rhythming into some sort of scene where you could gather a crowd and do your thing. It took a few days to get a decent audience but pretty soon I was doing just fine. And pretty soon I began to notice those two men in suits who always seemed to be hanging around under the trees watching me work. They never put any money in the hat and they didn’t really look like professors. My escorts, I figured. How thoughtful.

Right away John began telling me stories about Pine Ridge and Leonard Peltier. About the mineral deposits and the 1855 Fort Laramie treaty, RESMURS, the GOONS and the FBI. He would take me out to where he lived, in the Little Earth Housing Project. Everybody there knew about Leonard and some of them had been involved in the events of those days. The stories began to pile up until one day I said, “maybe there’s a song in this.” John looked at me and smiled, as if to say, “it took you long enough.”survival_02

I began writing verses but there were holes in my understanding. I didn’t want to make anything up, I wanted to make a ballad that would tell the story the way it happened. I knew that objectivity was a myth, that every story teller took a side, and had I decided on my stand. Now I had to get all the parts right. Every few days I would meet up with Trudell again and read to him what I had written and ask him about certain things. He would answer and I would go off to write some more.

One evening there was a thunder storm coming in. They get great strong storms out there and you can see them coming for hundreds of miles. I was walking slowly through the campus thinking and writing lines. It began raining pretty hard and I went onto the covered foot bridge that crosses the Mississippi River where it cuts through the university. One end of it lead out into an open courtyard by the library and I stood there in the dark while it rained, working on my song and looking at the page of my pocket notebook. The rain stopped, but I was hot on a line so I kept looking at the page, my eyes adjusted to dim light. I was getting close. Suddenly – you know what it looks like when they use an arc welder? That bright flame that your not supposed to look at because it’ll hurt your eyes? Well, that’s what the page did. And that’s when the bridge blew up.

It didn’t exactly blow up but it seemed like it. A great lightning bolt had struck the metal where I was standing and I thought it was all over. It started raining buckets and lightning was striking everywhere, but I didn’t care. I ran across the open courtyard and into the library, down the stares and into the lowest part of the basement I could get to. I could hear the muffled thunderings from outside, rattling the walls of my imagination. I stayed until closing.

I got a strange gig at an ice cream parlor in Minneapolis where they paid you with dinner, which was omelets and, of course, ice cream. And all the coffee you could drink. Other than that it was strictly pass the hat. All that coffee and sugar made for a noisy crowd but I was eating just what they ate, so I could stay on their wave length. After my second time there I decided to walk home. It was several miles but the night was hot and I had a lot on my mind. There were the distant flashes of a far off thunder storm and I slowly wandered my way thinking about things. Thinking about Leonard and all that had gone down, about the strange men in suits that seemed to be showing up everywhere, and about how so many people try to keep the unpleasant things away from them. How you can make people nervous and uncomfortable by telling the wrong story, but these stories have to be told anyway. I started thinking,

you can’t make it go away
it’s gainin’ on you every day
it’s only natural anyway
and you can’t make it go away

I thought about the shiny office buildings downtown where the FBI was. And I remembered the well dressed office lady I had met at an AIM rally earlier who confided in me that she thought it was criminal how Indians were treated. You can’t judge people by looking at them. But there were those others, too. People who would stop at nothing to keep doors closed and windows barred. And I wrote,

you can laugh us off with a wave of your hand
you can look down upon us from where you stand
invent statistics to insult and degrade
you can make us illegal you can lock in the stockade
but you can’t make us go away…

And I thought about how inevitable victory really is, and how all the distractions in the world won’t keep the change from happening. And I wrote,

I can show you a dog you can call it a cat
you can do anything you want like that
you can hammer your head in a solid brick wall
and still maintain that it isn’t there at all
but you can’t make it go away…

I found a good place to take out my guitar and work up a tune. By the time I got home I had it memorized.

A few days later John picked me up early to head out to Stillwater, Minnesota. It’s a prison town. Prison is the only real industry there and everything else seems to revolve around it. Native people inside the institution were being denied freedom of religion and we were going to hold a rally outside the gates in protest. We were in an old car, worse for the wear but still running, and we rolled into town about 10 AM. I saw that all along the main street every telephone poll was flying an enormous American flag, real big like the ones outside the MacDonald’s. And this was May, nowhere near the 4th of July. What gives?

Then it hit me: when I was a kid I used to love the vampire stories, Dracula and his buddies. There’s truth in myth but I only figured that out later. The thing is, if you want to keep the vampires away, the “bad people,” you wore a crucifix and hung garlic around you doors and windows. And here we were rolling into town in this old car, the bad people. And there was the garlic, all those flags supposed to keep us away. But it wasn’t going to work. There was a pretty good crowd outside the gates that day. They played the drum and sang the honor songs. John spoke. And I sang, “you can’t make it go away.” Everything made sense and we headed back to Minneapolis.

Now the song was finished and I called it “Song For Leonard Peltier.” It was six minutes long and had a strange kind of symphonic melody. John said he liked it and so did I. I was invited to the Treaty Conference at Standing Rock, North Dakota. I didn’t have a tent or a sleeping bag so I decided to sleep in the back of the car. I was excited to get to sing my new song for these people but my luck was going to turn against me. There was a strange virus going around and I caught it. All of a sudden I completely lost my voice. All I could do was whisper. I remember whispering the song several times around the campfire, being as loud as I could, but there was no way I could be heard by any more than three people at a time. I was there for three days and spent most of it mute. But the song was done and that was the main thing.

I left the Twin Cities after a while and headed for England to play the Cambridge Folk Festival. I took Standing Rock with me. And the Little Earth Housing Project, John and Tina. And Leonard Peltier. I was traveling by myself but I wasn’t alone. Things went well and I was getting a lot of work over there.

peltier_nacksvingThen I got a communication from a Swedish record company called Nacksving. They wanted to do a single of my Peltier song. Nilak Butler and Steve Robideau, two native Peltier people who I new from sate side, had gone to Europe looking to build support for the case. They had been directed to Sweden and the record company. I recorded it right away with another song, “The Time Is Now” as the B side, and sent off the tape. It was released to raise money and awareness, in Europe and the US. Leonard Peltier was international now and people were traveling around, sometimes showing up in the weirdest places.

I was playing at a youth center in Switzerland. It was a converted oil storage tank, a great big round thing. Then stage was huge. A bed was suspended from the ceiling on one side of it, and all the time I was singing a strange girl was rolling around on the mattress kicking her legs in the air, singing a song all of her own. On the dance floor down below a young man was roller skating. I was just struggling along until the gig was over when suddenly a voice came out from the other side of the room, “sing the song for Leonard!” Bill Wahpepah, Cordell Tule, and Philip Deer were in Europe doing networking and had come out to see me play. And of all the gigs to drop in on this was the one. The jokes followed me for years, how they had caught me singing on stage with strange half naked women rolling around on mattresses.

Nilak Butler and Steve Robideau showed up in Sweden one time when I was doing a TV show with Bjorn Afzelius. Also on the show was what we called the “fascist fashion show.” Hard looking mechanical acting women wearing clear plastic dresses and combat boots, marching and saluting to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Even the producers thought it was too weird and cancelled their performance. We never did find out what it was all about, but the jokes followed from that one too.

I have sung that song in twelve countries and it is known, at least a little, in all of them. It used to be that I would have to do long introductions before I sang it but that’s changed. People seem to know what it’s about now. And that’s progress. I can’t tell you the whole story of Leonard Peltier and the events of those days out in Pine Ridge, there isn’t enough space here. But I will say that Leonard’s case is perhaps the clearest example of American injustice that we have before us. There is very little room for conjecture as so much is known. You can see the lies and manipulation, you can follow the power lines. You can see it all so clear. International corporations, police repression, violence. The wages of globalization are all right there to be seen.


Song For Leonard Peltier


loan me a minute, let me borrow your ear
and I’ll sing you a song about Leonard Peltier
he’s gone so long in a federal jail
the innocent victim of a tangled tale

in South Dakota where the fear was thrown
where the presidents watched from a mountain of stone,
they said all people were free to roam
there was a struggle for freedom in the Indian home

how many have gone before
and tell me how many more
must be lost to the Indian wars

the company spoke to the high command
“We need the deeds to the Indian land
to dig for oil and uranium ore
maybe have to start a little Indian war”

the orders came from way on high
and it was a job for the FBI
“It won’t be hard, all we’ll have to do
is just cause a little trouble and follow it through”

in Oglalla where the spirit did dwell
it was a time they remember well
women and children were gathered there
when the wind blew a warning through the whispering air

and Leonard Peltier was one of those
who came to the call when the time arose
and dangerous strangers were prowlin’ around
bringin’ trouble to the reservation ground

and that was when the agents made their play
in a gunshot battle on a deadly day
and three men died in Lakota land
two FBI and an Indian man.

how many have gone before
and tell me how many more
must be lost to the Indian wars

Joe Stuntz was a man that died that day
but the eyes of the law didn’t see it that way
all they cared about was their own kind
gonna get somebody for a capitol crime

the charge was set for homicide
but Leonard got away to the Canada side
where he lived for a while in the northern town
till they came up and got him and the brought him back down

the judge and the jury, they both agreed,
two times murder in the first degree
they pounded the gavel and they rang on the bell
two times life in a federal cell

citations came from Washington
congratulations on a job well done
two agents gone is a mighty price
but if you want somethin’ bad you gotta sacrifice

they took Leonard Peltier off away in chains
all of those years to suffer in pain
but all of those years makes a warrior strong
and the struggle of the people goes on

how many have gone before
and tell me how many more
must be lost to the Indian wars

and so it’s been since days of old
when Custer died for a mountain of gold
but times have changed and passed him by
he’s been replaced by the FBI

oh, it’s all so easy to weep and moan
for a warfare fought so far from home
you can preach of peace from a righteous stand
while they struggle for peace on the Indian land

when Joe Stuntz was lowered down
the winds did blow with a mighty sound
and the answer came in the driving rain
“this man will not have died in vain”

for the hollow power of the lock and key
ain’t nothin’ to the power of the raging sea
or the lightning strikes in the angry skies
that puts the power into people’s eyes

oh, the weather is building to a mighty storm
and the words in the wind that come to warn
are once more spoken to your ear
only this time the name is Leonard Peltier

how many have gone before
and tell me how many more
must be lost to the Indian wars