Culture Shock: Leonard Peltier’s Last Chance For Freedom

Gregg Deal's Visual Activism Is Indicative Of The Power Of Art

Maggie Grimason
5 min read
Free Leonard Peltier
(Dirty Velvet)
Share ::
In 2005 then-Secretary of State Colin Powell stood in the Security Council chamber at UN headquarters in New York. He was there to make the case for an American-led war against Iraq. In a gesture with extraordinary resonance, UN officials hung a blue shroud over Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Guernica,” for the duration of Powell’s speech. Why? Some say it made a tidier background for camera crews, but it is just as likely that it was hung because the painting is about war, specifically, the devastation and inhumanity of it. In abstract black and grey shapes, Picasso presents horror—mutilated people and animals, a mother holding the corpse of her child. It’s hard to advocate war when a searing depiction anti-war horror surrounds you. “That,” artist Gregg Deal tells me as we sit in Albuquerque’s Peace and Justice Center, “is the power of art.”

Deal, who works in various mediums including performance, paint and video, traveled to Albuquerque in the last week of April to paint a mural of Leonard Peltier on the west-facing wall of the university district’s Peace and Justice Center (and to premiere a video at Rezilience). “While a lot of people find it easy to dismiss art, art is the thing that creates movements,” he continued, “I don’t think there’s any way that you can evoke change unless you start to question the status quo. The only way you can question that is by creating a dialogue in which somebody is forced to consider it. Public art and performance art work really well that way.” The mural itself is simple, direct and impossible to ignore. On the well trafficked intersection of Silver and Harvard is a portrait and in stark black lettering against bright blue painted bricks are the words: “Free Leonard Peltier.”

Leonard Peltier is a Chippewa-Sioux Indigenous rights and American Indian Movement activist who has been imprisoned for 39 years for the deaths of two FBI agents in the aftermath of a shootout on Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975 despite the fact that there is no clear evidence against him. As such, he is one of the longest held political prisoners in the world. “It’s an incredible metaphor for Indigenous people,” Deal said. “He not just represents the struggles of the ’60s and ’70s for Indigenous rights, but also the struggle of Native people being cast aside and forgotten about.”

This year, the last year of the Obama administration, has seen increased activism in support of clemency for Leonard Peltier. At 71 and in failing health, Peltier is held in a maximum security prison where he does not receive the degree of medical attention necessary for his conditions. Historically, presidents on their way out of office dole out pardons, and Barack Obama is most likely to provide that for Peliter. As his son, Chauncey Peltier said repeatedly in a meeting in support of his father’s release—this is his last chance for freedom.

“My Indigenous voice comes through in everything,” Deal continued on about his work. “I have five kids … knowing that they’re going to have to navigate things like identity and the way that stereotypes dictate the value of Indigenous people … those are things I touch on because our generation is so affected by popular culture and perception.” As such, Deal often designs work that is fluid across mediums and donates his images to the organizations he partners with. For example, you can also buy a shirt with the same imagery that is on the mural at the Peace and Justice Center, the proceeds of which will go toward the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.

As we continued talking about art, history, the Washington Redskins and UNM’s seal, Deal talked about the importance of the “rising up of young Native people that are taking their rightful place and asserting their identity and not being defined by dominant culture,” because, for example in the case of the racist mascot of the Washington Redskins—“that is also the power of art, to brand an entire marginalized people.”

“I always push for critical thought and critical theory in everything,” Deal said. This conviction is evident in all of his work. In his performance piece “The Last American Indian on Earth” Deal dons a headdress, fringed leggings, a loincloth. There’s a black handprint painted across his face. He at times holds a cardboard sign that says “My Spirit Animal Is White Guilt” or “This Used to Be Indian Land But Everything Went to Crap.” In effect, he becomes a caricature. He then documented the reactions he received and used them as a springboard for discussion. The reactions are sometimes devastatingly insensitive and shamefully ignorant. “It speaks to the level of privilege and the level of misunderstanding … [how] knowledge of history is based solely and completely on Western culture dominance, so the value of Indigenous people is based only in Western culture.

“These efforts of elimination haven’t worked. They’ve done a lot of damage, but they haven’t worked.” And Leonard Peltier is a part of that and will not be forgotten. “Native people have long memories,” Deal said before he gathered his paints and began to work.
Free Leonard Peltier

Dirty Velvet

1 2 3 234