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Gristmill: Spirit of Crazy Horse

Wed, 08/12/2020 - 19:13
The F.B.I.’s wanted poster for Leonard Peltier. Considered a political prisoner in some circles, he was arrested at a remote cabin in Alberta, Canada, in 1976 and convicted the next year to two consecutive life sentences.

I once had a Wall Drug bumper sticker on my car, but never anything political. But now I’ve taken to wearing a couple of overtly political, more like controversial, T-shirts urging the release of Leonard Peltier, the jailed American Indian activist who, depending on who you believe, either executed two F.B.I. agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975 or was merely there at the gunfight.

The white shirt shows a pen-and-ink drawing of a long-haired native in warpaint next to two eagles, with “Spirit of Freedom” above and “Free Leonard Peltier” below. The black one has “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” and “Free Peltier” sandwiching another raptor staring out from in front of a blood-red sun.

I’ve been waiting for someone to say something to me about these shirts, but beyond the fact that they appear vaguely patriotic if you don’t look closely enough, I’ve come to the conclusion that not a lot of people know who Leonard Peltier is anymore. Honestly, I shouldn’t even be wearing the things until I read up about the case some more. I’ve never read Peter Matthiessen’s “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” for instance, which for years was essentially a banned book, such were the legal actions against it.

And yet Matthiessen’s who I got the shirts from, in a secondhand way, left over as they were after an estate sale at his place in Sagaponack in 2014. Apparently never worn. Nice thick cotton, too, made in the U.S.A. by Hanes before Nafta, hatched in a right-wing think tank and signed by Democrat Bill Clinton, destroyed clothing manufacturing in North Carolina, Hanes’s headquarters, and across the South, for that matter.

Forgive me, that’s just my way of saying these are good souvenirs. I look at them and think of Matthiessen’s “Wildlife in America,” which I got a lot out of. Or “On the River Styx,” one of the great story collections.

Or maybe, speaking of Pine Ridge, I’m reminded of its late resident poet and English professor, Adrian Louis, a tough Paiute in a trucker hat. I read his funny, plainspoken collection of poems “Among the Dog Eaters” back in college and still can’t recommend it enough.

He’s another one the likes of whom we won’t see again.


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