This week's Real Change will feature an interview I did with Sherman Alexie last Thursday. We talked about his new book Flight, the legacy of Kurt Vonnegut, class and the declining significance of race in America, how privilege makes people stupid, and the advantages of leaving our tribalisms behind. This section, on why he no longer supports the movement to free Leonard Peltier, is excerpted from the unedited transcript that will be posted on the Real Change website.
Sherman's Town Hall reading on Monday, April 23rd, at 7 pm will be a benefit for Real Change, and will also feature readings from our own Anitra Freeman and Stan Burriss.
ALEXIE: It always bothered me, for instance, with the American Indian Movement and the Leonard Peltier case. I reflexively supported Leonard Peltier until very recently. Just because, you know, I am fully aware of what the FBI is capable of in this country, and has always been capable of in this country. But then I actually looked at what happened that day on the Pine Ridge Res. Two FBI agents holed up, at the compound. I have no problem believing they shot first. Whatever happened, there was a gunfight. The FBI agents were mortally wounded, defenseless, and one, two or three — depending on the stories — people, walked down the hill 100 yards, went around the cars, stood over the FBI agents, and shot them in the face. By any definition of the term, that is a crime.
RC: It’s an execution.
ALEXIE: If you believe what was happening at Pine Ridge was a war, and therefore both sides were protecting something. If you even believe AIM was practicing self-defense that day, in the context of war, still, it couldn’t be self-defense. Because the FBI agents were no longer capable of harming anybody. It was war, the FBI agents were no longer able to fight. So there was no self-defense anymore, and they were defenseless enemy combatants. So it was a war crime. So one of those moments when you realize, oh shit, I have been supporting a war criminal.
RC: Well, it’s a great example of a morally ambiguous situation, where the whole issue of being of a tribe or not affects your ability to see what’s really going on. I mean, you’re right. On the one side was GOON, which was horrible, but on the other side, AIM certainly had its totally thuggish aspects as well, which I thought certainly came across in the way that you set it up in the book.
ALEXIE: Which was the fictionalized version of seventies activism where the so called good guys, what do I call it in the book? IRON, Indigenous Rights Now. Two activists work with the FBI to kill another Indian. So two IRON guys are acting as double agents, which happened. There is evidence, anecdotal and otherwise of AIM members cooperating with the FBI. It happened with the Black Panthers. It happened with Chicano movements.
Because certain members of AIM, not all of them, a lot of them did a lot of great stuff, but because certain more violent members of AIM and I share the same ethnicity, I automatically reflexively assume that we shared the same moral system. And we don’t. I have an entirely different moral system than Leonard Peltier. Russell Means. Dennis Banks. I have a different moral system. And if you push and look, I would say that most of the people, and it’s white liberals, almost all of the white liberals who support the Free Leonard Peltier thing, if they really examined it, would realize how different their moral system, about violence and guns, is from the people they are trying to support.
RC: So, I assume then that you don’t regard the Matthiasson book then as the definitive account?
RC: Is there a source then, that …
ALEXIE: No. It’s a combination of reading this side’s version and that side’s version. One of the facts you can’t get around is that the FBI agents were shot in the face when they were defenseless. That’s a pretty hard fact.
RC: That’s a tough one to get around isn’t it?
ALEXIE: Yeah, so where do you go from there? After that, it’s all politics, and its all moral relativism. But I’m going to take the firm moral stance here that it was wrong. Regardless of why the FBI was there, what happened was that two defenseless human beings were shot in the face. And I get in trouble for it.
Q; I’ll bet you do.
ALEXIE: I’ve had people yell out, “Fuck you, Sherman!” at readings and performances, which is fun.