On November 14, 2015, four original oil paintings by a Native American artist stood in the rotunda of the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries building in Tumwater. One day later, they were gone.
The paintings were part of an exhibit celebrating Native American Heritage Month. The exhibit's main focus was Nisqually activist, Billy Frank Jr., who had recently been posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Tumwater is in traditional Nisqually territory, so the modest display seemed a fitting tribute to the local Native people.
The accompanying paintings were created by a Native artist with Pacific Northwest roots, a Anishinabe Dakota/Lakota man who lived in Seattle for years and been active in the Native rights movement of the '60s and '70s.
But this artist was better known for something else, something that happened 40 years before on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The artist's fame came not from his paintings, but from his part in a 1975 shootout there with the FBI that left two agents and one Native activist dead. The incident landed him in prison serving two life sentences.
The artist's name is Leonard Peltier, and on November 15, 2015, his beautiful paintings were unceremoniously removed from the L&I exhibit primarily due to the complaints of two retired FBI agents. But on July 16, 2018 U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton ruled Leonard Peltier's constitutional rights may have been violated. He is allowing a lawsuit filed by Peltier against the State of Washington to proceed.
How a small exhibit grew into a huge court battle
Brian Frisina, an employee within the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, told Indian Country Today he's been the department's spokesman for Native American Heritage Month for 18 years. Frisina also volunteers under the name Raven Redbone as the host of a Native talk show called "No Bones About It" on KAOS, a public radio station located at Evergreen State College. In 2014, as host of the show, he met Peltier's son, Chauncey, who at the time was custodian of his father's paintings.
"I asked him if I could borrow some of his father's paintings for the next exhibit and he said, 'sure.' I chose four of the most beautiful," Frisina said, "a still life of Native pottery, a portrait of a chief, a buffalo in the snow, and a man riding a calf."
Frisina asked permission from L&I officials to include Peltier's paintings in the 2015 Native American Heritage Month display. The approval process dragged on for seven months and went through six boards, Human Resources, a diversity committee and the L&I director.
"But they finally said we can have the paintings here as long as we don't talk about the case. I said, 'Absolutely!'"
Soon after the exhibit went up, Darren Smith, a "weekend contributor" to the blog jonathanturley.org came and took pictures of the display. He wrote a scathing blog, saying the artwork of a man convicted of murdering federal officers should not hang in a government building.
"The article and enquiries I made to various law enforcement officials and the former FBI Agent’s Association generated a considerable backlash against the agency for its actions," Smith wrote in a November 14, 2015 blog.
The department received several other complaints, including one from a victim's family member, urging the removal of the paintings. The department wrote in a 2015 email to
Indian Country Today they did not want the exhibit to cause controversy or painful feelings for the victims' family members. So they had Peltier's paintings taken down.
After initial news reports appeared, a wave of people from all over the country wrote letters of support for Peltier, requesting his paintings be returned to the exhibition. They never were. Peltier and his oldest son, Chauncey, are now in 2018, suing the state of Washington for violating his right to freedom of speech and expression.
The stage Is set for an epic fight
The original lawsuit, filed two years ago by Peltier and his son, included charges against two retired FBI agents, Edward Woods and Larry Langberg, who spearheaded the drive to take down the paintings. This was thrown out last summer by Judge Leighton who said the retired FBI agents had the right to complain if they wished. He dismissed the charges and ordered Chauncey to pay $17,000 in court costs.
In his ruling last week, Judge Leighton recast the lawsuit as being against the State of Washington itself and not its specific officials. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, Department of Labor and Industries Director Joel Sacks and L&I Public Affairs Manager Timothy Church were dropped from the lawsuit.
Essentially, the judge simplified the case by boiling it down to one charge: Did the state of Washington deny Peltier's right to freedom of speech when it took down his paintings? Chauncey told Indian Country Today he is pleased with the decision and feels confident of winning the case.
"I talked to our lawyer and he said I shouldn't worry. Everything looks good for a positive outcome," Chauncey said.
Meanwhile, Peltier is in lockdown
Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences for the 1975 murder of FBI agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams. He's housed in a maximum security federal prison in Coleman, Florida. Sheridan Murphy, spokesman for the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, wrote Monday:
"Leonard is currently and has been in a unit-wide lockdown for six weeks and we have not had the opportunity to discuss the recent development with him. We have sent it in through legal mail and anticipate he will make a statement shortly.
"He has some health issues one would expect for being 73 and having spent 43 years in prison. He has a heart condition. His hips are ailing him. He has prostate issues, and an aneurysm among other health concerns. Given all that, his spirit is doing well considering his health and being in lockdown."
Although dedicated to the fight for Peltier's rights, both Chauncey and fellow supporter Brian Frisina admit the issue has been draining for them.
"But look at the paintings," Frisina said after a moment of thought. "Aren't they beautiful?"