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Robertson Helps Jailed Friend Peltier With Music

April 23, 1998 12:00 AM ET

With his deeply soulful Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, Robbie Robertson hasn't just tapped into some arcane grooves, he also may have prompted the release of a Native American soul-brother from jail.

Leonard Peltier, the activist who speaks his peace during Robertson's stirring "Sacrifice," has been rotting away in Leavenworth Penitentiary for more than 20 years, charged with killing two FBI agents. Robertson's involvement with the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee is prompting the authorities to brush the dust off Peltier's case.

On the phone from the West Coast, Robertson explained how his connection with Peltier came about: "I've known about Leonard ever since the incident took place in the '70s. Through some mutual friends, we started communicating last year. Every once in a while we would have these conversations on the phone. It was really great to try and lift his spirits a little bit. Then when I was in the middle of making this record, he called and this idea hit me for him to tell his story. People have never heard it in his own words. We did it as an experiment, and it turned out to be so powerful and soulful." (The song was aided by the big-beat production of Robertson and Marius de Vries.)

Robertson admits he doesn't know exactly what went down during the shootout, on June 26, 1975, between more than 150 FBI agents, police, U.S. Marshals and about 30 local Indians -- initiated by the theft of a pair of cowboy boots, no less. But he does think Peltier's trial was a sham.

"Of the three people who were charged, the other two were found not guilty by means of self-defense. When that happened, the authorities said 'Hold on, what's happening here? Who do we have left?' Leonard was the one who hadn't been put on trial. They hand-picked the judge, they moved his trial to another state -- he was a sacrificial lamb."

According to Gina Chiala, spokeswoman for Peltier's Defense Committee, Robertson's involvement has helped draw more attention to the case. "Music always helps, and the song is really moving." (Rage Against the Machine also dedicated their song "Freedom" to Peltier.) Having exhausted every avenue of appeal, the committee has filed for executive clemency and, with Robertson's high-profile assistance, have been putting pressure on the Oval Office. "We expect something to happen in one to two years," Chiala stated proudly.

In Robertson's eyes, Peltier is an amazing human being and a hero. "He doesn't whine about this, and he knows that in the course of his suffering he'll be helping out a lot of his people," he said. "Now with everything that's happening, and if [the case] is brought to the proper authorities, we could see him walk out of Leavenworth penitentiary.

"I played him the song a couple of weeks ago over the phone and you can imagine what it did for him," Robertson said, clearly delighted. "He told me today how everyone keeps talking to [him] about our song. That really makes me feel good."

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