John Densmore to Barack Obama: Apologize to Native Americans

In an op-ed, the Doors drummer salutes Standing Rock protesters and advocates for the pardon of activist Leonard Peltier

The Doors' John Densmore salutes Standing Rock protesters and asks Barack Obama to apologize to Native Americans in a new op-ed. Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty

The Doors' John Densmore calls on Barack Obama to apologize to Native Americans for centuries of injustice and pardon activist Leonard Peltier in a passionate new op-ed for Rolling Stone.

The drummer's piece arrives in the aftermath of the Standing Rock Sioux's successful protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, an environmental win and victory for the rights of indigenous peoples in the United States. For Densmore, however, the looming presidency of Donald Trump threatens both, and he calls on Obama to take a stand like the 4,000 veterans who joined the protest at Standing Rock and apologized to the Indian Elders.

Densmore has long advocated on behalf of Native Americans and even immersed himself in their music (he joined the group Burning Sky on their 2002 record, Spirits In the Wind). As he notes in his piece, he also previously lobbied Bill Clinton on behalf of Peltier, the 72-year-old activist who has spent 40 years in prison for for allegedly killing two FBI agents during the shootout at Pine Ridge in 1975. 

While Clinton did not pardon or commute Peltier's sentence, Densmore implores Obama to do so now, not just for humanitarian reasons, "but also as a way of acknowledging the injustice suffered by Native Americans." He adds later: "It's hard to make improvements in race relations, which have flared up recently, because our nation's foundation is built on racism. We must admit that."

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First of all, Turtle Island is the name of this continent we live on… that's right, not "America … as in North America," but the name given by the first peoples of this land. According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, the United States, Canada and Mexico are passing political entities, having their legitimacies to be sure. But according to Mr. Snyder, they will lose their mandate if they continue to abuse the land. As he writes in 2009's The Practice of the Wild, "The State is destroyed, but the mountains and rivers remain." Now there's an overview.

Obviously the corporation and the politicians at Standing Rock in North Dakota don't have as large a vision as Mr. Snyder. I wish they could see at least a couple of generations down the road, let alone seven, as the Native cultures encourage.

Crazy Horse we hear what you say

One does not sell the Earth the people walk upon

We are the land

How do we sell our Mother?

How do we sell the stars?

How do we sell the air?

Crazy Horse we hear what you say

- John Trudell

You see, the protesters come from a 500-year-old tribe, the Lakota Sioux, so they are standing on some old history. "This is why we say this is not a protest," says Cannupa Hanska Luger, a New Mexico artist born on the Standing Rock Reservation. "We are 'water protectors.' We're not just protesting a pipeline; we're maintaining a cultural practice." They were on Turtle Island first, and if we see them with a blind eye, and don't acknowledge that we took most of their land with force, we will remain blind to the fact that racial wars in our country will continue unless we acknowledge the first atrocity.

"Apologizing to Native people of this land would go a long way."

The recent environmental victory in not allowing the pipeline under the Missouri River is a template for what we're up against with the Trump Towers looming over every ecological advance that's been made. The courageous vets who came and formed a human shield to protect the protesters said, "You can't allow big money to come in and rip up the constitution in the faces of America’s oldest citizens." If this decision isn't overturned by the Trumpistas, then justice will have prevailed.

Lame duck Barack Obama has got only a week to go out like an eagle. I’ve been proud having him as our prez, even though sometimes his centrist position on matters has been frustrating. He's done a lot of good, like with this decision at Standing Rock, but now he could rocket out of office like a comet with one more decision … it just takes huevos.

Many years ago, I spent 5k at a fundraiser to hang with another lame duck: Bill Clinton. I lobbied him to pardon Leonard Peltier, the Nelson Mandela of Native Americans. Peltier was in the shootout at Pine Ridge where a couple of FBI agents were killed and they had to pin it on somebody. There's a lot of controversy in the case (contradictions, witnesses harassed, others involved not charged, etc., etc.) and Peltier's supporters read like a celeb list from TMZ – 14th Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert Redford, Common, Yasiin Bey, Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, the Italian Parliament and the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.

Come on, folks ... he's 72 years old, been in jail for 40 years, is ill and hasn't been with his family. Even if he did kill the two agents, how many "Indians" have we killed? The estimates are 100 million. [Editor's Note: Following the publication of this op-ed, Densmore added, "To imply that the two FBI deaths were ok in relation to the approximately 100 million "Indian" deaths was not very "Dalai Lama" of me. All life is precious, and I regret that sentence."] 

We figured out that the buffalo was their food, so we killed 60 million buffalo. Well, obviously Bill didn't pardon Peltier. The FBI protested and Clinton folded. (Gosh, does the FBI run the country? Re: Comey… Re: J Edgar). Bill did pardon a crook, though – Mark Rich. Even though I have serious dread about the future, part of me is glad to be rid of the Clintons. When they first came on the scene, I was excited that my ge-generation was getting power. Unlike another baby boomer, Bernie Sanders, they turned out to be opportunists.

President Obama should pardon Leonard Peltier, or at least commute his sentence, not just for humanitarian reasons, but also as a way of acknowledging the injustice suffered by Native Americans.

"You can’t allow big money to come in and rip up the constitution in the faces of America’s oldest citizens."

I’ve hung out and performed with many Native American musicians, and my experience is that the first peoples of this land are incredibly open, warm and forgiving. Like the Dalai Lama, the Elders called the colonizers "relatives" that should be prayed for. Even though the conquerers just about committed genocide, the indigenous retain a certain centeredness because they know in their bones that the land they stand on is home. 

Gary Snyder again sheds light on this issue: "There are tens of millions of people in North America who were physically born here but who are not actually living here intellectually, imaginatively or morally. Native Americans to be sure have a prior claim to the term 'native.' For the non-Native American to become at home on the continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island."

What he means is to shepherd the land with the idea that our descendants will be here for millennia, so make sure the ground and waterways stay healthy. Then we could call it "home" and Europe, Asia and Africa would truly be places our ancestors came from. Taking care of the environment means that we truly are saying that home is here - in the most deeply spiritual way possible.

And one more thing: Apologizing to Native people of this land would go a long way. It's hard to make improvements in race relations, which have flared up recently, because our nation's foundation is built on racism. We must admit that. We must admit that the Vietnam War was a mistake ... it's ok ... we’re supposed to learn from our mistakes.

Come on Barack, you can do it. The extremely courageous vets, 4,000 of them, descended on Standing Rock to protect the protesters because they saw them being abused. Then the former soldiers did an amazing thing: they apologized to the Indian Elders. They apologized for broken treaties, they apologized for stolen minerals from the sacred land and they apologized for blasting the faces of presidents on the sacred mountains ... extraordinary rhetoric

Now our president could step up and emulate these heroes of former wars in service for our country. I read about an ex-Marine and native Navajo who feels the same. He appreciated the apology from the Vets, but said it was not only the veterans who needed to apologize. He felt Native people should also receive an apology from the U.S. Government because it was the government that did it. At the least, giving clemency to Peltier would be a giant tip of the hat to the people who taught us Thanksgiving ... and then we took the whole turkey.

Otherwise, the prophetic John Trudell lyric will come true: "Crazy Horse we hear what you say… We are the seventh generation"… meaning the last…