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Robertson Helps Jailed Friend Peltier With Music

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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