The Cost of Martyrdom

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

The Cost of Martyrdom
By Larry Burke

He is the most famous inmate in Leavenworth--indeed, one of the most famous prisoners in America. His case has become a kind of modern Sacco-Vanzetti, an international cause that's been the subject of celebrated books, moving documentaries, and countless bumper stickers and posters calling for his release. When Leonard Peltier was sentenced to life in prison for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, he came to personify the lost hopes and ideals of the American Indian Movement, the once proud struggle that has since devolved into bickering and internecine feuds. He became, in a word, a martyr. And so, after nearly two decades, he remains. Peltier and his supporters have insisted that he was framed as part of a many-tentacled federal conspiracy designed not only to stamp out AIM, but also to open up uranium-rich lands on the Sioux reservation for mining industrialists. It was a plot that, given our nation's disgraceful treatment of Native Americans over the centuries, seemed all too plausible.

American Indian affairs have long been a matter of concern to us at Outside. And so, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Pine Ridge incident, we asked journalist Scott Anderson, the author of The Four O'Clock Murders, among other books, to trace the arc of Peltier's life. Anderson found, to his surprise, a story considerably murkier than a one-sided tale of government perfidy. The Leonard Peltier who emerges from Anderson's report is a darker and more complicated man, one who has become a victim of his own martyrdom. Anderson contends that Peltier's apologists, though perhaps motivated by the best of intentions, have, in their efforts to free him, distorted the truth and inadvertently prolonged his imprisonment.

Whatever you finally choose to believe--after all, this magazine has always been a forum for divergent views--Anderson's meticulous investigation, "The Martyrdom of Leonard Peltier," should hereafter challenge conventional thinking about the Leonard Peltier story.

Elsewhere in this issue: Editor-at-large Tim Cahill takes off for the windblown coast of southern Peru to observe the 19th World Spearfishing Championships, the Olympics of an ancient sport that remains hugely popular among maritime cultures from Greece to Polynesia. In "The Zen of Apnea, the Ennui of Chub," Cahill reflects on an esoteric class of trident-wielding sportsmen with superhuman lungs.

Then, Stuart Stevens finds himself deep in the Basque soul of Spain, hunting down the secrets of cycling phenomenon Miguel Indurain, the four-time Tour de France winner who will try for a fifth yellow jersey this month. Stevens finds a man of inscrutable serenity, with a pulse rate of 28 beats per minute and a physique rumored to be on loan from aliens.

Finally, for those of you who've come to doubt whether paradise can exist side by side with reality, consider our cover story, "This Isn't Heaven, It's Madison, Wisconsin." After scouring the country, correspondent Mike Steere takes an envious look at several nearly perfect towns that offer both culture and economic opportunity in the midst of soaring landscapes. We offer this in the same spirit of reader service in which we call attention to great wilderness spots--recognizing that an influx of new folks can have a negative impact. So tread lightly, and lest we spoil these Shangri-las ourselves, treat our report with discretion: Someone may be reading over your shoulder.

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