Some struggles are quickly overcome; others stretch out over months and years. In the case of justice and a fair trial for Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier, the struggle has lasted for close to thirty years. He has been incarcerated at the Leavenworth Penitentiary since April of 1977, sentenced to two life terms for the alleged murder of two FBI agents. Despite multiple appeals to get him a new trial, and the public outcry of groups like Amnesty International that “Leonard Peltier should be immediately and unconditionally released,” he remains in prison, and stands as a prominent reminder of a criminal justice system that often falls short of fair and equal judgment.
The phrases “opera” and “Native American political prisoner” are not commonly found in the same sentence. The first invokes images of rich, old, white people, and warbling large-bellied ladies, whereas the second brings to mind injustice, courtroom trials, and a call towards activism. These worlds seem miles apart, but in the mind of composer Matthew J. Walton, there is a good deal to be learned from their merging. In July of 2005, he premiered his opera Sundance, which he said “broadly tells the story of the trial and incarceration of Leonard Peltier,” to an “overwhelmingly positive response.” On January 25, Walton is coming to Western to present a DVD of the premier performance of Sundance, followed by discussion and questions.
Walton is a graduate student in Political Science at the University of Washington. As an undergraduate, Walton studied music composition at Syracuse University. Inspiration for this opera came while Walton was reading a book about Peltier. “My father, Leonard Walton, and I had been talking about doing an opera. We wanted to do something that had some sort of social message,” he said, “and we realized this could be really interesting.”
For Walton and his father, making the opera has been a learning process. “Almost everything in the opera is primary text,” he said. “We felt it was important that the people who experienced it got to tell their story. When we decided to tell this story, we asked, ‘is this something we can do?’ It took a long time to start to build relationships with people who were involved, but it was interesting and fascinating to see how many doors were open to us, once those relationships existed.”
To contextualize Peltier’s story, they felt it was necessary to give some history about the American Indian movement prior to Peltier’s trial. For this reason, the first half of the opera starts with the Wounded Knee massacre, which Walton described as “amazing, because it is not the first massacre of it’s kind, but it got a lot of press. It is one of the first well documented incidents of its kind.” The second act contains excerpts from the trial, and exposes some flaws of the criminal justice system that landed Peltier in prison. While doing research for the opera, Walton said, “we realized that a lot of these stories hadn’t been told and possibly weren’t going to be told. We learned that there are a lot more stories to tell.” They wrote Sundance to engage these unheard voices with a larger audience.
Walton said that he was “amazed at how the medium of opera worked to tell this story. People really responded to the fact that this story was told through music. There’s a sort of subversive element to it… People go to see opera as entertainment. When you are being entertained, your defenses are lower, you’re making yourself more emotionally vulnerable.” In this way, Walton described that this opera can be used as a social and political tool. Opera, with it’s appeal to upper class, “blue hair” types, engages a group of people who might not think about these things as much as your average political activist. “What was cool about the premier was that you had the traditional opera folks, but also people from the Native community and social justice community,” he said. Perhaps a dialogue between disparate social strata and ethnic groups can also be spurred by this work.
In making the opera, Walton and his father tried to present the facts without pushing an idea of right or wrong. “We felt a more neutral stance gave us better positioning with audiences, allowing people to drop those defenses and listen to the story. I don’t think we tried to stay neutral, but we did try to present it in a neutral way, because we think if you see the facts, it shows that he didn’t get a fair trial.”
Andrew Hedden, co-coordinator of the Social Issues Resource Center, agrees with Walton. “Leonard Peltier is representative of the FBI’s tendency to treat the law like the speed limit,” he said. “It will go way over it to achieve what it is trying to do. For Leonard Peltier, that’s the repression of the American Indian Movement. If he were let out, it would be a huge defeat to the FBI’s morals and sense that they can get away with breaking the law.” The case of Leonard Peltier stretches out of its own skin, exemplifying the way injustices ricochet through the criminal justices system for many minority and disadvantaged people. “If that can happen to one person, that could happen to a lot of people,” said David Cahn, another SIRC coordinator.
When the opera premiered, Walton said he asked the audience to “give Leonard the chance that he didn’t get in the courts.” He sees the opera’s primary importance as a teaching tool, and called it “a reminder, and ideally a call to action.” On Wednesday, January 25, at 7 pm in Communications Room 125, you can talk to Walton, and see Sundance for yourself.