“Leonard: Political Prisoner” Wins 2021 Human Rights Audio Documentary Award

Post by Patrick Stawski, Human Rights Archivist, and Caitlin Margaret Kelly, Curator Archive of Documentary Arts

A podcast about a Native American activist convicted of a double-murder he might not have committed is the winner of the 2021 Human Rights Audio Documentary Award sponsored by Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Leonard: Political Prisoner tells the story of Leonard Peltier, who in 1977 was sentenced to consecutive life sentences for killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Through a mix of archival audio, interviews, and narration, the podcast revisits the facts and irregularities of the case against Peltier, who has spent the last 44 years in federal prison. Told in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the world-wide calls for racial justice it inspired, Peltier’s account of his mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government and American legal system takes on a new light.

Leonard: Political Prisoner was produced and hosted by Rory Owen Delaney and Andrew Fuller of Man Bites Dog Films, with Kevin McKiernan serving as consulting producer.

Responding to news of the award, the producers said, “When we set out to create this documentary podcast series, the ultimate goal was to create the quintessential, permanent, spoken-word account of the case of Leonard Peltier within the historical context of the ongoing fight that Native Americans have and continue to endure in the United States today. The preservation and access that Duke University’s Rubenstein Library will provide is an essential resource in keeping this audio time-capsule for generations to come, so that the human rights issues of indigenous peoples are never forgotten.”

Leonard is more than a true crime podcast. It deploys the language of audio storytelling to indict centuries of broken treaties, stolen land, and a racist legal system that denies Native Americans their legal and human rights. The podcast foregrounds Native American voices and follows them down related storylines, like how Mount Rushmore is perceived as an insult and desecration of the Lakota Black Hills, or how the Custer Courthouse Riot of 1973 was led by activists of the American Indian Movement. Delaney and Fuller create a rich archival world of contemporary and archived interviews, news footage, and other sonic artifacts that goes beyond the question of Peltier’s guilt and asks listeners to consider the broader crimes against humanity committed against Native Americans.

The theme of this year’s inaugural Human Rights Audio Award was language and human rights. Leonard engages language as part of their storytelling strategy. For example, Delaney and Fuller discuss why they opted to use the term “Indian” versus Native American.  They also review the history of tribal names such as the Sioux, explaining how such names can be used to foster a sense of self-identity or as a tool of repression. Peltier, through the voice of actor Peter Coyote, explains how as a child at an Indian Boarding School he was forbidden from speaking his own language, “You could say that the first infraction in my criminal career was speaking my own language, there’s an act of violence for you.” Weaving together historical research, oral histories, and contemporary voices, Leonard utilizes the strengths of the podcast medium to present complex histories and their aftermath.

The Human Rights Audio Documentary Award is sponsored by the Human Rights Archive and the Archive of Documentary Arts at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The award seeks to support outstanding documentary artists exploring human rights and social justice and expand the audio holdings in the Archive for long-term preservation and access. Winners receive $2,500 and are invited to present their work at Duke University, where a team of archivists will preserve their work.

The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Library has a strong commitment to human rights and the documentary arts through collecting and making available works by creators from around the world. Its collections document the impact that organizations and individuals have to motivate the thinking of others and influence private and government policies.