An opera based on events leading to the
trial and incarceration of Leonard Peltier

Donna Muhs-McCarten

A Sun Dance is a dance of renewal of the earth and cosmos. Renewed efforts for justice have been recently undertaken with the world premiere of Sundance,a two-act chamber opera depicting the events leading up to the trial and incarceration of Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier. Performed in the Cazenovia Theatre on July 7 and 8, many in the audience stayed after the performance to reflect upon Native American issues past and present. With music composed by Matt Walton, a political activist holding degrees in both musical composition and political science from Syracuse University, and libretto written by his father, Leonard (Lenny)Walton, the opera is a unique experience.

The world premier was presented by the Syracuse Society of New Music and co- sponsored by the Student Environmental Action Coalition, the Conflict Management Center, Syracuse University MAYFEST and SU's Sociology Department.

Lenny adds strong emotional elements to the libretto by using the actual words from events and trial manuscripts, complementing them with projections of photos from Wounded Knee and the 1969-1971 Alcatraz occupation. The opera leads up to the deaths of two FBI men in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, SouthDakota, and the accusation of Leonard Peltier as their murderer. Falsification of evidence by US officials and other legal misconduct eventually result in the sentencing of Mr. Peltier to two consecutive life terms and his incarceration for over 27 years for a crime he insists he did not commit. Amnesty International has labeled Leonard Peltier a "political prisoner" who ought to be "immediately and unconditionally released."

The singers' voices, the opera's scenery and lighting, and Matt's direction of the chamber ensemble created a powerful performance that works effectively to tell the story to audiences new to this part of history.. Follow-up panel discussions are an integral part of the educational nature of the work. Further collaboration came through workshops designed to provide feedback on relating the story to first-time listeners.

When asked to explain the objectives of the opera, Lenny, responded, "We wanted to tell Peltier's story in a way that might appeal to a group that had not already heard it. In that telling, we wanted to help the audience understand the pain, frustration and lack of hope that Native Americans were feeling, based on how they had been treated by the US government. We are not trying to make an issue of Peltier's guilt or innocence; it was more about Native Americans receiving unfair treatment at the hands of the government, and that Peltier deserved a fair trial.Based on the comments we received after the performance we think that we achieved what we set out to do."

Matt and Lenny hope for continued funding to perform live at additional locations. "Syracuse was a great place to start," said Lenny, "since it has a large Native American population and a direct connection to many of the incidents portrayed in the opera." As was mentioned in one of the panel discussions following the opera, the recent Onondaga Land Rights Claim comes to mind and with it, the importance of acknowledging Native American sovereignty . It is that collective voice of the Native American that must be heard.

The first act ends powerfully with the words of Leonard Peltier sung out:

…We are your own conscience calling to you.

Upcoming Performances

Tuesday, September 27 at 8 pm at Setnor Auditorium in Crouse College (Syracuse University). $15 and $12 (students/ seniors). Hildegard VanderSluis 468-0246.
Friday, February 17 at 7:30 pm in the Chapel at Colgate University

We are you yourself

crying unheard within you
Put your ear to the earth
and hear my heart beating there.

Put your ear to the wind
and hear me speaking there.

We are the voice of the earth,
of the future,
of the mystery.

Hear us.

If you missed these first live performances, you can still be part of the world premier via the web. For $5 you may view the opera for a week - see for details. A portion of the profits will be donated to the Leonard Peltier Committee.

It is imperative that as advocates of social justice we actively support those who have been punished and incarcerated for fighting oppression and injustice. Matt and Lenny encourage you to write Leonard at:

Leonard Peltier # 89637-132
USP Lewisburg
US Penitentiary
PO Box 1000
Lewisburg, PA 17837

Donna is a retired teacher and member of the PNL Editorial Committee.