The Leonard Peltier Statue by Rigo 23 at the San Francisco Art Institute (2020) (photo by Alex Peterson)

SAN FRANCISCO — Artist Rigo 23 got the idea to do a large-scale statue of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist who’s been incarcerated since 1977, when he saw a small self-portrait that Peltier had painted in prison.

“There was something Buddha-like about the pose, and it reminded me of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker,’ which is so muscular and epic,” Rigo 23 said by phone from Portugal. “Usually, images of heroism and humanity are epic, and this is just a man sitting on the ground wearing prison-issued clothes. It has this different kind of spirituality.”

The 12-foot-tall statue is now on the roof terrace of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where the artist is an alumnus and former faculty member. It looks out over to Alcatraz Island, the site of a former federal prison, which a protest group, Indians of All Tribes, occupied from November 1969 until June 1971.

The Leonard Peltier Statue by Rigo 23 at the San Francisco Art Institute (2020) (photo by Alex Peterson) 

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Peltier, who is of Lakota and Dakota descent, got involved with AIM, a civil rights organization meant to promote cultural pride and sovereignty. He participated in a number of protests, including the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties march, a cross-country event that ended by occupying the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, DC. In 1973, AIM led a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation to protest injustices and corrupt leadership on the reservation. In the years after that were known as the “Reign of Terror,” Peltier was convicted for killing two FBI agent during a shootout on the reservation. He denies killing them, and Amnesty International, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela have campaigned for clemency for him.

The Leonard Peltier Statue by Rigo 23 at the San Francisco Art Institute (2020) (photo by Alex Peterson) 

Rigo 23’s statue, which is the same dimensions as Peltier’s cell, has a lively history for an inanimate object. It was on display at the American University in Washington DC in 2016, across the street from FBI headquarters. According to Rigo 23, after the president of the FBI Agents Association complained, it was taken down. The artist says for months no one at the university would return his emails and calls about the statue, and it took almost a year for him to get it back.

The feet of the statue are detachable, and they have traveled all over the country to protest and ceremony sites, including Standing Rock Reservation, Alcatraz, and Crow Dog’s Paradise. Along with Peltier’s statue, a small gallery at SFAI has photos of people (including well-known activist Angela Davis) standing on the feet to show solidarity with Peltier.

Angela Davis in Oakland, California (image courtesy Rigo 23)

Rigo 23’s only other statue is of John Carlos and Tommie Smith doing the Black Power salute on the Olympic podium in 1968. The spot for the silver medalist is empty, and the space is meant to be used as a speaker’s box. The artist says he similarly wanted to make the Peltier statue something activists could use. He got the idea of using the feet when he was working on the statue at home, in Los Angeles, and an artist friend asked if she could stand on them.

At the end of the Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island, on Indigenous People’s Day, 2017, the carrier of AIM’s sacred staff joined hundreds of others taking a stand atop the feet of the Peltier statue. (photo by Ashlyn Forbes)

“When I saw her standing on them, I thought it was a way to honor him and summon power,” he said. “If people can step on these feet and try to imagine being in his position, the feet can be like batteries that store energy. Now maybe 1,000 people have stood on those feet.”

The statue will be at SFAI through March 28, 2021, although the campus isn’t currently open to visitors. It was installed on October 9, with speeches by Peltier’s daughter, son, and Anne Begay, an AIM activist and the mother of Peltier’s daughter. You can view that dedication ceremony online.

Kathy Peltier and her mother and AIM Activist Anne Begay pose by the statue’s feet at the Main Museum (photo by Pamela Peters)

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...