Fugitive Gustafsen Lake veteran won't be extradited

A court in Oregon has refused to send a fugitive native man back to Canada, and the decision has been called the biggest victory for aboriginal people in half a millennium.

James Pitawanakwat, who was convicted for his part in the standoff at Gustafsen Lake, B.C., in 1995, has been told he is entitled to the protection of the United States.

"There hasn't been a victory of this magnitude for 500 years," said John Hill, also known as Splitting the Sky.

"I think that this judge here clearly and unequivocally stated, 'Look, let's put away the illusions and let's put away the justifications for colonialism in occupied Indian territory and let's look at the rule of law'."

Pitawanakwat was paroled after serving one year of a three-year sentence for mischief causing damage and possession of a weapon.

When he got out of prison, he fled the country.

Pitawanakwat fought the Canadian government's extradition request by arguing he was part of a native uprising based on political and religious grounds.

Gustafsen Lake was the site of a two-month standoff between aboriginals on one side and police and military on the other. The First Nations people said the ground was sacred, and had been used for sundance ceremonies for several years.

The tense confrontation was marked by several exchanges of gunfire.

According to Anthony Hall, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Lethbridge, the U.S. court ruling isn't surprising.

"When criminal acts are pursued in order to advance a liberation struggle, sometimes those acts are deemed forgivable," said Hall.

"After all, the United States came out of a violent opposition taking up arms against the legitimate authority of that time, the British Empire."

Canada's Justice Department has yet to decide if it will try again to have Pitawanakwat returned.