Press Release

Indigenous Leaders and Allies Arrested at White House Rally in Support of Clemency for Native American Activist Leonard Peltier

For Immediate Release: September 12, 2023

WASHINGTON – Thirty-five Indigenous leaders and allies were arrested by U.S. Park Police outside the White House Tuesday afternoon as they joined hundreds of activists and allies in urging President Joe Biden to grant clemency for imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier. Held on Peltier’s 79th birthday, many activists traveled to the D.C. rally in a caravan that started on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. 

Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI); Dallas Goldtooth, organizer and actor; Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of NDN Collective; and Paul O’Brien, executive director of Amnesty International USA were among the 35 arrested at the White House by U.S. Park Police after U.S. Secret Service cleared activists from Pennsylvania Avenue. The rally was led by NDN Collective and Amnesty International USA

Nick Tilsen, NDN Collective President & CEO, and Hermus Bettelyoun, Local Organizer for NDN Collective, are the the last two to be arrested by police. Photo by Willi White for NDN Collective.


Imprisoned for nearly 50 years, Leonard Peltier is serving two life sentences for his alleged role in the deaths of two FBI agents during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota in 1975. His imprisonment is widely recognized as the product of a flawed prosecution, trial, and conviction by international human rights organizations, Tribal leaders, many members of Congress, and even the former US Attorney whose office handled the prosecution and appeal. 

At the rally, a statement from Leonard Peltier was read by Holly Cook Macarro of NDN Collective, including the following quote: 

“Year after year, I have encouraged you to live as spirit warriors. Even while in here, I can envision what is real and far beyond these walls.  I have seen a reawakening of an ancient Native pride that does my heart good.  I know that the spirit warriors coming up behind me have the heart and soul to fight racism and oppression, and to fight the greed that is poisoning our lands, waters, and people. I know there are those who stand with me, who work around the clock for my freedom. I have been blessed to have such friends. We are still here and you give me hope.”

Read Leonard Peltier’s full letter here

Holly Cook Macarro, Legal Counsel for NDN Collective, reads a letter from Leonard Peltier to the crowd gathered in front of the White House. Photo by Willi White for NDN Collective.

The following speakers addressed crowds at today’s rally sharing the below remarks. Please feel free to use these in your reporting: 

Dallas Goldtooth, Organizer, Actor, and MC of the rally: “Leonard is our grandfather and our uncle. He has been locked up my entire life. He’s an elder now and deserves to be among his people and his community. He deserves to be back on the land.” 

Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, President and CEO of NDN Collective: “We come together here to remind the United States that Leonard Peltier is the longest-incarcerated political prisoner in the history of the United States. It is a reminder of how they treat the Indigenous people of this land. And so I ask all of us to continue, and those of you who are at home, we cannot let his fight for freedom go quietly. It’s time – 48 years is long enough.”

Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI): “79 years ago on this very day, a warrior was born. For 79 years, this warrior, our relative, our elder, Leonard Peltier, walked these lands with purpose, with a fire, with a special calling on his life, and he has galvanized a movement for justice in the United States. Release Leonard!”

L-R: Dallas Goldtooth, Fawn Sharp, and Nick Tilsen hold space in front of the White House as U.S. Secret Service and Park Police push the crowd back. Photo by Sunny Red Bear for NDN Collective.

Suzan Shown Harjo: “Each and every person in this country deserves a fair trial and rectification if the institutions meant to protect them do not do so. Mr. President, I urge you to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier. I am optimistic that you will find it in your heart to return Mr. Peltier to his Turtle Mountain homeland.”

Kevin Sharp, former federal judge & Peltier’s pro bono attorney: “As a lawyer and a former federal judge who had tried dozens and dozens of criminal cases, it didn’t take long to become shocked at what I was seeing with Leonard’s case. The level of constitutional violation and misconduct by the United States government, including by federal law enforcement and a federal prosecutor was abundantly high.”

Paul O’Brien, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA: “We have justice on our side. We have history on our side. We have right on our side. And I want you to know, Leonard, you have a quarter of a million Amnesty members on your side and we’re not going to let this go.”

Nick Estes, Lower Brule Sioux, Prof.- Univ. of MN, Red Nation: “A greater humanity, a greater power, one that is guided by morals and principles that come from the land itself – that’s what we recognize with the freedom of Leonard Peltier. It’s time for President Biden to take action to free our relative.” 

Organizers unveil the banner that would be deployed on Pennsylvania Ave the day before. Photo by Willi White for NDN Collective.

The rally builds upon the decades of advocacy around Leonard Peltier’s case led by Native American activists for whom Peltier’s continued incarceration is a symbol of historical mistreatment and whose release is an opportunity for President Biden to recognize the injustice behind his conviction and continued incarceration. 

Key figures involved in Mr. Peltier’s prosecution have stepped forward over the years to urge his release – former Judge Gerald Heaney, who presided over Mr. Peltier’s 1986 appeal in the Eighth Circuit, called for his release in 1991 and again in 2000. Former U.S. Attorney James Reynolds, whose office handled the prosecution and appeal of Peltier’s case, has called on President Biden to commute the remainder of his sentence. Retired FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley wrote a letter to President Biden on December 3, 2022, in support of clemency for Peltier. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention specifically noted the anti-Indigenous bias surrounding Peltier’s detention, stating simply that he “continues to be detained because he is Native American.” 

NDN Collective is an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. Through organizing, activism, philanthropy, grantmaking, capacity-building, and narrative change, we are creating sustainable solutions on Indigenous terms.

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