Justice Delayed, Justice Denied: The Fight to #FreeLeonardPeltier Continues

Leonard Peltier to Nick Tilsen, July 2nd 2024.

On June 10th Leonard Peltier appeared before the US Parole Commission to state his case for freedom for the 4th time– his three previous parole attempts in 1993, 1996, and 2009 were all denied. On July 2nd, the US Parole Commission denied Leonard Peltier parole for the 4th time.

At 79 years old and battling multiple serious health conditions without proper medical treatment, Leonard Peltier most likely won’t make it another 15 years for his next parole hearing scheduled for June 2039. But that does not mean the fight for justice is over. In a phone call from Leonard Peltier to Nick Tilsen, President and CEO of NDN Collective, after the US Parole Commission’s decision, Leonard stated, “I am not intending to give up. And I’m hoping none of you give up.”

Dozens of cars join the caravan and freedom rally waving “Free Peltier Now!” signs.
Photo by Angel White Eyes, NDN Collective Photo Editor.

On June 27th in Mni Luzahan (Rapid City, SD), days before we found out Leonard’s Peltier parole decision, Indigenous People, youth, long-time advocates, and relatives from across Turtle Island participated in The Caravan and Freedom Rally to continue the nearly 5-decade fight for justice for Leonard Peltier. It was a day that was supposed to reach 95℉, but it started with a cool gentle rain and prayer at Wambli Ska Okolakiciye. The caravan was led with powerful songs and steady beats from the Iron Bull Drum Group who sat in a flatbed towed by a white pickup. To encourage our people, our relatives, and our community to join the caravan and demand the freedom of Leonard Peltier, we passed through Lakota Homes twice and the Alphabet (Northside of Mni Luzahan), before ending at the Andrew E. Bogue Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. With 45 vehicles making up the final total of the caravan, the People parked in front of the Courthouse and the rally began.

The rally began with a prayer from Jon Old Horse Sr. and after speakers from Minneapolis American Indian Movement (AIM), AIM Grassroots, and Dakota AIM spoke, the red and yellow 150×25 foot banner that read “President Biden: Free Peltier Now!” was positioned on the road. The banner was left lying in front of the Federal Courthouse for 49 minutes to symbolize the 49 years Leonard Peltier has been incarcerated. “We made this banner in DC and we brought it back home.” Nick Tilsen said. 

When people think of the “Indian Wars” they most likely think of the clashes between the Lakota and the US cavalry, or the old westerns of cowboys and Indians in the southwest from the 1800s. But in 2024 the United States still takes land from Indigenous Peoples, kills and incarcerates Indigenous men, women and non-binary relatives, and destroys our idea of a beautiful future– clean air, clean water, a restored and thriving ecosystem, happy children, and healthy relationships in our communities.

These “Indian Wars” were not wars. They were acts of state violence carried out against Indigenous Peoples’ resisting the continued violation of treaty rights and advocating for the protection of their communities, cultural lifeways, and the land. The courage of our relatives who bravely fought against systemic violence and colonial institutions are the reason why Indigenous People are alive at all; why we still have our language; why we still have our ceremonies and prayers. At every instance of brutal settler violence on our People– whether it was physical or structural– we had ancestors and elders who resisted it to defend our ways of life. Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement, the Red Power Movement, and the women in those movements are now those elders and ancestors.

“As long as they hold Leonard Peltier, they hold a piece of every single one of us.”

Rachel Dionne-Thunder

It wasn’t until 1978, two years after the incarceration of Leonard Peltier, that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed in the US which legalized our prayers, ceremonies, ceremonial objects, and access to our sacred sites. This was something that our elders and ancestors, including Leonard Peltier, fought for. Prior to the passing of AIRFA, ceremonies, dances, and guidance from medicine people were punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or other forms of punishment because of the 1833 Court of Indian Offenses.

The history of wrongful imprisonment and death of Indigenous People in the United States is as American as it gets. Rachel Dionne-Thunder, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Indigenous Protectors Movement, stated at the rally, “As long as they hold Leonard Peltier, they hold a piece of every single one of us,” which encapsulates what the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier means to us.

Rachel Dionne-Thunder speaking at the freedom rally. Photo Courtesy of Demetrius Johnson.

“There’s a 97% incarceration rate in the downtown Rapid City Pennington County Jail. We know that ever since they took Leonard Peltier, they’ve been trying to take all of us. Leonard Peltier has been a political prisoner. We know that [the United States] incarcerated Crazy Horse. [The United States] incarcerated Sitting Bull. And they were both killed. Leonard Peltier has been sitting in jail for 49 years because they want the same outcome.” said Andrew Catt-Ironshell, NDN Collective Action Organizer, during the caravan.

What is happening to Leonard Peltier continues to happen to all of us. The era of state suppression that Leonard Peltier belongs to was the beginning of COINTELPRO, the counter surveillance program used by the FBI to dismantle the American Indian Movement, Black Power movement, and civil rights movements. Today, we are still dealing with the evolving state repression, retaliation, and tactics of infiltration of our social justice, climate justice, and Indigenous rights movements. The US, just as they did in the height of AIM, the Black Panthers, and the Brown Berets, continues to criminalize and carry out extrajudicial killings of our Indigenous, Black, and Brown relatives. In South Dakota, the same state where Leonard Peltier was wanted for his involvement in the Oglala Shootout, there have been79 police-involved shootings statewide, where 75% of the fatalities were Indigenous People from 2001-2023. There have been 0 convictions of those police officers.

The same targeting of police interactions extends to Indigenous children in South Dakota as well. Just last year, South Dakota tried passing state senate bill SB4 which targeted children, and in turn gave student resource officers (SROs) more power over Indigenous students within schools. “Here in Rapid City, when a student didn’t meet dress code, an SRO picked them up and slammed them on their head. We need change because our children are being intimidated and criminalized in a space where safety should be a right. Our wakanyeja are being treated like criminals. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy which is a direct link to the school to prison pipeline. 70 percent of juvenile detainees are Indigenous children.” said Anissa Martin, NDN Action Network Local Organizer, at last year’s March Towards Justice Action in downtown Rapid City, SD.

“We know that ever since they took Leonard Peltier, they’ve been trying to take all of us. Leonard Peltier has been a political prisoner. We know that [the United States] incarcerated Crazy Horse. They incarcerated Sitting Bull. And they were both killed. Leonard Peltier has been sitting in jail for 49 years because they want the same outcome.”

Andrew Catt-Ironshell

This practice of violent policing and state repression has always extended to our movement spaces. During the No Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) movement in 2016, the targeting of Indigenous land defenders and water protectors was swift from US law enforcement. The violent, militarized response to prayerful protest in the protection of water led to hundreds of arrests and, for some, life-long injuries. As a result, 21 states, including South Dakota, have passed anti-protest laws as a measure to suppress the exercise of first amendment rights, with a disproportionate impact on the exercise of Indigenous self-determination and the right to protect Indigenous Peoples’ lands, sacred sites and ecosystems. These laws have either created or expanded penalties for all forms of protests, despite being protected constitutional rights, to the effect that actions which would have formerly been considered a misdemeanor can now result in at least a year in prison and/or a $2,000 fine. However, these actions of water projectors and land defenders at Standing Rock have galvanized global support for the disciplined and peaceful water protectors inspiring solidarity and similar actions to stop harmful development across the US.

The news of Leonard’s parole denial in the midst of an election year where the democratic and republican candidates support the genocide of our Palestinian relatives in Gaza; a Supreme Court that is passing laws to target unsheltered people and lift protections for Mother Earth; and the investment of cop cities and prisons across the country to accommodate more incarcerations is overwhelming and depressing. But it is in these moments where we must reflect on our stories as Indigenous People and what our elders and ancestors have sacrificed for us to exist. It is through their sacrifices that we still have our prayers, our languages, our seeds, our non-human relations, and our medicines. They did not give up on us, so we should not give up on them.

Even as Leonard Peltier was told he will remain in prison beyond his 49th year, the longest serving Indigenous political prisoner in the US, he is telling us, “I’m not intending to give up. And I’m hoping none of you give up.” We originate from powerful, spiritual, and resilient people. For every atrocity and injustice that settler colonialism has done to the world, Indigenous People have defended the earth, it’s precious resources, and their communities; we have developed and created solutions that are in line with our original teachings and values; and we continue the struggle for decolonization because we know that it is the only way to truly be liberated.

Even now, we are still prepared for Leonard’s return. Back in the homelands of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas, where Leonard is an enrolled member, a home and a proper care situation is being established. Just as the buffalo that the US tried to drive to extinction are making their way back in massive herds, and how the Klamath people are getting LANDBACK while breaking down dams and restoring natural waterways, and how language revitalization schools are being made available for our children, we will continue to fight knowing and believing that the best days of our people are in front of us, not behind us.

President & CEO Nick Tilsen speaking at the Freedom Rally. Photo by Angel White Eyes, NDN Collective Photo Editor.

The fight for Leonard and the liberation of our People from settler colonialism is not over. We will honor Leonard’s words and our ancestors’ actions by not giving up the fight to liberate our people. What we all can do is continue to advocate for his clemency by signing this petition. We continue to work to free all our incarcerated relatives. We will continue to protect our culture, lifeways, land, and water for future generations just like our previous generations did for us. As people have said during this long fight for Leonard, “if it can happen to Leonard, it can happen to me.” So let’s fight for a future where we can all be free.

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