‘I just want to free my dad,’ Leonard Peltier

35 arrested at the Free Leonard Peltier 79th Birthday Action in Washington

Kathy Peltier, daughter of Leonard Peltier, attended the the Free Leonard Peltier 79th Birthday Action in Washington, D.C. Kathy is Navajo and Turtle Mountain Ojibwe. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye / ICT)

WHITE HOUSE — A young Indigenous girl walked through Lafayette Park in front of the White House with an American Indian Movement flag. Her tiny frame held the six-foot bamboo stake steady as the flag blew in the wind. A stark reminder of how many generations the movement to free Leonard Peltier from prison has gone on.

On Tuesday, NDN Collective, a national Indigenous-led organization, and Amnesty International, held the Free Leonard Peltier 79th Birthday Action in Washington, D.C., to demand clemency for the Native American rights activist who has been incarcerated for nearly five decades.

Hundreds attended the peaceful rally where prayer songs echoed and at times people danced, but still thirty-five demonstrators were arrested, according to NDN Collective. At one point the U.S. Park Police brought out a sonic weapon and U.S. Secret Service created a barrier of agents on the sidewalk.

“Our goal with this event is to raise awareness and bring attention to the plight of Leonard Peltier and his incarceration. Because we’re at a point in time where the Biden administration has made it a priority for Native American civil rights, and yet the longest living political prisoner in American history, who is Indigenous, is still in there,” said NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota. “And so we’re calling upon (President Joe) Biden and the Biden administration to release Leonard. This is a priority for Indian Country.”

Leonard maintains he did not commit the 1975 murder of two FBI agents on Oglala Lakota land.

Context in this case matters. It happened during the Reign of Terror where dozens of Indigenous people were murdered, found dead or just disappeared from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This happened in the years after the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee where AIM leaders seized control of the area and declared it the Independent Oglala Nation. The stand off between AIM and the federal government was at times violent.

From 1973 to 1976, the FBI targeted and harassed Indigenous activists in the area. During these years there were more than 60 murders and Pine Ridge had the highest murder rate per capita in the country.

The 1975 murders in question took place during a shootout between Indigenous activists and the two FBI agents. The federal government didn’t have enough evidence to charge Leonard with murder. He was charged with aiding and abetting the murder of federal officers and a seven-year sentence for an escape attempt.

“If he was tried today, no way he gets convicted,” Kevin Sharp, Leonard’s attorney and former federal judge, told ICT. “That is not the law today. The violations that law enforcement committed, that the US Attorney’s Office committed at that time, the threats, the intimidation is a constitutional violation.”

This is why many call Leonard, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, a political prisoner and are demanding President Biden grant him clemency.

“We’re not asking for a pardon,” Sharp said. “Pardon would require someone to admit that he committed a crime, which he did not. But he is clearly a prisoner of politics. This is about politics. So, it’s the politics that keep him there. But I think it’s the politics that are going to free him.”

Leonard’s daughter, Kathy Peltier, attended the rally in Washington to demand freedom for her father, “a dad figure” she never had growing up. She advocates for his freedom to younger generations across the country and overseas.

Kathy, Navajo and Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, last saw her dad three years ago. It’s difficult for her to calculate how many times she’s seen him. She only knows that her and her siblings could only see him for a short time so most of the allotted visitor time for him could be spent with lawyers.

Leonard missed out on a lot of Kathy’s firsts, said her mom, Ann Begaye, Navajo.

He missed her high school graduation at 18. Kathy is now 47.

“I was hoping my dad would be there. So when that day came and left, I was like, ‘wow, he’s gonna miss many more unless we get him freed.’ So I just want to free my dad,” Kathy said as her voice cracked. “I feel like it’s too late for me, but get my dad freed for his grandkids. So they get to know who he is, as a person, and not just locked up behind those bars.”

She also wished he could’ve been at ceremonies with her.

“When I first sat down, I wished my dad was right beside me to protect me in that circle,” she said. “Just teachings of what I should know as a woman and him telling me this is your auntie. Those are the moments I wish he was able to do. A lot of my aunties have gone and are not too well. So I’m not able to learn about what they could teach me as a young Turtle Mountain woman. So I had to rely on my grandma’s side and my auntie to teach me the Navajo side.”

Kathy said she would have wanted to know both sides of who she is.

Under the hot sun with plenty of humidity was famed Native American rights leader and advocate Suzan Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, her presence still larger than life and with her signature smile. She arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue behind the White House after demonstrators displayed a red and yellow banner, nearly as tall as (and perhaps taller than) the White House gates, painted, “President Biden, Free Leonard Peltier Now!”

Her message to Biden: “To reach deep, deep deep inside your heart. My old friend, Mr. Biden, and have all the compassion you can muster for my brother, Leonard Peltier. I’m pleading for family. I’m pleading for a relative. He’s not just a cause to me. He’s my family. Please, show compassion to this one man, this one Native man who needs to be free now. He wants to get out and look at the sky. He doesn’t want to go out in a wooden box. He wants to go out where he can talk to people and breathe free air, he said. Let him do that. He’s had two-thirds of his life behind bars. It’s time. It’s time.”

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, ICT
Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, ICT

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is editor of ICT and based in its Washington bureau. She is the first woman to be the chief news executive and top editor of the 40-year-old newspaper and website. Bennett-Begaye’s Grey’s Anatomy obsession started while attending the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Pauly Denetclaw, ICT
Pauly Denetclaw, ICT

Pauly Denetclaw, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is Haltsooí (Meadow People) born for Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House People). An award-winning reporter based in Gallup, New Mexico, she has worked for the Navajo Times and Texas Observer covering Indigenous communities, and her radio pieces have aired on KYAT, National Native News, NPR’s Latino USA and Texas Public Radio. She is a board member of the Native American Journalist Association.