by Eric B. Alipio (Diné/Filipino; he/him/his)
From before I can remember to the age of 17, I spent many weekends hanging out, cleaning dishes, and flipping frybread at Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, California. My mom grew up at this Native American community center, which meant my sister and I would too.
When I entered the hall one day as a preteen, banners and a solemn mood hung over everyone’s head. Breaking the communal silence, a Diné elder shared a prayer in our language, and then in English. The prayer went to all of us, then extended far past Oakland, and into a secluded cell where the Elder hoped it landed with Leonard Peltier. This wasn’t our usual community dinner and celebration, but a rally for Peltier — a wrongfully imprisoned spirit-warrior.
Now, Peltier has been incarcerated for 45 years — nearly twice as long as I have lived on this earth. The gravitas of the years he has spent behind bars weighs heavily on me as I learn more about his innocence. I pray that he does not experience another year behind bars.
A Fabricated Case
In the 1970s, political tension mounted on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Oglala Lakota members who valued traditional Indigenous culture found chairman Dick Wilson corrupt; he attempted to suppress cultural practices and persuade the tribal council to sell sacred land to the federal government. Following Wilson’s failed removal, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) — a national movement founded in 1968 to fight for treaty rights and against racial discrimination — moved to the reservation to protect the traditional Oglala Lakota from the chairman’s militia and the federal agents who they believed backed him.
In 1975, Peltier joined AIM activists on Pine Ridge to deter violence and defend Indigenous ways of being. Wilson’s militia and the federal agents, full of corrupt minds and greedy hands, armed themselves — physically, legally, and politically — in an effort to exterminate the people and beliefs that stood in their capitalistic way. That summer, a firefight between paramilitary law enforcement and Peltier’s fellow spirit-warriors resulted in the deaths of a Native American man and two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents. Peltier’s status as a key leader of this group made him a high-priority target. He was then on the run.
In 1976, Peltier was captured by Canadian police and extradited to the U.S. on fabricated evidence and coerced witness statements. This would not be his last run-in with governmental fabrication — his trials would be fraught with lies. Despite the light of independent research and legal inquiry casting an ever-increasing glow of innocence over Peltier, government officials have dug their heels in and he remains in prison. If Peltier were released, officials would have to publicly come to terms with their illegal and immoral acts. To avoid this, they continue to ignore domestic and international calls to release our wrongfully imprisoned spirit-warrior. For these reasons and many more, Leonard Peltier has become one of the nation’s longest-held political prisoners.
There is hope though. Newfound support for Peltier is gaining traction. People from all walks of life are calling for his executive clemency. Peltier’s name should be shouted from the streets in Seattle, as it was his home for over a decade. His activism during the March 1970 occupation of Fort Lawton helped establish what is now known as Daybreak Star.
Democratic leaders and the former federal prosecutor who put Peltier behind bars have even requested President Biden pardon him. While petitions for executive clemency have circulated before, we must make this the last time. It is imperative to our progress as a nation for government officials and everyday citizens to speak out on the indignities of the U.S.’s crime against Leonard Peltier (and, by extension, Indigenous peoples). This isn’t a single call for freedom for one of our spirit-warriors, but the first step in restitution and recognition of all the spirit-warriors who have been wronged yesterday and today. We must free Peltier.
Peltier is now 77 years old, faces numerous health issues worsened by his treatment within the prison system, and recently announced a positive case of COVID-19. Our renewed cries for clemency may be our last chance at freeing this innocent man. Here is an excerpt from Peltier’s 1999 book Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance:
“We must each be an army of one in the endless struggle between the goodness we are all capable of and the evil that threatens us all from without as well as from within … One good man or one good woman can change the world, can push back the evil, and their work can be a beacon for millions, for billions. Are you that man or woman? If so, the Great Spirit bless you. If not, why not? We must each of us be that person. That will transform the world overnight.”
Will you be that good person that you were meant to be? Please share his name on social media, tell his story, and make known what has been done against him and our people — the Indigenous peoples of these lands.
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Born and raised in the Bay Area, California, Eric Alipio is a Diné-Filipino multi-disciplinary artist. He is currently based in Seattle, Washington. Having graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in English and a minor in art history, his artistic work centers around advocating with and uplifting his communities. Eric has self-published two photo-books. One of which contains his narrative essays on socio-cultural relationships between ourselves and the built and natural environments from an Indigenous perspective. When he’s not writing, you can find him hiking, taking pictures, painting, and reading wherever he can.
📸 Featured Image: Chauncey Peltier talks for his father, Leonard Peltier, at Many Rivers Festival on Oct. 2, 2016. Photo by Atl360Pic/Shutterstock.com
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