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Advocates still urging U.S. to release Native activist Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier left a legacy on Indigenous activism, but pushes for his release from jail have been overlooked by multiple presidencies.
Posted at 8:47 PM, Feb 06, 2023

In the 1960s, young Indigenous people began to fight for greater recognition and rights to self-determination for their tribes. It was known as the "Red Power" movement and happened at the same time as young Black people were developing similar concepts in the Black Power movement.

One significant action young activists took was the occupation of Alcatraz.

In 1969, dozens of Indigenous activists moved onto the island that was home to the closed prison. They stayed there for over a year, alleging the government was violating its commitment in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie to return out-of-use federal land to the local tribes who inhabited the area.

The occupation was one of the earliest examples of Indigenous activism, but it also led to federal intelligence agencies targeting activists.

After the Alcatraz occupation, the FBI targeted the American Indian Movement, or AIM. They sought to address poverty and discrimination and help Native Americans fight for the rights promised to tribes in treaties with the federal government.

Feb. 6, 2023 marks 48 years to the day of the arrest of one of the American Indian Movement's most famous members, Leonard Peltier.

Peltier, an activist of Lakota and Dakota descent and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is the longest-held Indigenous prisoner in the U.S.

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Activists have spent years advocating for the release of the now 78-year-old.

In 1976, he was arrested and later convicted for the killing of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier has admitted to participating in the shootout, but the evidence used to convict him has issues.

One witness, who signed the affidavit, said she was Peltier's girlfriend and saw him kill the agents. She later recanted and said she had never met him.

Scripps News spoke with another witness, Jean Roach. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member is now the leader of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, which is advocating for the Peltier's release. She remembers him playing a huge role in keeping her family safe.

"Me and my little brother was there with a lot of other people," Roach said. "Most of us were under the age of 18, and Leonard saved our lives. Leonard, Bob and Dino, our camp was attacked by the FBI. They didn't care that we had women, children, grandma and grandpa there. They just came in all crazy."

In 2017, a senior U.S. attorney involved in the case urged President Barack Obama to give Peltier clemency. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump also faced similar pushes to act on Peltier's case. But none did.

Last November, seven U.S. senators wrote to President Biden asking him to commute Peltier's sentence. Still, nothing has changed.

His case has been a human rights issue taken on by advocates both within the U.S. and abroad, including Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.

Last summer, the U.N. Human Rights Council's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention wrote to the U.S. government calling Peltier's imprisonment arbitrary. They asked for his immediate release and compensation for his time in jail and gave the U.S. government six months to show what it's done to address the issues they laid out. That six-month window ended in late January, and it's unclear as of yet how or if the government responded.

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