Leonard Peltier is America’s Longest-Held Indigenous Prisoner. He Should be Freed
It’s time for Leonard Peltier to go home – to end his senseless suffering and 45 years of unjust imprisonment. Last Friday, after complaining of a “rough cough”, the 77-year-old Native elder tested positive for Covid-19. Peltier’s continued confinement at the United States penitentiary in Coleman, Florida, might be a death sentence, if the Biden administration doesn’t act quickly, and with conscience.
Freedom for Peltier is one step towards addressing centuries of injustice facing Indigenous people as well as addressing the inhumane conditions of incarceration that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Peltier, the longest-held Indigenous political prisoner in the United States, is facing a potentially life-threatening situation. He is an elderly Anishinaabe and Dakota man who suffers from several serious underlying conditions: his age, diabetes, hypertension, heart condition and abdominal aneurism make his health precarious in prison without Covid-19 – and ever more dire with it.
Peltier is locked away in a prison Covid-19 isolation unit – which is not a medical unit – even though the man who helped put him there has called for his release. James Reynolds, one of the main federal prosecutors who put Peltier behind bars in 1977, wrote to Biden last year asking the president to commute Peltier’s sentence and to grant him executive clemency. Why? According to Reynolds, the government had lied, deceived, used racism and faked evidence to sentence Peltier for two consecutive life terms in prison.
Peltier’s co-defendants were found not guilty by reason of self-defense for the 1975 killing of two FBI agents in Oglala on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota during a shootout with members of the American Indian Movement. Law enforcement killed Joseph Stuntz, a young Native man whose killing was never investigated. Years of appeals processes have poked holes in the validity of the government’s theory. Peltier’s conviction in that case rests solely on the basis that he was present on the reservation with a weapon that day – not that he fired a fatal shot or had any hand in killing anyone. So why is he still in prison?
It’s Leonard Peltier who now faces death. For months he, like many incarcerated people, has begged for a booster shot. Prison officials denied him one. Guards and staff have been observed improperly wearing masks or not wearing them at all. And now that he has Covid, it raises the question: who is to blame if the unthinkable happens?
Certainly, those with the power to release Peltier must act soon or bear responsibility.
Native people are building political power. The water protector movement that began at Standing Rock in 2016 was a watershed moment. Native people have made historic gains, such as the appointment of Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, the first Native woman to hold a cabinet-level position. But still Native people face high rates of criminalization, incarceration and threats posed to their land, water and sovereignty. This is the chance to chart a new path, to reverse backwards and racist actions of the past.
Millions have called for Peltier’s release since his incarceration. Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu before their deaths pleaded with the United States to free Peltier, joining Jesse Jackson, Rigoberta Menchu and Harry Belafonte and many more. Leaders in Indian Country have also chimed in. Last Fall, the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators unanimously passed a resolution calling for Peltier’s release, a movement led by Ruth Buffalo, a representative from North Dakota. The National Congress of American Indians has historically called for Leonard Peltier’s freedom. Many Tribal Nations have also continued to petition the White House.
A movement on Capitol Hill is also growing. Numerous House Democrats have written to Biden. And Senator Brian Schatz from Hawaii, chair of the Senate committee that oversees Indian affairs, wrote a letter last week demanding Peltier’s release.
Leonard Peltier’s defense committee is simply asking the Bureau of Prisons to follow its own policy. According to Department of Justice’s Covid-19 guidelines for elderly or immunocompromised inmates or those with co-morbidities, Peltier qualifies for release to home confinement. Any argument the government may put forward that he may pose a “threat” or “danger” to the community is absurd given the unjust nature of his imprisonment. Indian Country also wants their elder back. And the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, where Peltier is enrolled, has offered to house and to take care of a respected member of their community upon his release.
No more suffering, no more death, no more tragedy. It can end now. It’s time for Biden to free Leonard Peltier.
Janene Yazzie is a Diné human rights and Indigenous rights advocate who works to advance the self-determination of Indigenous peoples. She has worked for more than nine years on the international level helping address the unjust criminalization of Indigenous human rights and land rights defenders.
Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He is a journalist, historian and host of The Red Nation Podcast. He is the author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (Verso, 2019).