Supporters of Leonard Peltier marched on downtown Tacoma on May 21 and held a rally where speakers demanded the release of the Native American activist.
Peltier was a member of American Indian Movement who was convicted in 1977 of first-degree murder in the deaths of two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents. The agents were shot during an incident on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. Peltier claimed he is innocent and his supporters feel he was unjustly targeted by the federal government for his activism.
Many of the participants gathered at Portland Avenue Park and marched from the East Side to Union Station, which has a federal courthouse inside. The rally began with drumming, chanting and a prayer.
Deeahop Conway is a member of Puyallup Tribe and the Tacoma chapter of Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee (LPDOC). “I am honored to welcome you to our land,” she told the crowd. She noted she heard stories growing up about Peltier from her father. She said people like Peltier made it possible to share Native language, art and traditions with the children at the daycare center where she works.
Ramona Bennett, another tribal member well known for her activism, told the audience Indians have suffered from being under martial law for many generations. “Only the Civil War saved us from being totally wiped off our beautiful land.
“Leonard Peltier is a symbol of us and our desire for freedom,” she said, adding that she feels his trial was illegal. “He is our friend and our brother. He is not just a symbol.”
Bennett compared Peltier to Chief Leschi, describing both as men who had comfortable lives but stepped away from them to fight for the rights of their people. She noted Peltier was living in Seattle and earning a living as a mechanic. He would often do repair work at no cost for local tribal elders.
In the case of Peltier, he had gone to Pine Ridge because 63 people had been murdered there in a year. The federal government did not investigate the deaths, according to Bennett, because the victims were all Indians.
“They were poor people struggling for equality in what is essentially a third-world nation.”
Arthur J. Miller, Northwest regional organizer for LPDOC, discussed efforts to get Bill Clinton to pardon Peltier when Clinton was president. He discussed the need to renew this effort.
“This time we cannot sit back. We need to mobilize and create widespread support,” he said. “We will keep this up until Obama realizes he has to free him.”
Miller said reservations were established on land with little value. Tension at Pine Ridge emerged in part because uranium was discovered there. The federal government did not investigate murders of Indians there, but instead investigated a teenage Indian boy accused of stealing a pair of cowboy boots.
“Leonard Peltier is in prison because he stood up on Pine Ridge against that.”
Chauncey Peltier, son of the imprisoned man, was one of the speakers. “He is in prison for something he did not do, and that ain’t justice,” he said. He urged members of all tribes to get active in the struggle to free his father. “We are all Natives. We all need to stick together.”
David Duenas, a member of Puyallup Tribe, said his father was a good friend of Peltier. He said Indians, as citizens of the United States, must use the tools available in our political system to work for Leonard Peltier’s release.
“We need to remember how important Leonard Peltier is to his family and to his people,” Duenas said. “I would love for Leonard Peltier to be free.”