Top Indigenous Leaders Press Biden On Why He Hasn’t Freed Leonard Peltier

Two prominent Indigenous leaders this week separately pressed President Joe Biden on why he hasn’t released Leonard Peltier from prison ― and signaled that tribal leaders and Native rights advocates plan to make this a priority issue in the 2024 presidential election.

Fawn Sharp, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a Monday letter to Biden that he regularly talks about his commitment to strengthening the federal government’s relationship with Native communities. But lost in that commitment is doing anything about Peltier, the Indigenous rights activist the U.S. government put in prison nearly 50 years ago after a trial riddled with misconduct and lies.

“Enough is enough, Mr. President,” said Sharp. “After nearly five decades of imprisonment, this is now a matter of not only justice but mercy as well. We urge you to immediately commute the sentence for Leonard Peltier or support his petition for compassionate release.”

In a Wednesday interview with HuffPost, Sharp, whose organization is the largest Indigenous rights group in the country and serves as a unified voice of all tribal nations, took a sharper tone than the more diplomatic one conveyed in her letter.

“It is a choice,” Sharp said flatly of Biden singularly having the power to free Peltier. “Being silent on this issue, given all the facts, given all the advocacy, given all the issues raised by Indian Country, when it is your choice and you’re the top person and you choose to ignore it, you’ve become complicit in this injustice for Indian Country.”

In another letter sent to Biden on Wednesday, Suzan Harjo, a longtime Indigenous rights advocate and 2014 President Medal of Freedom recipient, traced her professional history with the president from the 1970s through 2014. She praised him for being a strong supporter of restoring Native peoples’ rights, from his work on the Indian Child Welfare Act to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to the Violence Against Women Act.

“Mr. President, I have long admired your commitment to fighting injustice and to restorative justice,” Harjo said. “As you weigh the pleas of justice for Mr. Peltier, I call on your compassionate core and spirited record of fighting against injustice and for democratic institutions. Each and every person in this country deserves a fair trial and rectification if the institutions meant to protect them do not do so. Leonard Peltier deserves that.”

The letters mark the first time that both leaders are publicly calling on Biden to free Peltier. HuffPost obtained copies of both letters, which you can read here and here.

“You’ve become complicit in this injustice for Indian Country,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, of Biden’s silence on the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier.

Peltier, a member of the Indigenous rights activist group American Indian Movement, has been in prison since 1977 and is easily America’s longest-serving political prisoner.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office made Peltier their fall guy when they couldn’t figure out who killed two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The government never had evidence that Peltier killed anyone, and his trial was outrageous: Prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence. The FBI threatened and coerced witnesses into lying. Peltier was separated from his co-defendants, all of whom were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. A juror admitted she was racist against Native Americans on the second day of the trial but was allowed to stay on. Nonetheless, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to prison for two consecutive life terms.

Peltier, now 78, has maintained his innocence for all of these years, even as it has almost certainly prevented him from being paroled. His decades-long parole process has been so problematic that United Nations legal experts last year made the unusual decision to revisit his case. Last summer, they called on Biden to release Peltier immediately.

“Mr. Peltier continues to be detained because he is Native American,” they concluded in their damning 17-page legal opinion.

Peltier remains in a Florida maximum security prison despite all of these problems; despite pleas for his freedom by international human rights leaders including Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King; despite nearly 50 years of concerts and letter-writing campaigns and petitions circulated by thousands of supporters, politicians, Indigenous leaders and celebrities. He uses a walker to get around now. He is blind in one eye from a partial stroke. He has serious health concerns related to diabetes and an aortic aneurysm.

When it is your choice and you’re the top person and you choose to ignore it, you’ve become complicit in this injustice for Indian Country.Fawn Sharp, president of the National Conference of American Indians

Sharp told HuffPost that Peltier has become a symbol of something much bigger and more personal for many Indigenous people: The entirety of injustices that Native people have endured, for centuries, by the U.S. government. That’s why Peltier’s freedom has only become a bigger priority over time, she said, and why her organization is “absolutely” planning to ramp up pressure on Biden to release him as he eyes reelection.

“When I’m talking to tribal leaders … whether it’s about freeing Leonard Peltier or addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people or the legacy of boarding schools, there’s a lens of justice that is very, very prominent in Indian Country,” Sharp said.

“If ever there was a time going in an election [to free Peltier], the time is now.”

Indigenous voters certainly delivered for Biden in 2020, and the president is clearly proud of all he’s done to lift up Native communities and tribes since taking office. (He should be, it’s a lot.) But his silence on Peltier’s imprisonment is a glaring contradiction to his vows to restore justice to Native communities.

It’s unclear if Biden has even considered granting clemency to Peltier ― something HuffPost has been pressing the White House on for nearly two years and gotten nowhere.

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about whether the president is weighing clemency or has seen the new letters about Peltier.

Time is running out for Peltier, added Sharp before noting it is entirely on Biden to decide whether to free an innocent man before it’s too late.

She said, “It’s simply a choice we fully expect him to make.”


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