WASHINGTON – Leonard Peltier supporters will seek clemency for the imprisoned American Indian Movement activist during a historic meeting between President Barack Obama and hundreds of tribal leaders of federally recognized nations.
The Circle for Clemency for Leonard Peltier is organizing a peaceful and prayerful act of solidarity “to bring attention to Mr. Peltier’s continued unjust imprisonment as a Native American political prisoner,” according to Rob Fife, one of the organizers.
The event will take place in conjunction with the first-of-its-kind White House Tribal Nations Conference on Nov. 5 from 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. at the Interior Department building in Washington, D.C.
Fife, a Nez Perce Cayuse Indian, and Ben Carns, a member of the Choctaw Nation, fasted and offered prayers for seven days in September in front of the White House in the hope of having an audience with Obama and asking him to consider issuing an executive order of clemency for Peltier. The meeting did not occur, but the gesture gave rise to a renewed focus on Peltier’s plight in the indigenous community.
The Circle for Clemency was founded in October by Fife, Carns, and indigenous rights activists Wanbli Tate, Larry Monterrey and Barbara Low.
Peltier has been in prison for more than 33 years. He was convicted in 1977 and given two consecutive life sentences for the murder of FBI Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams, who were killed during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota June 26, 1975.
Although Peltier has served more than the minimum sentence required for the crime, he was denied parole Aug. 21. Parole officials said granting parole would diminish the seriousness of the crime.
The 64-year-old Peltier has maintained his innocence, but controversy over whether he committed the murders, and over the fairness of his trial persist. Those convinced of his guilt say he shot the two agents in cold blood and deserves to stay in prison for the rest of his life.
Peltier’s supporters, which include a huge international component and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, say he is America’s most famous and longest serving political prisoner.
Fife, a horse-trainer, said he has never met Peltier, but he has signed petitions and written letters in support of him. The decision to deny Peltier parole was devastating both to Peltier and his supporters, Fife said.
“I wouldn’t really describe myself as an activist, but I want to do the right thing by my mother’s side of the family and more than anything I want my country to do the right things as they promised, but they’re making up the laws as we go along.”
Fife said Peltier’s innocence or guilt is no longer relevant.
“There are people who have committed much more heinous crimes. Leonard has served his time. There are people who can argue Leonard’s innocence or guilt much better than I can. But I do know the guilt of this nation in dealing with Leonard and with indigenous people and doing it in a way that’s different from the way they deal with people of European ancestry.”
The White House Tribal Nations Conference seemed like the logical next step to take in pushing forward Peltier’s cause, Fife said.
“We wanted to find a spiritual connection to this so it wasn’t just a protest or demonstration, but something that is unifying and would bring attention to Leonard’s imprisonment again, bring it back into the public eye.”
The Circle for Clemency and supporters will gather at Lafayette Park in front of the White House for sunrise prayers conducted by traditional spiritual leaders at 6 a.m. Nov. 5. Then they will walk to the Interior Department building “to respectfully greet their tribal representatives, welcome them to the conference and ask that each of them include within their individual nation’s agenda a simple request for clemency regarding Leonard Peltier,” Fife said.
The participants will spend the rest of the day in a prayer vigil for Peltier’s release at the Interior Department.