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Tribal leaders demand compassionate release of Native activist convicted of killing 2 FBI agents in 1970s

Leonard Peltier was convicted for the murders of two FBI agents during a shootout June 26, 1975, on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 28.

More than 60 people with Rise Up for Peltier gathered at Fargo's federal courthouse on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022 to demand the release of Leonard Peltier.jpg
More than 60 people with Rise Up for Peltier gathered at Fargo's federal courthouse on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022 to demand the release of Leonard Peltier.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum
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FARGO — Calling Leonard Peltier a political prisoner, more than 60 people gathered at the Quentin Burdick Federal Courthouse on Monday, Feb. 7, to demand his release after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 28.

Although multiple pleas to release or pardon Peltier, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, have been made since his arrest in 1977, supporters and family are worried that with his age and preexisting conditions, the recent diagnosis may end his life behind bars.

“I doubt that he has many years left, but with the years he has left, let him enjoy them on the outside,” said Spirit Lake Tribe Chairman Doug Yankton, adding that the tribe sent a petition to President Joe Biden to ask for clemency or for compassionate release due to Peltier contracting COVID-19.

Peltier was convicted in a Fargo federal courthouse by an all-white jury for the murders of two FBI agents during a shootout June 26, 1975, on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He is serving two consecutive life sentences.

Peltier is being held at Coleman I United States Penitentiary in Florida.

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A petition, organized by Tracie L. Wilkie, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, received more than 7,513 signatures by Monday, Feb. 7. The petition calls for immediate action to release Peltier from prison, which the petition says could save his life.

“An elder is ill, and it’s time for him to come home,” Wilkie said. She was 8 years old when Peltier was incarcerated. “This has been part of my entire life.”

Nick Estes, an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, and founder of Red Nation, an organization focused on the liberation of Native people and lands, said the evidence used against Peltier in 1977 would not hold up in court today.

A “climate of terror” was behind the events on Pine Ridge in 1975, Estes said, adding that continued incarceration was a “cruel act of revenge” for Indigenous people everywhere.

“And we all know somebody who has been affected by this virus, this pandemic and those with preexisting conditions are especially vulnerable,” Estes said.

Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, and a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, expanded on Estes’ sentiment by saying she was part of another petition to Biden asking for compassionate release and an additional question.

“We asked how many elderly Indigenous are being released for compassionate release,” Buffalo said. “Too many of our elders are being bypassed for compassionate release. Why is this happening?”

Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Chairman Delbert Hopkins Jr. also sent a letter to Biden asking for compassionate release or clemency for Peltier.

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“I’m here to demand that Leonard Peltier be released immediately,” Hopkins said, adding Peltier has a number of additional health risks that could worsen his current condition.

“COVID-19 could kill him,” Hopkins said.

“The tribal leaders are speaking. President Biden must hear our call,” said event moderator Melanie Moniz. “We’ll rise up as our parents did, and we’ll continue until our brother comes home.”

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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