Leonard Peltier supporters gathered in New York, California, Oregon, Paris, Barcelona, Belfast, Brussels and Berlin on Saturday February 6, 2016, for an International Day of Solidarity. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, home to the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, an overflow multi-generational crowd congregated at the First Unitarian Church to commemorate with prayer, discussion, music, dance and drumming the 40th anniversary of Peltier’s incarceration in the U.S. federal prison system. “Twice as many people as last year,” according to Peter Clark, co-director of the Defense Committee, “More than any Peltier event in Albuquerque in recent memory.”
Panelists included Diné elder Lenny Foster, Peltier’s long-time spiritual adviser who has visited the political prisoner every year since 1985, conducted sweat lodges in the prison system “before it was chic to do so;” singer, domestic violence activist and former Miss Navajo, Radmilla Cody, who related some of her own experiences of incarceration; and John Torres Nez, president of the Indigenous Fine Arts Market (IFAM), who exhibited Leonard’s artworks this past August in Santa Fe. They all conveyed variations on a straightforward message—“40 years is enough, it’s time to bring him home.”
The 71-year-old prisoner, currently incarcerated in USP Coleman, a federal maximum-security penitentiary northeast of Tampa, Florida, has been diagnosed with an aortic abdominal aneurysm. Supporters are concerned that if the aneurysm ruptures he could bleed out before receiving the “adequate medical treatment” the Bureau of Prisons is required by law to provide. Prayers were offered for his healing as well as his release. “Leonard belongs to us,” Foster told the crowd. “We don’t want our brother to die in prison, like Geronimo.”
The day’s events which were two months in the planning by organizers—Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, ANSWER-NM, members of the Blessed Oscar Romero Community, La Raza Unida, Party for Socialism and Liberation, The Red Nation and (un)Occupy Albuquerque—included performances by children from the La Mesa Elementary School. Radmilla Cody sees this transfer of skills as vital to survival and resilience. “We have to go back home, relearn our ways. This is our strength.”
Rapper Def-1 performed “The Land of Enfrackment” recently released on his Shields for Raining Arrows CD, a song about the environmental depredations of hydraulic fracturing, a method of natural gas extraction that Peltier has repeatedly condemned as being destructive to Mother Earth. Def-1 sang: “I’m trying to free my people inside of this evil frame, I’m tired of this greedy game and the lies that will eat your brain.”
“Incarceration is a tool to silence political movements. We don’t have heroes, they’ve been demonized,” Nick Estes, co-founder of The Red Nation explained while disseminating pamphlets at his group’s information table. “Our history is erased. But the children here will remember that Leonard Peltier is one of our heroes, that he was fighting for treaty rights. We need our leaders like Leonard Peltier repatriated back to our communities.”
According to Estes plans are already underway for Peltier’s reintegration through the Indigenous Rights Center when President Obama “gets on the right side of history” and grants clemency before leaving office in eleven months. The home page of the international Committee’s website features a clock counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds that Peltier has been locked up, and a second one counting down the remainder of the Obama administration.
Plans to continue to raise the visibility of the clemency campaign are ongoing. According to Sue Schuurman of the Peace & Justice Center, a mural honoring Peltier’s sacrifice is being planned on the east wall of the center which is located near the university of New Mexico campus. UNM-based Red Student Faction is organizing a National Student Day of Action on February 27, a day in 1973 that marked the re-occupation of Wounded Knee. The day of action is a Call to Demand the release of Leonard Peltier.
Paige Murphy said ANSWER-NM is educating the public about who Peltier is and what he means symbolically. “This is a relatable liberation struggle for people the world over. It’s so much larger than the Native community.” According to Murphy, the struggle comes down to one word: Respect. “To be seen as human beings.” The group is taking tangible actions to help secure Peltier’s release. “Actions such as the letter writing campaign to the White House,” she explained. During the Q&A, one woman asked: “How many letters and phone calls will it take for Obama to find his courage and release Leonard Peltier? What is the magic number, where is the tipping point?”
When asked for a final comment from the dais, IFAM’s Torres Nez’s simply said: “Get him out, get him home. Let’s talk about the future.”