Activists from the South Sound area and beyond converged on Tacoma for a march and rally to raise awareness and support toward the release of American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier on the morning of May 21.
A series of flyers put out in preparation of the event posted by South Puget Sound Community College former student and current intern Shoko Uchida in the Diversity and Equity Center read:
“We are trying to build a clemency campaign for Leonard Peltier and this march and rally is our first step. Leonard has suffered far too long, 35 years in prison, for the crime of standing up for his people and against the abuse of Mother Earth.”
The march began at Portland Avenue Park and ended at the U.S. Courthouse, just under three miles and over an hour later. Dancing, drum songs, and bullhorn exclamations of “Free Leonard Peltier” filled the sidewalk adjacent to the Tacoma Glass Bridge.
An offering of burned sweet grass, burned sage, sprinkled tobacco, and red cedar over an abalone shell accompanied by a few other significant objects added to the vibrant scene as the “spiritual elder opening” (as listed on the program sheet) began.
Marchers and rally members were greeted by Puyallup tribal member Deeahop Conway of the Tacoma chapter of the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee (LPDOC). She thanked the participants for coming.
“Give yourselves a hand,” she said.
After a prayer, she lead into a brief speech in which she paid tribute to older generations with a tearful promise that she would “pass on your stories and carry on your traditions.”
Black-clad Homeland Security officers bordered the crowd at a distance on either side. Some stood level with the Chihuly glass fixture in the upper windows of the court building, peering down attentively on rally attendants. Keynote speaker Ramona Bennett was given the microphone. The program for the event lists her as a Puyallup tribal member and “long-time Native activist.”
Her first comment was on the officer presence at the peaceful event. “These white people are so shocked [about being monitored by] Homeland Security! But as Natives we have suffered this martial law since the beginning,” nudging a friend standing next to her she joked, “since about 1492, wasn’t it?”
The crowd responded with applause, drumming, and whooping. The rally members were a united mix of Native and non-native Americans, representing a show of strength for a common purpose.
“His trial was completely illegal!,” said Bennett, referring to Leonard Peltier’s case in 1977, and to his length of imprisonment, Bennett said, “Leonard is a symbol. They don’t want to let him go.” She went on to compare his imprisonment to that of Nelson Mandela, asking the audience to imagine the power Peltier’s release would lend to the fight for Native rights and repatriation. Speaking on the difficulty faced in the struggle against the U.S. government to get Peltier out of prison after 1977, Bennett said, “Parole plan after parole plan!—they wiped their asses with our parole plan.”
According to Bennett, the year Peltier was arrested for “aiding and abetting” the shooting of two federal agents, there were over 300 murders on the North Ridge Reservation in North Dakota. Bennett linked this fact to the presence of 170 federal agents assigned to the reservation, a place that “continues to be a third world nation… The elders were getting their doors kicked in…people were getting killed left and right.”
Bennett continued, adding that the elders of North Ridge had asked Peltier and other American Indian Movement participants for protection from federal actions. She explained that Leonard had been a “legitimate business man,” a car mechanic. His services were sought by the Seattle Police Department for maintenance on police cars. Her take on the reason for his arrest was that he was an “urban Indian”, thought by the authorities to be sufficiently disconnected from reservation and city life to be forgotten.
Her speech drew toward a close with advice,“We will not forget Leonard. Please don’t forget Leonard… Live your lives in a good way. Enjoy your miracles…ancestors like Leonard have worked really hard for what we have today.”
A coastal drum song following the key note speaker was lead by Albert Combs. Arthur Miller, Northwest Regional organizer of LPDOC gave an update of the clemency proceedings and some key points on the history of clemency efforts. “We need to create something there wasn’t before and that is overwhelming public support for Leonard Peltier.”
Clarifying the importance of Native rights to human rights in the U.S. Combs said, “The thing we need to change in this country is…[to make sure] the real U.S. interests are the people and the land.”
He then segued into a narrative of given facts on the original case: “Leonard stood up on Pine Ridge Reservation…the poorest place in the United States.”
Combs said that valuable Uranium was found on the reservation lands. According to Combs, the government knew that the elders would never give up the land for mining. He also claimed that murders of Native Americans by federal agents escalated with the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), peaking after the history-making protest at Wounded Knee. The infamous federal raid of the AIM encampment on North Ridge coincided conveniently with the “signing away” of the uranium deposits in Washington, D.C., according to Combs. Combs told the crowd that in light of dis-proven fabricated evidence in conjunction with the ruling of ’self defense’ on the cases of the two men responsible for shooting the two officer casualties, Peltier was incarcerated for “aiding and abetting an act of self defense.”
Chauncey Peltier, Leonard’s son, took the microphone next. He told a few of his memories of his father. One memory was of fishing, and one of a sweatlodge ceremony.
He also remembers Leonard always telling him to obey the law and to believe in law and order.
“He just wanted to help elders and help the people,” Peltier said in defense of his father’s character.
Chauncey said that he only knew his father as a free man until the age of six.
“It’s all over minerals,” according to Peltier.
Peltier’s speech was a wrapped in unity for justice, beginning with “Where is the justice? We got a new president who says that change is good. Let’s stop playing cowboys and Indians,” and wrapping up before more anecdotes with “Everyone says they have Indian in them. Let’s stick together…We’ll just get stronger and stronger!”
Peter Bohmer, faculty at The Evergreen State College and member of Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace informed the audience that “Leonard’s health is not good,” and that, “Yesterday President Obama granted four people pardons.”
David Duenas, whose father and Peltier “kicked ass from Alcatraz to Washington, D.C.,” as part of AIM, gave the final speech of the rally. When he was done speaking, he introduced an Honor Song for Leonard as “an Old Lakota song” from Leonard’s people, and proceeded to lend his voice to the drum group. Precisely at three p.m. when the singers and drums started, the clouds that had threatened to dump all day finally began a steady sprinkle. A man Deeahop Conway referred to as “Keith from Alaska” gave a closing prayer and people dispersed back to vehicles and transit stations.