Advocates renew calls for clemency for imprisoned Native American activist

By Victor Gaetan | Catholic News Service

At the heart of Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada July 24-29 is the pursuit of reconciliation with Indigenous people, which is just as relevant in the United States.

“The ill-treatment of Indians occurred up and down the continent, in Canada and the U.S.,” said Jack Healey, founder of the Human Rights Action Center based in Washington and former director of Amnesty International.

“Pope Francis is a healer,” Healey said. “All of us, especially Catholics, should join him to find ways to heal these old wounds.”

One example ripe for remedy that he highlighted is the decades-long incarceration of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, now 77.

He was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in the tragic death of two young FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on a reservation in South Dakota, but the U.S. government later admitted no ballistic evidence supported the charges.

FBI agents hold a banner in front of the White House Dec. 15, 2000, to show opposition to any consideration by President Bill Clinton to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier, who was found guilty in 1977 of first-degree murder in the death of two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on a South Dakota reservation. Catholic advocates and others have called on President Joe Biden to grant clemency to Peltier, now 77, saying he was framed. Peltier has always maintained his innocence. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Testimony from the only “witness,” a mentally disabled woman, proved to be fabricated, as she wasn’t on the reservation at the time and was threatened with physical mutilation — and the loss of her daughter — if she didn’t sign an affidavit against Peltier.

“Basically, he was framed,” according to Peltier’s pro bono attorney, Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge.

He has been imprisoned — in what his supporters describe as extreme conditions — for over 45 years, including 20 with “good behavior.” In 2015, most people sentenced to life imprisonment for murder served an average of 27.4 years before being paroled.

Since 2016, Peltier has been housed in the Coleman federal penitentiary, a high-security facility in Florida.

“If this was anyone but Leonard Peltier, he would have been paroled long ago,” Sharp told Catholic News Service.

Even a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Peltier, Frank Reynolds, wrote to President Joe Biden, explaining: “We were not able to prove that Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation.” He now supports executive clemency, which the president can grant.

A major argument for releasing Peltier is his poor health: He suffers from kidney disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart condition. He is virtually blind in one eye since a stroke in 1986. He uses a walker to get around.

Another reason is the great distance from his family. Peltier has four living children (an adult son died of a heart attack), 11 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren. One daughter moved to Kansas to be close to her father, who was in the Leavenworth federal penitentiary, then he was transferred to the Lewisburg federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania in 2005. He has been in Florida since 2011.

Most of his family is in North Dakota where Peltier grew up. Under federal rules, prisoners should be located within 500 miles of their primary residence.

When President Barack Obama was in office, Pope Francis wrote him a letter seeking clemency for Peltier. Last October at the Vatican, the pope brought the case to Biden’s attention based on concern expressed by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston and Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, according to several sources.

This is a screen grab of a 2016 postcard campaign urging clemency for Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who has been incarcerated since 1977 for his conviction on two counts of first-degree murder in the death of two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on a South Dakota reservation. Catholic advocates and others have called for the release of Peltier, now 77, saying he was framed. Peltier has always maintained his innocence. (CNS screen grab/

Archbishop Wenski even arranged to visit Peltier. While at the airport, on his way, the archbishop got a phone call from the prison canceling the meeting — for no specific reason. Oblate Father Andrew Small, then director of the Pontifical Mission Societies, was flying in from New York until he got the same message.

Jack Magee of St Anthony’s Parish in Allston, Massachusetts, helped plan the aborted visit.

“Leonard was so disappointed. He is aware of Archbishop Wenski’s longtime work for the people of Haiti. He hoped to visit with a man of true understanding of his plight as a person of color wrongly imprisoned. Leonard was hoping for a message of solace and hope from the archbishop and Father Small,” said Magee, who befriended Peltier 45 years ago after hearing a presentation on his fate.

Between staff shortages, pandemic-related restrictions and internal chaos, the prison goes on lockdown frequently, making visits almost impossible to plan — especially for family members on limited budgets living far away.

During the pandemic, prisoners were almost entirely cut off from the world.

Peltier contracted COVID-19 earlier this year “and it was torture,” said Sheron Wyant-Leonard, a longtime friend who’s “almost like a sister.” Her 2021 book, “I Will: How Four American Indians Put Their Life on the Line and Changed History,” highlights Peltier’s life.

“He was in isolation, with no decent medical treatment, without people to care for him, no phone and terrible, cold food. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him so low,” the author said. “I’ve seen a real change” in him since the pandemic, she added.

Not only has illness taken a toll, but he has been denied access to spiritual guidance, which could be provided if Peltier was freed: North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Band of Chippawa Indians voted to provide Peltier with housing, financial and spiritual support, and medical care.

Although the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 protects the rights of Native people to practice traditional religions, the Bureau of Prisons can arbitrarily block purification ceremonies such as the sweat lodge or pipe rituals under the guidance of spiritual leaders.

“I have participated in many ceremonies including one with Leonard at Leavenworth. I became closer to my Catholic faith,” Wyant-Leonard told CNS. “Since he was transferred to Coleman, they cut off the sweat lodge and it made a difference. You can get hopeless without spiritual connection.”

Lenny Foster is a Navajo spiritual leader who has known Peltier for 50 years.

“He is a very reverent person, a genuine human being,” Foster explained. “I started visiting him in 1985. I went three times a year to Leavenworth for cleansing rituals.”

But in Florida, prison management told Foster he was barred from leading sweat lodge ceremonies because he was “friendly” with the prisoner.

Foster’s voice was deep with controlled outrage as he noted, “How could I not become a friend after visiting him for over 30 years? We are not related. We’re from two separate Native nations. We are acquainted, consider each other friends, as they would say, but that is considered a ‘no-no.’ I never violated their rules and regulations!”

In her research, Wyant-Leonard discovered how offenses committed against Native people impacted Peltier personally, including reeducation and relocation.

When Peltier was 9, he, his little sister and a female cousin were forcibly taken by government agents from their grandmother’s home on Turtle Mountain Reservation. Peltier remained at the Wahpeton Boarding School for three years.

It was part of a systematic plan “to erase the cultural identity of American Indians. The first step was boarding schools. ‘Kill the Indian but save the child,’ was the motto. A student’s hair was cut, no Native language could be spoken and of course strict separation from the family was enforced,” explained the author.

“This was federal government policy,” she said, until President Richard Nixon shifted to an approach emphasizing self-determination, influenced by his Quaker upbringing.

The U.S. Interior Department recently issued a landmark report on boarding schools. Most American schools were government-run; in Canada, most had religious ties, mainly the Catholic Church.

Father Maurice Henry Sands, a Detroit archdiocesan priest, is executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office in Washington. He is a member of the Ojibway, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes and was born on an island in Canada. He will be part of the papal pilgrimage.

“Pope Francis is making these efforts to listen to the Native people and to offer an apology on behalf of the church because he recognizes there were very serious injustices that were committed, like in the residential boarding schools,” the priest said.

“The Holy Father cares and he wants to do whatever he can to bring about healing and reconciliation in Canada and by extension the U.S. because similar policies were enacted here,” he added.

Another tactic to force assimilation was relocating Native Americans to cities. Peltier was exiled to Seattle, where he opened a car repair shop with a friend.

“What does St. Paul write to the Colossians? ‘Remember my chains,'” said Wyant-Leonard. “Leonard is a living witness of those words.”

She and other supporters are glad to see Peltier’s case gaining attention from new quarters including the United Nations. A detailed U.N. report issued in June describes the “lack of any legitimate purpose” for his detention.

Twenty-four Native American state legislators from nine states appealed to Biden requesting his “grace and compassion” regarding Peltier.

And U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Catholic, wrote to the president earlier this year urging him to release the aged prisoner explaining simply, “It is the right thing to do.”

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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