Three Native American men sat quietly smudging, a traditional ceremonial technique to remove negativity, on the grounds of Monument Circle just after noon on June 26. When the sacred smoke bowl finally burned out, Gordon Plain Bull Jr., an enrolled member of the Sioux nation, told stories about the man they had come to honor: Leonard Peltier.
Leaders of the Oglala Lakota Nation declared June 26 Leonard Peltier Day on the 38th anniversary of the infamous shooting at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota that resulted in Peltier's conviction of murdering two FBI agents.
[A statement Peltier released in response to the movement is appended below.]
Considered a political prisoner, Peltier, an Anishinaabe-Lakota and an American Indian Movement activist, has been in prison for 36 years for a crime he insists he didn't commit.
Citing concerns with the fairness of the proceedings, Amnesty International lists Peltier's case in the "unfair trials" category of its Annual Report: USA 2010. They and numerous others have asked for clemency for the 69-year-old, who is now suffering from bad health.
Plain Bull, who was in Fargo, N.D., when Peltier was sentenced in 1977, calls him a martyr for Native Americans, and a leader. "He's the only Native American political prisoner."
"He didn't kill the agents," Plain Bull continued. "The FBI agents were killed while Leonard was taking women and children out of the firefight on that hillside," Plain Bull says. "He prayed to be invisible so he could take them to safety during broad daylight."
Derek Anderson, of Cherokee heritage, and Chris Ravenhawk, of Wea Miami lineage, listened to Plain Bull's stories about Leonard. They traveled from Stinesville, Ind., to participate in the nationwide demonstration of support for Peltier. "It's important," Ravenhawk said. "Memories are not strong; we must push forward so they won't be forgotten."
As the trio sat in the grass, passersby and local business owners paused to ask questions, share a supportive word of encouragement and just to look or take photos.
Enlightening others about Peltier's plight goes hand-in-hand with the purpose of the day: to heal. In the proclamation they issued, Oglala Lakota Nation President Bryan Brewer and Vice-President Thomas Poor Bear talk of Peltier's sacrifice for his people and applaud his stand for peace, justice and freedom, along with his work to "heal a nation through human rights, social rights and indigenous rights."
"We have to educate people," said Plain Bull, who also heads the Indiana chapter of the United Urban Warrior Society, a non-profit Native American community benefit organization founded by James Magaska Swan with 27 chapters focused on local Native issues.
Obama establishes Council on Native American Affairs
On the same day that Native Americans across the country were gathering to show their support for Peltier, President Barack Obama released an executive order establishing the White House Council on Native American Affairs.
The order establishes a policy to recognize a government-to-government relationship with federally recognized tribes. In a nod to history, Obama acknowledged past wrongdoings and pledged to honor the unique legal and political relationship established by the Constitution and treaties, and to respect tribal sovereignty and right to self-government.
The council will be made up of the heads of 30 federal departments and charged with aiding tribes with housing, health care, economic development and transportation.
Citing the obligation to heal the government's relationship with Native Americans, Obama said the country "cannot ignore a history of mistreatment and destructive policies that have hurt tribal communities."
Statement from Leonard Peliter
from Leonard on Oglala Commemoration
June 26, 2013
My Family and Friends. I hope you are comfortable and that you are all healthy and happy. For those of you who walked today, I imagine the sun gave you a little more color and I am proud of all of you. You know if I were out, I would have been walking with you, leading the charge, of course.
In my mind, I am right there with you. I can smell the burning sage and sweetgrass intermingled with the smells from the boxes of frybread and the big pans of potato salad. The "unci's" are sitting on chairs in the shade, probably teasing each other and laughing, like only you can. I see all of you sitting on the blankets under the shade on the hard dry ground, trying to find a way to be comfortable. I can look over to where the old campsite was and spot the place where the guys would cut the wood, and the place where the gardens were.
A sadness comes over me as I see the foundation, where the homestead of Grama and grandpa Jumping Bull once stood. I remember the kids running around and playing, carefree and happy. At times it seems like it was a long time ago and other times, it feels like it was yesterday. Sometimes when I'm alone, I wonder why life has to be so hard for our people. It's puzzling that some of our own people will turn against us. Is it money? Power? Greed? We were here because we were asked to be here, to stand as protection to the traditional families who continue to follow the original instructions as handed down to us from generation to generation in the form of our Creation stories. I am told there is now an investigation being implemented for the murder of the 60-some people killed during that reign of terror. It's an outrage that it took over 40 years to discover that a bullet hole in the back doesn't sound like death by natural cause. We were there also, to protect the land from being raped by the government for uranium. We have evidence of the chemical dumps placed on our land without the knowledge or consent of our members and the leaking of radiation five times the safe level, polluting the veins of our mother earth and turning our sacred water into a poison that would cause our child-bearing women to abort their unborn babies and cancer replacing natural cause on the death certificates of many of our people. I am not trying to make this a gloom and doom message. I am only trying to give an understanding to some of our young people that we need to continue to protect all that is sacred to us, our Elders, our women and our children, our culture and way of life and each other.
I am always asked about an update on what is going on with me and I will try to explain. As my team can tell you, my blood pressure is high, my diabetes is out of control to the point of causing problems to my sight and I have a lot of pain in walking. My medication has been withheld for several months and doctor appointments are a rare occurrence. I have been tested for prostate cancer and although I was never given any clear answer of whether or not cancer exists, the symptoms indicate there is definitely something wrong. The recent problems with shortness of breath and chest pains are causing me additional stress. I assure you, this is not the place to be sick or to have health problems because in prison, we are just another number. It's just a good thing I don't need to take medication to keep a sense of humor or I would definitely be screwed! Additionally, I was approved by my counselors inside for a transfer to a medium-security prison closer to home but the transfer was denied from the office in Texas, without a reason. Although the denial was appealed, who knows how long that will take to be reviewed.
In closing, I want to say "pilamiyeya" to all of you for your hard work. I know this is a great undertaking to organize an event. It humbles me to know that you are taking the time to remember not only me, but all of the warriors who are attempting to take the HIS STORY out of history, by standing up and telling OUR story. I stand with you in support of recognizing our inherent rights, our truth seekers and our sacred way of life. To those of you preparing to Sundance, I hope you will feel me dancing next to you, in the Inipi, I am there taking in the steam and singing with you. But as you can guess, I am getting tired. I just want to be home with my people. I want to wake up to the sound of the birds singing outside my window and the smell of "cowboy coffee" coming from the kitchen instead of hearing the clanging of cell doors and jingling of rings of keys. Please! Continue to fight for what is right. That is all I can ask.