There was no cake to put candles on, but the small group gathered on Monument Circle on Sept. 12 made a birthday wish anyway. They then gathered signatures in support of that wish, which will be forwarded to President Obama with a request for executive clemency for political prisoner Leonard Peltier, whose 69th birthday they were commemorating.
Organized by Kelly Reagan Tudor, a Lipan Apache mother of two, the rally provided an opportunity to educate the public about Peltier. "Most people don't know who Leonard is," she said. "Most of them have never even heard his name."
Peltier, an Anishinaabe-Lakota and an American Indian Movement activist, has been in prison for 38 years for the murder of two FBI agents, a crime he insists he didn't commit. Denied a wide range of basic human rights, he has endured beatings and been denied medical care for a number of health issues.
Amnesty International acknowledges Leonard as a political prisoner, listing his case in the "unfair trials" category of itsAnnual Report: USA 2010, citing concerns about the fairness of the proceedings. In July 2013 the group once again called for his release on humanitarian grounds.
They aren't the only ones pleading for Peltier's release. The list of notables includes Nelson Mandela; the Dalai Lama; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; the Parliaments of Europe, Italy and Belgium and the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. Before he passed away, Judge Gerald W. Heaney of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his previous opinion at the trial and joined those asking for Peltier's freedom.
The National Congress of American Indians unanimously passed a Resolution for Clemency for Peltier in November 2011.
James Anaya, special rapporteur with The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, also supports clemency. He presented his remarks to the United Nations in September 2012.
Hoping to collect 300 signatures, Tudor said that upon hearing Peltier's story, most passersby signed the petition urging clemency "right away." She plans to forward the petitions to the White House by way of the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee.
But, expressing fears that nothing will change, she wonders, "How many petitions is it going to take?"
Carrie Castoreno, president of the Native American Student Alliance at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, speculates that the government is "scared of the uproar" his release would cause. Nevertheless, she expresses faith in the president. "I want [President] Obama to act. He can make a difference."
So far, he hasn't. Over a year ago the White House received more than 5,000 electronic signatures and 7,000 hard-copy signatures on a petition to free Peltier. Not only has Obama failed to grant executive clemency, but he has also declined to comment on the petition, citing White House policy not to comment on individual pardon applications.
To keep spirits from wavering, Peltier sent a message of encouragement to his supporters, writing:
I am Barack Obama's political prisoner now, and I hope and pray that he will adhere to the ideals that impelled him to run for president. But as Obama himself would acknowledge, if we are expecting him to solve our problems, we missed the point of his campaign. Only by organizing in our own communities and pressuring our supposed leaders can we bring about the changes that we all so desperately need. While the current administration has done more for our people than any in recent history, we cannot stand idly by. We must be involved with bringing about the change we need.
Believing that the time has come to address the many years of abuse suffered by Indigenous people, Peltier continued: "We cannot afford to sit back and wait for justice and equal treatment for our people. We cannot sit back and wait for change and 'hope' that conditions will get better. We have to get involved in making that change happen. We have to take charge of our destiny."
It's one of the many lessons Peltier has offered to his supporters over the years, as his message has become one of unity. In fact, he has become a rallying point for disparate tribes. According to Mary White Face, who has collected signatures in support of Peltier at more than one rally, "All Indians are upset about Leonard being kept in prison."
Recalling a history of mutual support amongst Indigenous peoples, Peltier said that is once again the goal at hand. "We want to re-establish that relationship. As Indigenous peoples, we must never forget that we are all related. The time has come for us to come together again, to mend the sacred hoop that forever keeps us as one mind in one family. Let no man divide us forever."
the petition asking for executive clemency for Leonard Peltier,