SUMTERVILLE, Fla. — A group of determined Leonard Peltier supporters left Mankato, Minnesota, on horseback July 28. They rode 1,500 miles to the Coleman Federal Correctional Institution in Sumterville, Florida, for a Sept. 22 rally which included some members of the Seminole Tribe. The rally’s goal was to raise awareness about the plight of the imprisoned Native American activist.
Peltier has spent 41 years behind bars for the murders of two FBI agents during an uprising on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975, for which he is serving two life sentences. Many supporters and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, believe his conviction was tainted due to questionable evidence and consider him a political prisoner.
The aim of the Leonard Peltier Freedom Ride 2018 was to attract attention to Peltier’s cause and hopefully convince President Donald Trump to grant the 74-year-old Anishabe/Dakota/Lakota inmate clemency. Peltier’s next parole hearing isn’t until 2024, which is why the group is seeking clemency.
Ken FourCloud, Crow Creek/Sioux, came up with the idea for the Freedom Ride and organized it with the help of other Peltier supporters.
“This has been a dream of his for almost nine years,” said Frank Archambault, Yankton/Standing Rock Sioux. “[FourCloud’s] rides are memorials for people in history, he wanted to do something to help and honor Peltier while he is still alive. At the same time it may help him to be released.”
Every year, FourCloud rides 330 miles in the annual Dakota 38+2 Memorial Ride which honors 38 Native Americans who were hanged in Mankato in 1862, the largest mass hanging in U.S. history.
At 1,500 miles, the Freedom Ride was a much longer endeavor. It took the slow moving caravan of horseback riders and support vehicles 57 days to arrive at the prison. The entourage was kept moving by supporters who contributed to the Leonard Peltier Freedom Ride GoFundMe page or with in-kind services such as veterinary care, hay, food and giving the group land on which to rest and refresh for a night or more.
The caravan included an old horse trailer that spent six months with FourCloud at Standing Rock in 2016, six riders, four rideable horses, one young colt and a support team.
“The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee is helping,” said Julia Fike, Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux, a coordinator of the ride. “The ride was followed [on Facebook] by people in 20 countries. [Peltier’s] health is not good; he had triple bypass surgery, is diabetic and has an aneurysm in his stomach. He just needs to come home.”
This isn’t the first time groups have applied for clemency on Peltier’s behalf. Petitions were made to the Department of Justice during the Clinton and Obama administrations; both were rejected.
“It’s been going on forever,” Fike said. “The evidence proves he is innocent. He’s been in there longer than anyone should have been. They’ve kept him in so long because the judge said he would make an example of him and that he would never see the light of day. They said the same thing about Nelson Mandela. We have to stand up and stop this.”
Hours before the Freedom Riders arrived at the prison, the roadside filled with cars, SUVs and a couple of motorcycles. Signs, banners and flags were prominently displayed and held up to the traffic.
Many horns honked in support of the demonstrators. A handful of Seminoles made the journey north to participate in the rally.
“This is the kind of thing that interests me, standing up for our own people,” said Lucile Jumper, of Big Cypress. “I know it will take more than this to get him out, but I wanted to show my support.”
The aroma of burning sage wafted in the air across the street from the prison as about 40 people gathered in support of Peltier, imprisoned inside. The Leonard Peltier Defense Fund tried to get clearance to visit him, to no avail. Prison authorities were notified of the rally and a few law enforcement vehicles were parked on each side of the fence watching the event unfold.
“I spoke to Leonard and told him about today,” said Paulette Dauteuil, national director of the Leonard Peltier Defense Fund. Dauteuil was married to Robert Robideau, who was arrested for the same murders as Peltier, but acquitted. “[Leonard] said ‘I guess I’ll spend the day in the hole’, but I told him they know we are here and that won’t happen if we stay on our side of the road.”
The rally did in fact remain on the far side of the road. Ryanna Osceola, 15, came to the rally with her grandmother Martha Tommie. She held a sign all day calling for the release of Peltier.
“I think he needs his freedom,” Ryanna said. “He needs to be with his people for the last years of his life.”
Martha Tommie, an activist who went to Standing Rock twice to protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, brought the STOF flag she had with her in North Dakota to the rally at the prison. As they waited for the riders to arrive, she played the MTV Video Music Award winning song “Stand Up Stand N Rock” by Taboo featuring Spencer and Doc Battiest at top volume for all to hear.
When the riders arrived at the rally site, they were welcomed enthusiastically with cheers, posed for photos and were happy to have finally arrived. The riders were FourCloud, Archambault, his son Dillon Archambault, also Yankton/Standing Rock Sioux, along with Gregory Payne, Cherokee, and Bobby Bellas, Eastern Band Cherokee/Ojibwa.
A drum was brought out and the songs began. The group sang the ceremonial Leonard Peltier song, a prayer to help obtain his release. Elvis Provost, who drove the truck that pulled the horse trailer from Minnesota, was one of the drummer/singers.
“I think there is a good chance he will be let free because of all our prayers,” said Provost, Yankton Sioux/Ihanktonwan.
Speakers stood in front of a large American Indian Movement banner and shared their thoughts about Peltier.
“I stand in powerful prayers for the freedom of Leonard Peltier,” said Martha Tommie, of Brighton. “He knows we are serious about his freedom. I went to Standing Rock to stand for our water; I know what powerful prayers are worth. Stay humble and pray to the lord. We are all related by blood, red blood.”
Sam Tommie, of Big Cypress, spoke before he played a song on his flute.
“I’m grateful that Leonard’s family rode 1,500 miles to be here,” he said. “He’s only so many yards away from us on the other side of those fences. You carried the spirit of your grandparents with you as you rode here and it made you stronger.”
At last, it was Archambault’s turn to speak.
“We made it,” he said. “It’s been an honor to take part in something that means so much for future generations. We are all hurting historically and generationally that we just can’t seem to shake off.
Everyone deserves to be treated equal in this world. I feel this man’s pain; he can’t sit with his family to eat, he can’t play with his children and grandchildren. He gave us the inspiration to be here today.”
From Mankato to Coleman, the riders flew one American flag upside down. Archambault explained why.
“We need to honor Mother Earth every day and put our trash where it belongs,” he said. “We have a spiritual connection to everything in this world. The flag flies upside down today because we are in trouble. Mother Earth cries every day. We are the children of Mother Earth and we need to get back to our way of life.”
The prison wasn’t the Freedom Riders first stop in Florida; they also spent time in St. Augustine and on a ranch nearby. While they were in St. Augustine they took in the sights, including a boat ride in the ocean.
“It was our first time seeing the ocean and was a very uplifting feeling,” Archambault said. “It brought me to how small we as humans really are. We said a prayer for the water and the oceans and everything in them.”
“We had a prayer ceremony in the cell Osceola was held in, where Geronimo’s wives were also held,” said Dauteuil.
At the prison, attendees shared their thoughts about Peltier.
“We are here for a good cause and to help give Leonard his freedom,” said Grant Steve, Mississippi Choctaw. “We need to learn to stand for something; if not, we will fall for anything.”
The next stop for the Leonard Peltier Freedom Ride is Washington D.C., where they will present a petition for clemency to the Department of Justice. At around 840 miles, the ride should take them less time than the one that was just completed.