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February Covid-19 diagnosis concerns Leonard Peltier supporters

Martha Tommie, from the Brighton Reservation, stands in front of the Coleman Federal Correctional Institution Feb. 6 during an Indigenous-led prayer vigil for Leonard Peltier, who is incarcerated at the prison. (Courtesy photo)

Leonard Peltier supporters have another reason to push for the 77-year-old’s release from federal prison – a February Covid-19 diagnosis.

Amid concerns about his health, about 50 supporters – including Martha Tommie (Seminole Tribe) and Betty Osceola (Miccosukee Tribe) – held a rally and prayer vigil Feb. 6 urging officials to release the Native American who has been incarcerated for nearly 45 years.

Tommie and Osceola led a prayer circle at the vigil on a road in front of the Coleman Federal Correctional Institution in Coleman, Florida, where Peltier is serving two life sentences for the murders of two FBI agents during an uprising on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975.

Many supporters and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, believe he was wrongfully convicted and consider him a political prisoner.

Members of the Florida Indigenous Alliance adjust a sign across the street from the prison. (Courtesy photo)

In addition to the Covid diagnosis, Peltier has diabetes, heart disease and an abdominal aortic aneurysm, according to the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, which organized the rally. Sheridan Murphy, the group’s president, credits its attorney for getting what little information is available about Peltier’s health.

“He is elderly and compromised,” Murphy said in a phone interview with the Tribune on Feb. 3. “He isn’t in a medical unit, but in an isolation pod. We assume he doesn’t need a ventilator; that’s the limit of the information we have.”

It is believed that Peltier (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) has been behind bars longer than any other Native American in the U.S. Peltier’s family did not attend the rally, according to supporters in attendance.

“Even though they weren’t there, we prayed with them in spirit,” Tommie said. “The prison tried to tell us to leave, but we were able to pray there anyway. The weather was gloomy; it was a good day for a prayer. It felt like the spirits were there.”

Osceola included a summation of the day on her Facebook page.

“Today turned out to be a beautiful, powerful event,” Osceola wrote. “You could feel the power of the prayers in the air. … A lot of law enforcement presence, but they stayed back and even helped maintain traffic safety.”

From left, Betty Osceola, Martha Tommie, Robby Romero, Anamaria Vasquez and others gather in a prayer circle outside of the Coleman Federal Correctional Institution. (Courtesy photo)

According to the Department of Justice, more than 35,000 prisoners nationwide have been released to home confinement since the pandemic began, thanks to a provision of the CARES Act. Peltier’s supporters believe that he meets the qualifications for home confinement – in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines – due to his age and health.

“This has been stressful for his family and the people who are working on his case,” Murphy said. “The Covid-19 situation is escalating things and making it more urgent. Leonard meets all the criteria for early release to home confinement. He’s not a threat to anybody; Turtle Mountain has asked for Leonard back.”

Speakers at the event included Murphy, Robert Rosa and Garrett Stuart of the Florida Indigenous Alliance, traditional flute player Anamaria Vasquez and Indigenous musician Robby Romero, who sang a song he wrote about Peltier.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Jan. 26 urging him to commute Peltier’s sentence. Schatz, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, cited a variety of factors, including Peltier’s health status, age and time served, as to why he should be released.

“I’m not sure why he hasn’t been released, other than politics,” Murphy said. “That’s the million-dollar question.”

Betty Osceola and Martha Tommie lead a prayer vigil during the rally for Leonard Peltier. (Courtesy photo)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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