This year marks 45 years since the illegal and cruel incarceration of Leonard Peltier, a political prisoner and world-renowned fighter for Native liberation. To honor Leonard’s fight for freedom and his support for the struggle to save the environment, a group of supporters referring to themselves as Freedom Riders set out on a horseback journey from the Winnebago Nation in Omaha, Nebr., to Washington D.C. They are stopping along the way in various cities to raise awareness about Leonard’s case.
The Freedom Riders describe their journey on their website, “As First peoples, along with our allies of all colors, we are committed to this journey across mother earth, not only for Leonard‘s freedom, but for the respect due to all of the two legged, four legged and winged beings that exist here, and for their protection and for future generations.” They will also be raising awareness about honoring Native treaties that are routinely flouted by the U.S. government.
The Freedom Riders arrived in Washington D.C., June 21 where they are leading prayer and drum circles in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and ending with an outdoor concert. Drummers from the Oglala nation at the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the shootout that ultimately led to Leonard’s illegal imprisonment took place, are also expected to join. Since they began on June 6, the Freedom Riders have been amassing supporters along the way with rising excitement to fight for the freedom of Leonard Peltier.
Leonard Peltier’s long fight for freedom
Peltier was wrongfully convicted for a shootout at Oglala on June 26, 1975, and surrounding events, for which the U.S. government and the FBI are solely responsible. Since then, the U.S. government has rejected numerous appeals for his freedom despite widespread requests for clemency.
Plainclothes, unidentified FBI agents raided the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota amidst violent repression by paramilitary groups that were backed by the U.S. government. Between 1973 and 1975, 64 people, including women and children, were victims of targeted killings by these paramilitaries because they opposed the corrupt U.S.-aligned tribal chairman Dick Wilson.
Without any protection from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI, members of the American Indian Movement, including Leonard Peltier, were asked by members of the Lakota nation for protection. When the FBI agents invaded the farm on the reservation, a shootout between the FBI and AIM defenders ensued, resulting in the death of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. Two of the three Native defendants charged in the agents’ deaths were later exonerated at trial on the basis of self-defense.
However, this exoneration did not extend to Peltier, who was extradited from Canada in an outrageous campaign waged by the FBI where they terrorized a Native woman into providing false testimony against Leonard. The FBI could not charge the other co-defendants so they decided to make Leonard pay even though he played no role in the agents’ deaths.
Jeanne Roach, an eyewitness of the shootout at Oglala, summarized the events saying, “Leonard Peltier was illegally railroaded into prison by the FBI coercing witnesses with threats of death [and] falsifying evidence.”
Roach also said about the Freedom Riders’ journey this year, “We are here to support Leonard Peltier’s fight for justice and freedom. For years we came to Washington, D.C., asking for justice! Every President has ignored or denied the genocidal attacks on our Nations! Political prisoners [are] our history and Leonard represents continued oppression against our tribal nation!”
For a full background on Leonard Peltier’s struggle, watch the documentaries “Incident at Oglala” by filmmaker Michael Apted and “Warrior” by Suzie Bare. The book “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” by Peter Matthiessen is also essential reading to understand the U.S. war on Native people and the American Indian Movement, and the railroading of Leonard Peltier.
To follow the Freedom Riders’ journey, visit freedomride2021.com and donate to their GoFundMe at Leonard Peltier Freedom Ride 2021. To receive updates about Leonard’s case and receive newsletters, please visit and sign up at the website for the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.