“In order to silence the people they had to have something … and Mr. Peltier is exactly that.”—Freedom Rider Frank Archambault
South Dakota riders make their way through the South
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma— A previous Mvskoke News article covered a group of riders who set out on a 1,500 journey in late July from Mankato, Minnesota to the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida.
The purpose of the two-month long trek is to raise public awareness, as well as garner support for Leonard Peltier’s petition to President Donald Trump for clemency.
In 1975, as a member of the American Indian Movement, Peltier was convicted for the murder of two FBI agents and is serving his 43rd year of incarceration on two life sentences and suffers from failing health.
Since his trial, evidence has come to light that may suggest his conviction was politically motivated.
On Aug. 29, rider and designated spokesperson for the group, Frank Archambault took a break from the saddle for a phone interview to discuss Peltier’s case, the group’s hope for the ride and their experiences on the road.
Archambault spoke on some of the main points that seem to cast doubt on Peltier’s conviction.
“We even had the attorney general of the United States testify at Leonard’s trial, stating that the weapons that Mr. Peltier was carrying that day was of a .22 caliber rifle,” he said. “He testified that the weapons that Mr. Peltier was carrying could not have been the weapon that fired the fatal shot to the two FBI agents.”
In the decades following the trial, there have been no shortage of rumors and alternate accounts of what took place that day on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota.
That, coupled with reported prosecutorial misconduct and procedural errors on the part of the prosecution, has many doubting the lawfulness of his incarceration.
“… People have come forward including prison guards from the Federal Bureau of Prisons [and] FBI agents that have come forth to give testimony to state that Mr. Peltier is innocent of those charges,” Archambault said. “At the time of Mr. Peltier’s arrest, there were two other individuals who were charged for the same crime, who were both acquitted because of ‘lack of evidence.’”
Among the many people that have come forward on behalf of Peltier, are a former federal prosecutor and the judge on his first trial.
The group recognizes the urgency of their cause due to Peltier’s age and failing health, but they also acknowledge the low likelihood of President Trump granting clemency.
Whether or not clemency is granted, according to those in contact with Peltier, one major objective for the ride has already been accomplished, which was to simply encourage and uplift him.
“My brother wanted to ride down there for him, to show him support from the Lakota people back in South Dakota, [and] to let him know that he has not been forgotten,” Archambault said.
In the last four decades, Peltier has become a symbol for Native people that represents a long history of inequality and discrimination toward the Native nations by the U.S. government.
Peltier’s case received international attention in the ‘80s, prompting Amnesty International and other human rights organizations to classify him as a political prisoner often comparing him to Nelson Mandela.
The tumultuous social and political landscape of the 1970s saw many activist groups, like AIM, working to incite social change and meeting hefty opposition by authorities.
“In order to silence the people they had to have something to silence the people and Mr. Peltier is exactly that,” Archambault said.
Since leaving Minnesota in late July, Archambault said the group has been met with support and well-wishes in each state they’ve passed through.
Much of the support is expressed through social media, but some along the group’s route have gone above and beyond by bringing food to the riders and their horses, inviting the riders into their homes and others giving financial support.
With three weeks left until they reach FCCC, the group is traveling through Alabama in route to Aragon, Georgia where they have been invited to speak at a powwow.
The group is documenting the entire trip via social media.
Regular posts are made every day updating the riders’ followers with their progress. Their route has also been posted online with an open invitation to anyone who would like to join them.
Archambault said the group has been amazed at the kindness and support they have received.
“It’s a totally different country … I’ve never been this far down in the United States. It’s been a very beautiful sight to see and meet wonderful people along the way. A lot of people have been very open-hearted and open-minded to us,” he said.
This was quite the surprise to Archambault, coming from the Dakotas, where he says the racial climate is completely different.
“Yea, leaving South Dakota it was … I felt like I always had to be on guard because in the Dakotas we still get treated very, very mean, when it comes to the Caucasian people up there. We still have a lot of racism going on in the Dakotas,”
Archambault said, “I never really expected to have so many people who were open-hearted this way because of the treatment we still receive back home.”
Archambault said the group has had only one negative experience, thus far.
“A guy in Minnesota or Iowa, [it was] Iowa … We had some younger riders with us and we had some guy try to sick his dog on a rider,” he said.
Although the group is not in direct contact with Peltier, Archambault said they have received word from lawyers and Peltier’s sister that he is in full support of the ride.
“We heard that he is very happy [and] very open to us doing this for him. His spirits are high,” he said.
As for the status of Peltier’s petition for clemency, there has been no word either way from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“But like I said, it’s a lot of hope and prayer that they’ll let him go home,” Archambault said.
The riders expect to arrive at the prison on Sept. 22.
The group has also set up a ‘Go Fund Me’ account to help with the expenses of the trip with extra funds going to Peltier.
The group’s Facebook page is ‘Leonard Peltier Freedom Ride 2018.’