Climate and Clemency: A Trip to Make Change

By Tokata Iron Eyes

Date: 12/11/2023

In September, I hit the road eastbound to participate in a pair of solidarity actions to impact the future — for one man and for all of us. At about 5:45 a.m. on Friday morning the 8th, my friend Tyler Star Comes Out and I arrived at the NDN Collective office in Rapid City, South Dakota. In alliance with Amnesty International, NDN was sponsoring a caravan to journey from Lakota Country to Washington D.C., and along the way, hundreds more people would join me, Tyler, and our expedition leaders. Once ensconced in the nation’s capital, we would hold a rally to demand freedom for long-incarcerated American Indian Movement (AIM) elder Leonard Peltier, on the occasion of his 79th birthday.

Our voices were heard loud and clear, and the movement to free Leonard has only picked up steam ever since. Still, President Biden has yet to do the right thing and grant kaká (grandfather) Leonard clemency. Today, he remains a political prisoner of the United States government after more than 40 years. Please tell the president: It's long past time to do the humane thing and free Leonard Peltier.

You’re likely familiar with Leonard’s story by now. An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, he became a well-known activist for his involvement in AIM, specifically after his conviction on charges stemming from the 1975 murders of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, during a period of armed resistance on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Throughout his decades-long incarceration, Leonard has maintained his innocence and has never received a fair trial. His political imprisonment — decried by a host of individuals and organizations — has become a symbol of the blatant and obvious state-sanctioned injustices against Native America and Indigenous peoples as a whole.

In Leonard’s case, there have been several allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, including the withholding of evidence that could have been favorable to his defense and coerced or unreliable testimony from witnesses. In addition, the jury heard flawed ballistics evidence, which contradicted a conclusive determination that the bullets in question couldn’t be linked to Peltier's gun.

The bottom line: Leonard was targeted and convicted due to his involvement in the AIM, a civil rights advocacy group that engaged in armed resistance to advance the rights of Native Peoples in the U.S. the 1970s. Peers of that movement include the likes of the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, those who led the Stonewall Uprising, and the wave of feminism responsible for the passing of Roe v. Wade. Because of his involvement with an organization that sought to advance the rights of an oppressed segment of society, he was targeted and made into an example. Leonard’s people understand that his punishment has been and remains politically motivated and racially biased. The violence against him is a living movement for native liberation.

Let’s talk for a moment about the evolution of law enforcement, which — it should be noted — originated to keep People of Color subjugated. Police at the most recent Native-led actions I’ve attended seem to have wised up. Despite a rash of anti-protest legislation meant to limit our ability to exercise our constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression, police have been less willing to commit acts of violence in public view or in front of a camera that isn’t their own. Since the mass protests over George Floyd’s muder-by-cop, they seem to be better at avoiding optics which can become useful to motivating solidarity amongst other oppressed groups.

Rallies and marches are undeniably effective, at least in gaining visibility for movements and applying pressure to a state’s political figureheads. Many of those in power have made their names and careers off the backs of the American people, while simultaneously committing and/or contributing to crimes against us. It’s our duty, then, to call out their hypocrisy wherever we see it. I will say, however, that I sometimes feel these kinds of tactics fail to meet the sense of urgency surrounding any given cause. Systematically, grassroots movements are all swimming upstream — and that’s why it takes all of us being loud, being vigilant, being persistent, to accomplish our goals.

I’m honored to have attended the solidarity action for kaká Leonard, and I will continue to speak up until he’s finally liberated.

After the rally and march in Washington, D.C., I packed up again and headed on to New York City for a week of climate action. While there, I spent time with Indigenous activists of all ilks, including the likes of Alethea and Nathan Phillips, Raymond Kingfisher, Alan Salway, Nick Tilsen, Aisha Sid, and many others. I deeply appreciated our ability to gather so many important voices in one space; it is something rather rare and incredibly special. Spaces radical Indigenous thinkers make together prove time and time again to be incredibly fruitful and nourishing. As I continue on my journey as an activist and artist, these interactions are invaluable.


Above: AOC speaks at the March to End Fossil Fuels

I also spent a couple days participating in an art build for the March to End Fossil Fuels, making the people’s voice heard as the world's political figureheads were gathering for the United Nations General Assembly in the nation’s metropolis. At least 75,000 people attended the march and rally! I give a special thank you to LJ Amsterdam, who gifted me with the responsibility to help marshal the march, for their tireless work and belief in our movement. I’m honored to know and I cherish my comrades who attended. LJ and the Ruckus Society helped me and other youth activists from Standing Rock occupy Hillary Clinton's campaign headquarters in 2016 and demand that the then-presidential candidate take a stand on the prominent political issue of the Dakota Access pipeline.

This kind of kinship is responsible for change, for swaying hearts, minds, and bodies. It is the type of love we all deserve — one that perseveres, providing dignity and space to grow. The rally and march were also attended by Dr. Cornel West, Susan Sarandon, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Ugandan climate justice advocate Vanessa Nakate, climate scientist and author Peter Kalmus, former Irish president and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, and many more.

We have so many critical steps to take to end fossil fuels, but my generation and the ones to follow are counting on it so we can remain in a livable world. If you have not yet done so, you can help move the needle by telling President Biden to put an end to drilling on public lands and waterways. My gratitude to you for all you do as a climate justice hero, and thank you for reading!

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