For all of the good will engendered by American Indian Heritage Month, there are still serious issues between American Indians and local and national governments. Land disputes remain on or near many reservations, and human remains are often the focus of sharp disagreements between public museums and individual Indian tribes, including the Piscataway Indians of Maryland.
But perhaps no issue is more symbolic, or controversial, than the 23-year-old imprisonment of Leonard Peltier on charges of murdering two FBI agents in June 1975 on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. It is a case that fits the profile of several more recent conflicts between the government and armed militants: The FBI says that Peltier shot agents Ronald A. Williams and Jack R. Coler in cold blood, as they lay wounded and defenseless, while Peltier and other Indians maintain that the FBI's aggression led to a climate of lawlessness and fear and that Peltier was not the one who pulled the fatal trigger.
Convicted in 1977, Peltier has since become a martyr to many American Indian leaders, who are looking to use this month to bring attention to Peltier's long-running request for clemency. To that end, several Indian organizations have dubbed November "Free Leonard Peltier Month" and plan a full slate of demonstrations, rallies and activities in Washington.
According to Scott Tipit, a member of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee in Baltimore, groups in support of Peltier will "maintain a presence" on the Ellipse and in Lafayette Park Nov. 1-25, with each day bearing a different focus. Nov. 13, "Unity Free Day," is "an especially important day," according to Tipit; speakers from across the country will address not only the Peltier case but also issues of racism, police brutality and the environment.
Nathan Phillips and other members of the Native Youth Alliance, an organization dedicated to aiding the children of incarcerated parents, will be maintaining a month-long vigil on the Washington Monument grounds, and Phillips credits Peltier with his own presence in Washington and his vigil. "I visited Leonard [in prison], and he told me to stay in the area," Phillips says, "to bring attention to all issues facing Native Americans, not just his own case."
Phillips says that he holds more than 500,000 signatures on a petition demanding the release of Peltier, and in this, he isn't alone; it's estimated that over 25 million signatures have been gathered worldwide. (This includes Russia, where during the mid-1980s Peltier's case became the subject of several Soviet accusations of U.S. human rights inconsistencies.)
Peltier's case has been the focus of national attention for two decades, in the time period surrounding the shooting and afterward. In 1983, Peter Matthiessen published his account of the case, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," which brought the case to the attention of many non-Indians, while during the '90s Michael Apted directed the fictionalized "Thunderheart" and the documentary "Incident at Oglala," two acclaimed movies highly skeptical of government accounts.
With so many eyes on Washington this month, activists view this as another watershed, another last, best chance to convince President Clinton to grant Peltier clemency. Some speak of the final Heritage Month of the century, and its affirmation of traditional Indian ceremonies and culture, as the perfect staging ground for Peltier's freedom.
"We're here for all Indians, not just Leonard," Phillips says, "and we also know that he's here for us, and that we're all in the presence of Leonard Peltier."