When I first heard that President Obama had commuted the sentences of more than 300 federal prisoners this month, my heart stopped for a moment. I wondered, as I do every time the President uses his clemency power, whether my father’s name would be on the list. Although this was the largest round of commutations ever announced by a president in a single day, it still came as a disappointment. My father, Leonard Peltier, was not among them.
During his final months in office, President Obama is working against the clock to correct past legacies of injustice. He has focused his clemency powers on federal prisoners who were locked up in the context of the War on Drugs. As the daughter of an incarcerated person, I know how extraordinary it is that thousands of unjustly jailed people will finally come home. But I also hope that this initiative doesn’t overshadow the other cases sitting on the President’s desk, and that he takes the opportunity to address even older, more politically sensitive cases that require an equally extraordinary remedy—cases like my father’s.
A prominent member of the American Indian Movement, my father is synonymous with the struggle for both native rights and injustice. He has been behind bars for more than 40 years—my entire life. The first time my father saw me, I was nine months old, and I was handed to him in a courtroom. I know that my story isn’t unique—many children grow up without fathers. But that doesn’t make his absence any easier, or erase the decades of injustice my family has endured.
In 1975, two FBI agents and a native person were killed during a confrontation between the FBI and the American Indian Movement on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. My father was there that day, and has repeatedly expressed regret that any lives were lost. But he has always maintained his innocence. My father was ultimately extradited from Canada 40 years ago, convicted of the agents’ killings and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences based on testimony that the FBI has admitted they knew was perjured.
Despite the many people—including judges, prison guards and legal experts—who have agreed and insisted that his trial was unfair, he remains in prison. Amnesty International, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, Native American advocates and countless activists have been fighting for his release for years.
Just before he left office, we believed that President Clinton was very close to pardoning my father. When FBI agents protested outside the White House a month before his last day in office, our hopes for my father’s freedom were shattered. Jan. 20, 2000, came and went, and my father’s case remained unaddressed. That incredibly painful disappointment marked a turning point in my life. To have come so close to having him home, and then losing that chance—I was heartbroken, and I began to distance myself from the case.
But I cannot distance myself any longer. My father is very sick. He’s 71 now and has a host of medical issues, including suffering from a stroke, diabetes, undergoing multiple jaw surgeries and, now, an abdominal aortic aneurysm—a condition that can be life-threatening if not treated. The prison, USP Coleman, won’t operate to repair or remove it until the aneurysm grows to five centimeters and my aging father is spending his days in a maximum security prison, where he’s at constant risk of a physical altercation that could cause the aneurysm to rupture.
His case may be 40 years old—and for some people, it’s part of a difficult history that’s better left in the past. But it defines every day of my present. Every moment my father spent in prison has impacted the lives of his family members. While Leonard Peltier is thought of by many as a father to the movement for the rights of native people, he was never able to be a true father to his own children.
He used to tell my siblings and me: “When I get out, I’m going to raise you.” For years, I believed it. Then I learned not to hope. I have never been able to celebrate a birthday with him. He did not get to teach me to ride a bike or comfort me when I was hurt or watch me graduate. My father has been a ghost in my life, and I’ve often wrestled with the anger and sadness caused by his absence. I remind myself that he hasn’t missed these moments because he wanted to—he had no choice.
Making things more difficult, during my father’s decades-long imprisonment, he has been transferred at least seven times, sometimes without notice. It’s been a struggle to maintain a relationship with him when he is consistently thousands of miles away, separated not only by distance, but also by prison walls.
My worst fear is that my father will die in prison, and that I will never know him as a free man. Clemency for my father would mean our family would get to spend what’s left of his life together for the first time. That freedom would also mean that he can get the help and treatment he truly needs. The truth is, I don’t know how much longer he will be alive. But I do know that even a week with him would mean the world to me. And I know that to watch him die in prison, without clearing his name, would devastate our family even more than the past four decades have.
My father and our family have lived with this injustice for far too long. At this moment, only the president can decide his fate. I hope that President Obama will grant Leonard Peltier clemency before it’s too late.
The prison did not respond to request for comment.
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