I’m not used to being looked at by a horse. Being Tlingit, born in Alaska and raised in Seattle, I know virtually nothing about them. So as I stood in the circle of people across from the White House on Thursday at the Leonard Peltier Freedom Riders rally, I couldn't help noticing their gazes.
The feeling wasn't at all unpleasant and was even a little exhilarating. Their eyes have a childlike quality I found endearing. I could also sense a certain wisdom that seemed to come from a lifetime of observing humans.
The five horses present had carried their riders all the way from Minnesota to Coleman, Florida, where Leonard Peltier, the 74-year-old Anishinaabe activist and American Indian Movement member is in a maximum security prison serving two consecutive life sentences for murder. From there they carried their riders to Washington, DC to bring a message and a blessing to President Trump to free that aging warrior. The entire journey was over 1,500 miles.
It all began with a dream
The police would not allow the riders to mount their horses at the rally, so they stood beside them holding their reins as the group’s spokesman, Frank Archambault, made some opening remarks.
“We come here today to pay tribute to a brother of ours who's been in prison for almost 43 years. Today we finish our journey that started on July 28. This whole thing started over a man’s dream. It was to ride across the country for another man’s dream of freedom.”
Ken FourCloud was the man with the dream. He had ridden in previous Spirit Rides with the Dakota 38 riders, who every year travel from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota in remembrance of the original Dakota 38. Those Dakota warriors were hanged simultaneously on a huge scaffold in Mankato in 1862 by order of President Lincoln. They had risen up and fought for their people and the government captured and made examples of them.
Both Leonard and Ken are descended from the original Dakota 38, so Ken spoke with his friend and longtime Peltier supporter Julia Fike and together they came up with the idea of holding a similar Spirit Ride for Leonard. But instead of ending in Mankato, this one would start from there and would end three months later in Washington, DC, where I now stood with the horses eyeing me and the rest of the gathering.
Words from an Ojibwe elder, and from a horse
The horses were skittish at first but settled down as the next speaker, Mary Lyons, spoke. Mary is an author, activist and Ojibwe elder from Minnesota who flew in with family members to honor the arrival of the Freedom Riders.
“I’m an elder, a great grandmother, a grandmother, a mother, a sister, an auntie, a friend. I speak all across the globe because I too was in the movement when it began. It still pains me that First Nations people, the Anishinaabe, the people of this land, are still hidden within these walls and our truth is not told. Our brother Leonard, amongst all our other relatives, during that time at Wounded Knee, sacrificed themselves knowing that we were the absent people of this land, that we would suffer. And they chose to surrender themselves, no matter what pack of lies would be bestowed on them.”
At that moment, Ken’s horse, Black Rose, called out loudly. “This is true!” her neighing seemed to say. “This is indeed true!” she said in the language of the horse people. Black Rose is a matriarch among the Freedom Rider’s horses. She is the mother of one of them, Tate Mani, which means Wind Walker, who was born during a blizzard last year.
The spiritual importance of the horse and rider
Mary Lyons continued. “Even our relatives, the four-legged, know this is true, because they too were swept from their lands to be brought onto our land and for our people to care for them as if they were our own brothers and sisters, and not a work animal. So I say thank you,” she said to Black Rose. “You see, there are visions all around us.”
I realized the horses were not dumb animals being used simply as quaint modes of transportation. The Anishinabe view them in a sacred way. Their four legs represent the four directions. Their heads represent above. Their tails represent below. So the rider sits at the center where all things are in balance and related. And as the horse and rider move forward, they create power. It is this power, created during the 1,500-mile journey from Mankato, that the Freedom Riders delivered to the orange-haired man in the White House. And when Black Rose called out, I knew that power was real.
“Our brother has suffered long enough,” Mary Lyons continued. “He's not coming out to start something that he couldn't have started in there. All he wants is peace. He wants to come home to his relatives, to his land, to this place we call freedom. But if this place we call freedom is for all, release Leonard Peltier!”
How Leonard’s example has touched me
After the rally I took the subway home and thought about what Leonard meant to me. In 1992 and 1993 I was in prison for drug offenses. I joined a Native spirituality group called the Tribal Sons and attended sweat lodge. I didn't know who Leonard was back then.
But others in our circle did. They spoke of him with respect. They said he had been in a 1975 firefight with the FBI on Native land in which two agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, as well as AIM activist and Coeur d'Alene warrior Joe Stuntz were killed. They said Leonard became the scapegoat for the FBI deaths and was doing hard time for it. To Native convicts like me, that made Leonard a hero, someone who stood up for his people and was suffering in prison for it.
Prison is hard. No one knew that more than us. That's why we stuck together. To this day I still keep in touch with my brothers in the Tribal Sons. The oppression of Native inmates continues. My friend Robbie, who only last month got married to a good woman while inside, is now sitting in the hole for the next six months on a trumped up drug possession offense lodged by a racist guard.
But Leonard’s done 43 years of hard time. And he's done it for us, for Native people everywhere, because we all suffer behind the walls of oppressive racism and colonialism.
A final prayer
May the power of the Leonard Peltier Freedom Riders: Ken FourCloud, Frank Archambault, Elvis Provost, Dillon Robert, Gregory Payne, Doug Kemp, Bobby Belas and several others and their horses: Black Rose, Raven, Wakinyan, Cannonball, Tate Mani, Lefty and Sasha, free us all.
Aho Mitakuye Oyasin!