Durham News: Opinion

Gaspo: Peltier pit stop in Durham

American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, is shown at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. in this April 29, 1999, file photo.
American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, is shown at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. in this April 29, 1999, file photo. JOE LEDFORD

Most people around here have probably never heard of Native American Leonard Peltier.

The Anishinabe-Dakota tribal member’s story is an ongoing civil rights cause to many, including Amnesty International, but to the FBI and many others, the long-imprisoned Peltier is seen as a killer.

In 1977, Peltier was convicted of murdering two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Indian reservation in a shootout made broadly famous by Robert Redford’s film, “Incident at Oglala,” and Peter Matthieeson’s book, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.”

Peltier and his supporters have said for decades that his prosecution was political and deeply flawed. He’s been denied parole repeatedly, even though evidence of misjustice has emerged over the years.

So what does Peltier have to do with Durham? What does he have to do with a broken-down ’80s era Toyota Granville RV? And why was that RV sitting in in the corner of a Durham grocery store lot one day around noon?

There they blared: big, bold, black handwritten words, “FREE LEONARD PELTIER,” on the side of the RV. Next to them, a likeness of Peltier.

Durham drivers slowly rolled by on their way to get milk and muffins. Leonard Peltier?

What I noticed was the tallish woman with her long hair bunched up on her head so she could see better. She was leaning over the hood of the RV, working a wrench in the blazing sun.

Her friend, Josh Borden, stood beside her, but Taylor Pulsifer was doing most of the work. Perspiration soaked through parts of her T-shirt, which had drawings of three puppies beneath the words: “Dogs for Peace.”

I walked up. “So,” I said. “Leonard Peltier.”

“You know about him?” asked Taylor.

“I do. Why is that message on the RV, and where are you guys going?”

“Because he’s innocent,” young 20something Pulsifer said. “We’re getting the word out.”

“It was 40 years ago,” I said.

Pulsifer looked over with sparkling, serious eyes. “It’s never too late for justice.”

Pulsifer grew up in Washington state. A Skokomish Native, as she calls herself. Taylor and three friends have been taking that Granville (along with a more modern pace car in the caravan of two) across the country. Spreading the word.

In between the miles, they ask for the kindness of strangers to help fill up their red plastic jugs with gasoline. They stop here and there to do odd jobs.

The night before I met Taylor, the RV with a broken belt had rattled itself right into the Bull City. The Granville, the group and Taylor’s dog, Isley, had slept under the parking lot lights.

“Folks here talking to you?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” Taylor said. “They want to know about about Leonard’s case.”

Pulsifer knows plenty about conditions in this country, past and present, for Native Americans on their lands. The overall way they’ve been treated over hundreds of years is a national disgrace.

“Leonard was fighting for our rights, “ Pulsifer said. “Now I want to fight for his.”

A man in a station wagon pulled by the RV, rolled down his window. He looked eerily like a younger Leonard Peltier, with the trademark moustache. Like the image on the side of the Granville.

“Is Peltier still alive?” he asked.

“Alive and still locked up,” Pulsifer answered.

“Keep the pressure on,” the man said.

He pulled away. I left to get some cold bottles of water.

I came back and saw Pulsifer down under the engine, on her back on a beach towel.

“Where’d you learn the mechanical skills,” I asked.

“I didn’t,” she said. “I’m winging it.”

“And what do you know about Durham, Taylor?”

“Just about nothing.”

“It’s too bad you can’t stay a while,” I said. “People here would like you, and you’d like them. We speak out a lot.”

“That’s cool,” Pulsifer said. “But the message has to keep moving.”


They tried the RV engine again. It turned over this time.

“Great!” Taylor said. “I can’t believe it’s running.”

“Me, either,” I said.

Now she was in a hurry to go.

“Good luck to you,” I said.”

“Give the luck to Leonard,” Taylor replied.

Soon, the Granville was gone from its way station in Durham. Last I checked, the RV was out of commission and towed to Richmond, Virginia.

The Peltier activist told me they might have to sell the Granville with that mission scrawled on its side. Their money was about gone.

Taylor Pulsifer later checked in and said she was OK with whatever happened. She wrote: “Life’s about connecting with others, right?”


You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.