CharlesB at SPAMCNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Wed Dec 6 13:59:39 MST 2000
Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance by Leonard Peltier, St. Martin's Griffin, June
Leonard Peltier tells us in Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance, that he has been
given several names. When he was born, his grandmother said he cried like a little
lion so she named him Leonard because he was lion-hearted. He has also been given his
great-grandfather's name, Wind Chases the Sun. In juxtaposition to that name, which
resounds with being free, the U.S. government has given him the name #89637-132.
Based upon writings done while in prison, the book contains poems, meditations and
narratives of Peltier's life and the incidents leading to his being so named. It shows
us a perspective of life incarceration and it reminds us of myriad injustices that
must be rectified to bring our country to a better state.
For those of you who are not familiar with Peltier's story, briefly, there was a lot
of violence on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, back in the 1970s. Major
mining companies were trying to get uranium and other mineral and gas rights from
tribal land. FBI presence, normally not any greater than in any other part of the
country, was steadily increased, possibly to protect mining company interests and
probably to squelch a growing militant movement among Indians.
Known as AIM * the American Indian Movement was born from anger at the extreme poverty
and prejudice many Indians experience. It included members of many tribes, though
support for the movement varied among Indians * many felt that while supporting their
intentions, they were too militant in their actions.
Peltier, having experienced both that poverty and prejudice, joined the group. He
participated in actions testing treaty rights by occupying deserted government
property so that it would revert to Indian use (successfully at Fort Lawton) and
supporting fishing rights of Northwestern Indians. The national eye was caught by an
occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington D.C. after the
BIA refused to hear grievances brought by elders. The eye of FBI was also caught. AIM
was put on a list that included the Black Panthers and the Weathermen.
Along with the increased FBI presence, there was increased violence. At Pine Ridge,
people slept in their basements so that they wouldn't be killed by bullets coming
through the walls of their homes during the night. Many Indians were killed.
A confrontation occurred between AIM and the FBI at Wounded Knee. Records show that
over 250,000 rounds were fired at the Indians. Two AIM members were killed.
With such violence going on, elders requested protection. Peltier was one of the AIM
members to volunteer. They camped on the Jumping Bulls' property along with women,
children and old people, hoping that the presence of many would deter violence on two
elderly people in a remote location.
On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents approached the camp on the pretext of arresting
someone who had stolen some cowboy boots. Peltier relates hearing gunfire in the
distance and going into action to move the members of the encampment to safety from
what turned out to be not just two, but a veritable army of lawmen. Bullets were
exchanged. When the dust had settled, the two FBI agents and one escaping Indian were
While it is a fact that the two agents were killed, former Attorney General Ramsey
Clark, in his preface to the book, states, "There was absolutely no evidence that
[Peltier] killed anyone * except fabricated and utterly misleading circumstantial
evidence." And this is after enough time has passed that many previously classified
documents have come to light under the Freedom of Information Act.
Someone there that day killed the agents. It may have been a man or a woman;
conspiracy theorists say that it may have been the FBI themselves. Peltier, himself,
says, "I can't believe that the FBI intended the deaths of their own agents." As to
what happened, and why, there is only conjecture.
Four Indians were arrested. One was quickly released, two pled self-defense and were
acquitted, possibly in reaction to the overtly prejudicial trial against them. That
left Peltier. He was not allowed to plead self-defense, nor was the violent situation
on Pine Ridge allowed into evidence. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
No one was arrested for the death of the Indian.
So Peltier has been imprisoned now for almost a quarter of a century. He writes of the
constant fear and constant little cruelties a prisoner must suffer. His writings at
times show the focus of a person who has had life-sensing stimuli removed most of the
time, including the weather, contact with loved ones, plants and animals and,
frequently, even contact with other people. He has been beaten enough times to have
developed a strategy for the best way to bear it * although he is fair and tells of
another guard stopping a beating, noting that there are good people and bad people in
all walks of life.
The Sun Dance is the holiest ritual of the Lakota. It requires painful sacrifice which
leads to spiritual knowledge, and while many dance, only a few pierce themselves. As
part of the effort to kill Indian culture, it was outlawed at the end of the 19th
century but continued clandestinely. No longer illegal, participation has become not
only a holy, but a political act, and members from other tribes have occasionally
participated. Because of the pain of the sacrifice, Peltier, who has pierced himself,
likens his incarceration to the Sun Dance.
Thus, Peltier, has become, through a series of almost Kafkian causes and effects, a
focus for many causes. He represents the injustice that can occur when the justice
system goes awry. He is a victim of police profiling and police brutality. He
represents prejudice against Indians in this country. He represents the effects of
poverty. And ultimately as one of the latest in a long history of crimes against
indigenous people, represents the land theft and genocide of about 60 million people
in North America since Columbus. He says, "I acknowledge my inadequacies as a
spokesman ... You must understand ... I am ordinary." But in contradiction to that, he
says it all when he cries out, "American, when will you live up to your own
Fortunately, many people have become his friends and supporters. In the latest edition
of the newsletter dedicated to his cause, Spirit of Crazy Horse, Bonnie Raitt, Coretta
Scott King and Edward Asner contribute statements. Danielle Mitterand, Archbishop
Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Amnesty International, the Cuban government and the
European Parliment have all called for his release.
His supporters are able to extend Peltier's reach beyond prison so that he can help
his people. He sponsors clothing, food and toy drives, supports women's shelters and
has established a scholarship for Indian law students. Through this work, he has
become more of a warrior now than in his youth.
My grandmother told me that when a Lakota murdered someone, the punishment was for the
killer to go live with the victim's family. The grieving family would make the
killer's life miserable; there would be no greater punishment. At the same time, being
forced to live with each other, eventually both sides would learn to understand each
Peltier writes, "If you, the loved ones of the agents who died at the Jumping Bull
property that day, get some salve of satisfaction out of my being here, then at least
I can give you that, even though innocent of their blood. I feel your loss as my own.
Like you, I suffer that loss every day, every hour. And so does my family ... We've
shared our common grief for 23 years now, your families and mine, so how can we
possibly be enemies? Perhaps it's with you and with us that the healing can start.
You, the agent's families, certainly weren't at fault that day in 1975, and yet you
and they have suffered as much as, even more than any one there ... Let our common
grief be our bond."
* Karen Moy ( Peoples Weekly World)
Karen Moy's great-great-grandfather was one of the signer's of the treaty of 1868.
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