Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls
Leonard Peltier's Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance
"A deeply moving and very disturbing
story of a gross miscarriage of justice and an eloquent cri de
coeur of Native Americans for redress and to be regarded as
human beings with inalienable rights guaranteed under the United
States Constitution as any other citizens. We pray that it does
not fall on deaf ears. America owes it to herself."
extracts from Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance by
Edited by Harvey Arden
Copyright 1998 by Crazy Horse Spirit, Inc.
& Arden Editorial Services, L.L.C.
Martin's Press, 1999
available on a CD
The time has come for me to set forth in
words my personal testament-not because I'm planning to die, but
because I'm planning to live.
This is the twenty-third year of my imprisonment for a crime I
didn't commit. I'm now fifty-four years old. I've been in here
since I was thirty-one. I've been told I have to live out two
lifetime sentences plus seven years before I get out of prison
in the year Two Thousand and Forty One. By then I'll be
ninety-seven. I don't think I'll make it.
My life is an extended agony. I feel like I've lived a hundred
lifetimes in prison already. But I'm prepared to live thousands
more on behalf of my people. If my imprisonment does nothing
more than educate an unknowing and uncaring public about the
terrible conditions Indian people continue to endure, then my
suffering has had - and continues to have - a purpose. My
people's struggle to survive inspires my own struggle to
survive. Each of us must be a survivor. I acknowledge my
inadequacies as a spokesman, my many imperfections as a human
being. And yet, as the Elders taught me, speaking out is my
first duty, my first obligation to myself and to my people. To
speak your mind and heart is Indian Way. In Indian Way, the
political and the spiritual are one and the same. You can't
believe one thing and do another. What you believe and what you
do are the same thing. In Indian Way, if you see your people
suffering, helping them is an absolute necessity. It's not a
social act of charity or welfare assistance; it's a spiritual
act, a holy deed. I have no apologies, only sorrow. I can't
apologize for what I haven't done. But I can grieve, and I do.
Every day, every hour, I grieve for those who died at the Oglala
firefight in 1975 and for their families - for the families of
FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams and, yes, for the
family of Joe Killsright Stuntz - a 21-year-old bravehearted
Indian whose death from a bullet at Oglala that same day, like
the deaths of hundreds of other Indians at Pine Ridge at that
terrible time, has never been investigated. My heart aches in
remembering the suffering and fear under which so many of my
people were forced to live at that time, the very suffering and
fear that brought me and the others to Oglala that day - to
defend the defenseless. And I'm filled with an aching sorrow,
too, for the loss to my own family because, in a very real way,
I also died that day. I died to my family, to my children, to my
grandchildren, to myself. I've lived out my own death for nearly
a quarter of a century now. Those who put me here and keep me
here knowing of my innocence can take grim satisfaction in their
sure reward - which is being who and what they are. That's as
terrible a reward as any I could imagine.
I know who and what I am. I am an Indian - an Indian who dared
to stand up to defend his people. I am an innocent man who never
murdered anyone nor wanted to. And, yes, I am a Sun Dancer.
That, too, is my identity. If I am to suffer as a symbol of my
people, then I suffer proudly. I will never yield.
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 know that inconsolable grief. We Indians are born, live and
die with inconsolable grief. We've shared our common grief for
twenty-three years now, your families and mine, so how can we
possibly be enemies anymore? Maybe it's with you and with us
that the healing can start. You, the agents' families, certainly
weren't at fault that day in 1975, any more than my family was,
and yet you and they have suffered as much as, even more than,
anyone there. It seems it's always the innocent who pay the
highest price for injustice. It's seemed that way all my life.
To the still - grieving Coler and Williams families I send my
prayers if you will have them. I hope you will. They are the
prayers of an entire people, not just my own. We have many dead
of our own to pray for, and we join our prayers of sorrow to
yours. Let our common grief be our bond. I state to you
absolutely that, if I could possibly have prevented what
happened that day, your menfolk would not have died. I would
have died myself before knowingly permitting what happened to
happen. And I certainly never pulled the trigger that did it.
May the Creator strike me dead this moment if I lie. I cannot
see how my being here, torn from my own grandchildren, can
possibly mend your loss.
I swear to you, I am guilty only of being an Indian. That's why
I'm here. Being who I am, being who you are - that's Aboriginal
We each begin in innocence.
We all become guilty.
In this life you find yourself guilty of being who you
Being yourself, that's Aboriginal Sin,
the worst sin of all.
That's a sin you'll never be forgiven for.
We Indians are all guilty,
guilty of being ourselves.
We're taught that guilt from the day
We learn it well.
To each of my brothers and each of my
sisters, I say, be proud of that guilt.
You are guilty only of being innocent,
of being yourselves,
of being Indian,
"Let us love not only our sameness
but our unsameness.
In our difference is our strength.
Let us be not for ourselves alone
but also for that Other
who is our deepest Self.
"We are not separate beings, you and I.
We are different strands of the same Being.
You are me and I am you
and we are they and they are us.
This is how we're meant to be,
each of us one,
each of us all.
You reach out across the void of Otherness to me
and you touch your own soul!
© Leonard Peltier
"I suppose every man proclaims himself
innocent, whether innocent or not.
But, I tell you, even the guilty are human. And, as for the
innocent who are branded as guilty, theirs is a special agony
beyond all comprehension.
Somehow Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila, the Great Mystery, finds sense
and meaning in all of this.
Do the stars have a meaning? Then my life has a meaning."
"We must each be an army of one in the
endless struggle between the goodness we are all capable of and
the evil that threatens us all from without as well as from
within. Yes, we can each be an army of one. One good man or one
good woman can change the world, can push back the evil, and
their work can be a beacon for millions, for BILLIONS. Are you
that man or woman? If so, may the Great Spirit bless you. If
not, WHY NOT? We must each of us be that person. That will
transform the world overnight. That would be a miracle, yes, but
a miracle within our power, our healing power."
"Maybe it seems presumptuous, even
absurd - a man like me, in prison for two lifetimes, speaking of
leading his people. But, like Nelson Mandela, you never know
when you will suddenly and unexpectedly be called upon. He, too,
knows what it's like to sit here in prison, year after year,
decade after decade. I try to keep myself ready if ever I'm
needed. I work at it within these walls, with my fellow inmates,
with my supporters around the world, with people of good will
everywhere. A strong leader shows mercy. He compromises for the
good of all. He listens to every side and never makes hasty
decisions that could hurt the people. I'm trying very hard to be
the kind of leader I myself could respect.
So, in our way, my names tell me and others who I am. Each of my
names should be an inspiration to me. Here at Leavenworth - in
fact anywhere in the U.S. prison system - my official name is
#89637-132. Not much imagination, or inspiration, THERE."
"Like most Indian people, I have several names. In Indian
Way, names come to you in the course of your life, not just when
you're born. Some come during childhood ceremonies; others are
given on special occasions throughout your life. Each name gives
you a new sense of yourself and your own possibilities. And each
name gives you something to live up to. It points out the
direction you're supposed to take in this life. One of my names
is Tate Wikuwa, which means "Wind Chases the Sun" in
Dakota language. That name was my great-grandfather's. Another
name, bestowed on me by my Native Canadian brethren, is
Gwarth-ee-lass, meaning "He Leads the People."
I find special inspiration in both of those names. The first, to
me, represents total freedom - a goal even most of those outside
prison walls never achieve. When I think that name to myself -
Wind Chases the Sun - I feel free in my heart, able to melt
through stone walls and steel bars and ride the wind through
pure sunlight to the Sky World. No walls or bars or rolls of
razor wire can stop me from doing that. And the second name - He
Leads the People - to me, represents total commitment, a goal I
strive for even within these walls, reaching out as best I can
to help my people."
My Christian name, though I don't consider myself to be a
Christian, is Leonard Peltier. The last name's French from the
French fur hunters and voyageurs who came through our country
more than a century ago, and I take genuine pride in that holy
blood, too. The name is a shortening of Pelletier, but has come
to be pronounced, in the American fashion, Pel-teer. My first
name was given to me by my grandmother, who said I cried so hard
as a baby that I sounded like a "little lion." She
named me Leonard, she said, because it sounded like
"lion-hearted." I don't know how she figured that out,
but years later I looked it up in a dictionary of names and
found that Leonard literally means "lion-hearted.
Though my bloodline is predominantly Ojibway and Dakota Sioux, I
have also married into, and been adopted in the traditional way
by, the Lakota Sioux people. All the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people
- also known as Sioux - are one great nation of nations. We
Indians are many nations, but one People. I myself was brought
up on both Sioux and Ojibway (Chippewa) reservations in the land
known to you as America."
No doubt, my name will soon be among the list
of our Indian dead. At least I'll have good company - for no
finer, kinder, braver, wiser, worthier men and women have ever
walked this Earth than those who have already died for being
Indian. Our dead keep coming at us, a long, long line of dead,
ever-growing, never-ending. To list all their names would be
impossible, for the great majority died unknown, unacknowledged.
Yes, the roll call of our Indian dead needs to be cried out, to
be shouted from every hilltop in order to shatter the terrible
silence that tries to erase the fact that we ever existed.
I would like to see a redstone wall like the blackstone wall of
the Vietnam War Memorial. Yes, right there on the Mall in
Washington, D.C. And on that redstone wall-pigmented with the
living blood of our people (and I would happily be the first to
donate that blood) - would be the names of all the Indians who
ever died for being Indian. It would be dozens of times longer
than the Vietnam Memorial, which celebrates the deaths of fewer
than 60,000 brave lost souls. The number of our brave lost souls
reaches into the many millions, and every one of them remains
unquiet until this day.
Yes, the voices of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, of Buddy Lamont
and Frank Clearwater, of Joe Stuntz and Dallas Thundershield, of
Wesley Bad Heart Bull and Raymond Yellow Thunder, of Bobby
Garcia and Anna Mae Aquash... those and so, so many others.
Their stilled voices cry out at us and demand to be heard.
People often ask me what my position is, or was, in AIM - the
American Indian Movement. That requires an explanation.
AIM is not an organization. AIM, as its name clearly says, is a
movement. Within that movement organizations come and go. No one
person or special group of people runs AIM. Don't confuse AIM
with any particular individual or individuals who march under
its banner - however worthy or unworthy they may be. AIM is the
People. AIM will be there when every one of us living today is
gone. AIM will raise new leaders in every generation. Crazy
Horse belonged to AIM. Sitting Bull belonged to AIM. They belong
to us still, and we belong to them. They're with us now. One
other point I want to make about AIM. There are no followers in
AIM. We are all leaders. We are each an army of one, working for
the survival of our people and of the Earth, our Mother.
This isn't rhetoric. This is commitment. This is who we are.
Yes, we can each be an army of one. One good man or one good
woman can change the world, can push back the evil, and their
work can be a beacon for millions, for billions. Are you that
man or woman? If so, may the Great Spirit bless you. If not, why
not? We must each of us be that person. That will transform the
world overnight. That would be a miracle, yes, but a miracle
within our power, our healing power.
My legal appeals for a new trial will continue. We also continue
to seek parole or Presidential clemency. In late 1993, and again
in 1998, the U.S. Parole Commission rejected my appeal for
parole, telling me to apply again in the year 2008. The simple
act of changing my "consecutive" life-sentences to
"concurrent" life-sentences - a change of one word -
would give me my freedom and return to me at least a part of my
life, if only my old age. I pray the Parole Commission will make
that one-word change.
My appeals attorney, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark,
submitted in November 1993 a formal application for executive
clemency from President Clinton, meaning not a pardon but a
Presidential order giving me simple release from prison for
"time served." This, apparently, is my best hope of
freedom. The request was turned over for review to the
Department of Justice, which must make a formal recommendation
to the President after reviewing my case. Nearly five imprisoned
years later I still await that recommendation. I pray hard it
will come soon. I pray an eagle will fly off the flagstaff in
the President's Oval Office and at last deliver that
long-delayed recommendation from the Attorney General's desk to
the President's desk. And while the President sits there
considering this innocent Indian man's appeal for clemency, I
pray that that eagle will stand there on his desk, stare into
his eyes, and join its cry to the cry of the millions of people
around the world who have written to the President, appealing
for my release. With all my heart I personally appeal to him for
his consideration and for his compassion. I am an Indian man. My
only desire is to live like one.
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse
Copyright 1998 by Crazy Horse Spirit, Inc.
& Arden Editorial Services, L.L.C.
if you would like more information.
Other books by Harvey Arden include:
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse