Prison writings : my life is my sundance /
Leonard Peltier ; edited by Harvey Arden.
1st U.S. ed.
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
xxvi, 243 p. : ill.
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added author
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
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A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Leonard Peltier, who emerged as a Native American leader in the 1960s, was arrested in 1976 in Canada and extradited. He has been in prison ever since and is now confined at Leavenworth. This is his first book.
First Chapter

Chapter One

10:00 P.M. Time for the nightly lockdown and head count. The heavy metal door to my cell lets out an ominous grinding sound, then slides abruptly shut with a loud clang. I hear other doors clanging almost simultaneously down the cellblock. The walls reverberate, as do my nerves. Even though I know it's about to happen, at the sudden noise my skin jumps. I'm always on edge in here, always nervous, always apprehensive. I'd be a fool not to be. You never let your guard down when you live in hell. Every sudden sound has its own terror. Every silence, too. One of those sounds--or one of those silences--could well be my last, I know. But which one? My body twitches slightly at each unexpected footfall, each slamming metal door. Will my death announce itself with a scream or do its work in silence? Will it come slowly or quickly? Does it matter? Wouldn't quick be better than slow, anyway?

    A guard's shadow passes by the little rectangular window on the cell door. I hear his keys jangle, and the mindless squawking of his two-way radio. He's peering in, observing, observing. He sees me sitting here cross-legged in the half-light, hunched over on my bed, writing on this pad. I don't look up at him. I can feel his gaze passing over me, pausing, then moving on, pausing again at the sleeping form of my cellmate snoring softly in the bunk above. Now he goes by. The back of my neck creeps.

    Another day ends. That's good. But now another night is beginning. And that's bad. The nights are worse. The days just happen to you. The nights you've got to imagine, to conjure up, all by yourself. They're the stuff of your own nightmares. The lights go down but they never quite go out in here. Shadows lurk everywhere. Shadows within shadows. I'm one of those shadows myself. I, Leonard Peltier. Also known in my native country of Great Turtle Island as Gwarth-ee-lass--"He Leads the People." Also known among my Sioux brethren as Tate Wikuwa--"Wind Chases the Sun." Also known as U.S. Prisoner #89637-132.

    I fold my pillow against the cinderblock wall behind me and lean back, half sitting, knees drawn up, here on my prison cot. I've put on my gray prison sweatpants and long-sleeved sweatshirt. They'll do for PJs. It's cool in here this late winter night. There's a shiver in the air. The metal and cinderblock walls and tile floors radiate a perpetual chill this time of year.

    Old-timers will tell you how they used to get thrown, buck naked in winter, into the steel-walled, steel-floored Hole without even so much as a cot or a blanket to keep them warm; they had to crouch on their knees and elbows to minimize contact with the warmth-draining steel floor. Today you generally get clothes and a cot and blanket--though not much else. The Hole--with which I've become well acquainted at several federal institutions these past twenty-three years, having become something of an old-timer myself--remains, in my experience, one of the most inhuman of tortures. A psychological hell. Thankfully, I'm out of there right now.

    I'm also out of the heat that used to afflict us until they finally installed air-conditioning in the cellblock about ten years back. Before that Leavenworth was infamous as the Hot House, because there was no air-conditioning here, just big wall-mounted fans that, during the mind-numbing heat of a Kansas hundred-degree summer day, blew the heavy, sluggish, unbreathable air at you like a welding torch, at times literally drying the sweat on your forehead before it could form, particularly on the stifling upper tiers of the five-tier cellblock.

    But we still have the noise, always the noise. I suppose the outside world is noisy most of the time, too, but in here every sound is magnified in your mind. The ventilation system roars and rumbles and hisses. Nameless clanks and creakings, flushings and gurglings sound within the walls. Buzzers and bells grate at your nerves. Disembodied, often unintelligible voices drone and squawk on loudspeakers. Steel doors are forever grinding and slamming, then grinding and slamming again. There's an ever-present background chorus of shouts and yells and calls, demented babblings, crazed screams, ghostlike laughter. Maybe one day you realize one of those voices is your own, and then you really begin to worry.

    From time to time they move you around from one cell to another, and that's always a big deal in your life. Your cell is just about all you've got, your only refuge. Like an animal's cage, it's your home--a home that would make anyone envy the homeless. Different cellblocks in this ancient penitentiary have different kinds of cells, some barred, some--like the one I'm currently in--a five-and-a-half-by-nine-foot cinderblock closet with a steel door. There's a toilet and sink, a double bunk bed, a couple of low wall-mounted steel cabinets that provide a makeshift and always cluttered desktop.

    Right now they've put another inmate in here with me after I'd gotten used to being blissfully alone for some time. He's got the upper bunk and his inert, snoring form sags down nearly to my head as I try to half sit in here with this legal pad on my lap. At least I get the lower bunk because of the bad knee I've had for years. I presume that they put my new cellmate in here with me as a form of punishment--a punishment for both of us, I suppose--though for what, neither he nor I have the slightest idea.

    The first thing you have to understand in here is that you never understand anything in here. For sure, they don't want you ever to get comfortable. Nor do they ever want you to have a sense of security. And, for sure, you don't. Security's the one thing you never get in a maximum-security prison.

    Now, on this chilly night, I toss the rough green army blanket over my knees, and drape a hand towel over the back of my neck to keep the chill off. I keep my socks on under the sheets, at least until I finally go to sleep. On this yellow legal pad purchased at the prison commissary I scrawl as best I can with a pencil stub that somebody's been chewing on. I can barely make out my own handwriting in the semidarkness, but no matter.

    I don't know if anyone will ever read this. Maybe someone will. If so, that someone can only be you. I try to imagine who you might be and where you might be reading this. Are you comfortable? Do you feel secure? Let me write these words to you, then, personally. I greet you, my friend. Thanks for your time and attention, even your curiosity. Welcome to my world. Welcome to my iron lodge. Welcome to Leavenworth.

Chapter Two

I have decided the time has come for me to write, 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 did not commit. I'm now just over fifty-four years old. I've been in here since I was thirty-one. I've been told I must live two lifetimes plus seven years before I get out of prison on my scheduled release date in the year 2041. 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. And maybe I have. 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 Native Americans and all indigenous people around the world 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 know this. My life has a meaning. I refuse to believe that this existence, our time on Mother Earth, is meaningless. I believe that the Creator, Wakan Tanka, has shaped each of our lives for a reason. I don't know what that reason is. Maybe I'll never know. But you don't have to know the meaning of life to know that life has a meaning.

I acknowledge my inadequacies as a spokesman. I acknowledge 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.

    This book is not a plea or a justification. Neither is it an explanation or an apology for the events that overtook my life and many other lives in 1975 and made me unwittingly--and, yes, even unwillingly--a symbol, a focus for the sufferings of my people. But all of my people are suffering, so I'm in no way special in that regard.

    You must understand.... I am ordinary. Painfully ordinary. This isn't modesty. This is fact. Maybe you're ordinary, too. If so, I honor your ordinariness, your humanness, your spirituality. I hope you will honor mine. That ordinariness is our bond, you and I. We are ordinary. We are human. The Creator made us this way. Imperfect. Inadequate. Ordinary.

    Be thankful you weren't cursed with perfection. If you were perfect, there'd be nothing for you to achieve with your life. Imperfection is the source of every action. This is both our curse and our blessing as human beings. Our very imperfection makes a holy life possible.

    We're not supposed to be perfect. We're supposed to be useful .

I realize that I can be moody. That's about all you have left here in prison, your moods. They can gyrate wildly, uncontrollably. You'll find many of those moods in these pages, ranging from near despair to soaring hope, from choking inner rage to everyman's fear and self-doubt. A mood can be overpowering, especially on those days when the endless privations and frustrations of prison life build and build inside me.

    And yet, more and more in recent years, I feel detached from it all and strangely free, even within these enclosing walls and razor wire. I credit that to Sun Dance. A man who has Sun Danced has a special compact with Pain. And he'll be hard to break.

    Sun Dance makes me strong. Sun Dance takes place inside of me, not outside of me. I pierce the flesh of my being. I offer my flesh to the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka. To give your flesh to Spirit is to give your life. And what you have given you can no longer lose. Sun Dance is our religion, our strength. We take great pride in that strength, which enables us to resist pain, torture, any trial rather than betray the People. That's why, in the past, when the enemy tortured us with knives, bullwhips, even fire, we were able to withstand the pain. That strength still exists among us.

    When you give your flesh, when you're pierced in Sun Dance, you feel every bit of that pain, every iota. Not one jot is spared you. And yet there is a separation, a detachment, a greater mind that you become part of, so that you both feel the pain and see yourself feeling the pain. And then, somehow, the pain becomes contained, limited. As the white-hot sun pours molten through your eyes into your inner being, as the skewers implanted in your chest pull and yank and rip at your screaming flesh, a strange and powerful lucidity gradually expands within your mind. The pain explodes into a bright white light, into revelation. You are given a wordless vision of what it is to be in touch with all Being and all beings.

    And for the rest of your life, once you have made that sacrifice of your flesh to the Great Mystery, you will never forget that greater reality of which we are each an intimate and essential part and which holds each of us in an embrace as loving as a mother's arms. Every time a pin pricks your finger from then on, that little pain will be but a tiny reminder of that larger pain and of the still greater reality that exists within each of us, an infinite realm beyond reach of all pain. There even the most pitiable prisoner can find solace.

    So Sun Dance made even prison life sustainable for me.

    I am undestroyed.

    My life is my Sun Dance.

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Unpaid Annotation
Immortalized in Peter Mathiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Leonard Peltier, now in his 24th year of confinement at Leavenworth, was wrongly convicted of the murder of two FBI agents in 1977, and has been doing hard time ever since. Prison Writings, compiled by Peltier over the last few years, tells the extraordinary story of his life -- his impoverished upbringing in the Dakotas, his gradual identification as a leader and Native American warrior during the political upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the tense battles with the government that led to the "Incident at Oglala" (made into a prize-winning movie by Robert Redford).Whether writing about his escape to Canada following Oglala, his capture, or the infamous trial that resulted, Peltier is remarkably philosophical, and even forgiving, his vision a blanket of mercy and compassion.This is a remarkable work that echoes the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and, especially, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Main Description
The most anticipated prison memoir of a generation--the anguished, yet hugely courageous, autobiographical testament by America's most controversial political prisoner.
Table of Contents
Introductionp. ix
A Prayerp. xi
Prefacep. xiii
Author's Forewordp. xxiii
In My Own Voicep. 1
Aboriginal Sinp. 16
My Life Is a Prayer for My Peoplep. 22
The Heart of the Worldp. 26
In the Shadowed Nightp. 27
The Knife of my Mindp. 33
I Am Everyonep. 39
Who I Amp. 41
An Eagle's Cryp. 48
Growing Up Indianp. 59
My Crime's Being an Indianp. 65
Becoming Politicalp. 87
That Day at Oglala: June 26, 1975p. 121
A Life in Hellp. 137
A Message to Humanityp. 199
We Are Not Separatep. 213
Forgivenessp. 214
Differencep. 215
The Messagep. 216
Editor's Notep. 218
Appendicesp. 223
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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