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My First Encounter with Leonard Peltier

[Editors’ Note: the following excerpt from HARVEY ARDEN’s book Have You Thought of Leonard Peltier Lately? describes Arden’s first meeting with Peltier in 1997, at a Native American pow-wow, held in the gymnasium at Leavenworth Penitentiary.]

I was driven to Leavenworth by two Peltier supporters who would be attending the prison powwow with me. I can tell you, I physically feared going into Leavenworth, even if only as a visitor. My stomach tied itself in knots at the prospect as the time for my visit approached. It was our first in-person meeting to speak about me editing a book of Leonard’s writings”a book that eventually became PRISON WRITINGS: MY LIFE IS MY SUN DANCE (St. Martins Press, 1999).

I admit to having been properly intimidated by my first sight of Leavenworth”with its 18-foot-high stone walls topped with glinting rolls of razor wire and its silvered dome almost mockingly reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol’s. Two blind lions appropriately guard the main entrance at the top of a long marbled staircase, beneath the gaze of unseen eyes in a three-storey-high dark-windowed guard-tower placed directly in front of the main entranceway.

Something about the place brings to mind a grade B-movie-type prison escape from some old 1930’s Jimmy Cagney or John Garfield flick, with those high walls and the well-tailored, park-like greenswards and the phallic guard tower and the long driveway, beyond which lay “the open Road””that shining phantasm of every prisoner dreaming of escape. Passing through a sequence of separately-opening gates and doors, I was scrutinized and photographed in an admitting room, then passed through a series of metal detectors and sliding steel doors, all under the endlessly scrutinizing eyes of a deadpan gallery of guards. My pockets were empty except for my driver’s license and a pencil stub in my shirt pocket; no one seemed to mind the latter, so I could thankfully jot down a few of Leonard’s word if I needed to. Next, with the other visitors, I was guided up a long tunnel that finally opened out into the prison gymnasium”closely resembling the typical high-school gymnasium, though more bleak and stark somehow, maybe because it was entirely windowless. Windows, I was learning, are a rare luxury here, where the preferred view for residents is a blank wall of steel or cinderblock, painted a pallid tan.

And there, abruptly, was Leonard himself, unmistakable, a big burly man with long black hair, lightly silvered, standing there in a sweatshirt and tan pants and gym shoes on the basketball court, part of a crowd of seventy or eighty similarly dressed Native American inmates who were just then undergoing a methodical head count. Leonard eyed me and I eyed him the moment I entered. There was instant recognition both ways. When the head count ended, he came right over to me.

“Harvey!”

“Leonard!”

We locked eyes like two long-lost brothers. Then Leonard threw his arms around me in a great bear hug and breathed into my ear, ,One mind, Bro,. One Mind!” So, yes, he liked what I,d done to the manuscript. We were eye to eye and soul to soul on that. “I love what you,re doing with the book, Bro,” he said. Turns out he had known Mathew King”Chief Noble Red Man”personally; in fact, it had been Mathew, along with ceremonial Lakota Chief Frank Fools Crow and other Lakota Elders, who had asked members of the American Indian Movement to send warriors to Pine Ridge during the Wounded Knee confrontation in 1973, as they did once again at the time of the Incident At Oglala, in 1975. Back in 1994 I had sent Leonard a copy of the book I had produced of Mathew’s wondrous words: NOBLE RED MAN: LAKOTA WISDOMKEEPER MATHEW KING (Beyond Words Publishers, 1994). When Leonard told me so passionately that he liked how I,d edited his words, that we were One mind, Bro,”my self-confidence momentarily surged. I asked him no more. If he approved what I,d done so far, then there was no problem. I,d simply continue doing it in the same fashion, plus work with Leonard himself”as best I could, given our limited personal contact”on new materials he would write specifically for the book. I felt immense relief at Leonard’s response, of course, but also a sudden sense of awe. What had I gotten myself into?

MEANWHILE, the prison powwow began with two large drum groups beating out those ancient deep rhythms in this unholy place. Circles of dancers, a few in their Indian regalia, took the floor, stomping and swirling. Sage was lit as preliminary prayers were recited in the Lakota language, and we were each smudged, with the sacred smoke. The unholy was, for these few hours, at least, made Holy here in the Leavenworth gymnasium. If you learn anything from Indian People, it’s that the Holy and the Sacred are with us here and now, and that every moment and every place is potentially”even essentially”Holy, or capable of being made so.

As the prison gathering drew to a close toward midafternoon, the inmates bestowed gifts of their own crafts and artwork on the visitors. On the floor was a pile of fist-sized rocks that had been used in the inipi–the prison sweat lodge. Leonard picked two of these up and set them in my hands.

“Here, Harvey, take these–they,re not just ordinary rocks, they,re holy beings–the Rock People, we call them. We talk to them in the inipi–and, would you believe, they talk back to us. Just like Mat King says in Noble Red Man! When the water’s poured on the rocks, they actually start to speak! These rocks are volcanic, filled with holes and fissures, and the water hisses and sizzles when it hits the red-hot rocks; you can actually make out voices! You can hear them! Yes, it happens! It’s true! The rocks are alive. And they have thousands of prayers in them, Harvey. My prayers and the prayers of the brothers in our sweat lodge. Take good care of them, Bro. They,re holy things.” [Leonard has a wonderful chapter about the Leavenworth inipi in his book PRISON WRITINGS: MY LIFE IS MY SUN DANCE].

Even as I stood there directly in front of him with the two Rock People, in my hands, Leonard reached out to me with his own two hands and gently gripped my shoulders; his eyes caught and captured mine.

“Harvey–,” he said softly, his eyes locked intensely on mine, “You need to know this from me personally. I did NOT kill those agents– It’s important you believe that if we,re to work together.”

I nodded my head, returned his intense gaze, and squeezed the two prayer-soaked Rock People, in my hands. Like two witnesses to a sacred bargain, they all but resonated between my fingers. For I time I would keep them on my bookshelf directly above my desk, between two memorial cards for the fallen FBI Special Agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams. Later I would give one of the rocks to an inipi leader who had befriended me. The other I gave to Piscataway Chief, or Sagamore, Billy Tayac (his People’s aboriginal land are on the site where both the White House and the Capitol now stand) during a ceremony at the sacred Piscataway Moyoane burial grounds, just across the Potomac River from George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Billy, an avid supporter of Leonard for decades, placed the sacred Rock Person, from the Leavenworth inipi on the grave of his revered father Turkey Tayac beneath a 300-year-old sacred red cedar tree near the Potomac’s edge at Moyoane.

“This is sacred ground,” Billy told me. “It’s always a ceremony here. That rock will be in good company.”

Now, as I left the Leavenworth gymnasium, guards accompanied me and the other visitors back up the tunnel, and I experienced that strange sense of irreality I get every time I attend these prison powwows and the moment comes to leave at 3 P.M.”how uncanny it seems that I and the other visitors can be so easily and politely escorted out”while the inmates in their tan trousers (visitors are prohibited from wearing tan or khaki pants) stand there below, rooted on the gymnasium floor, calling out sad farewells at us, arms waving, necks craning– Hey, Harvey, next time–, a voice calls out and I don’t even know who’s voice it is; no doubt, one of the guys I,d sat around talking to for most of the powwow, between my few brief chats with Leonard. Moments later I’m back through the series of checkpoints and out the final plate-grass and forged-steel door, walking back down between the two unblinking blind lions toward our parked car and freedom! I feel almost as if I,d escaped!

Yes, freedom! It seems truly magical, almost incandescent, when you,ve just been immersed in its opposite. I never appreciate it so much as when I walk back down those marble steps of Leavenworth. And I was in there for only six hours! Imagine decades! With each step back out into the open world my heart aches palpably for Leonard back there–he, an innocent man, unable to leave–or even to know if he will ever be able to leave. And this heavy sadness resolves into dedication: I will do everything in my personal power to see this man, Leonard Peltier, walk free again.

Yes, that much I can do, and will continue doing.

* * *

A Letter from Leonard Peltier

I’m STILL HERE. I am all at once saddened, exhilarated, angry, proud, defiant, and puzzled by that fact. Here in prison, after 28 years of unjust incarceration, I am a living example of the injustice, racism, fear, and inequity that still exists in some parts of the United States of America. This is particularly true when it comes to America’s views and actions towards Indian people. Residing in the best hopes of all of us is the dream that America has moved away from the days of hostility towards the Indigenous people of this land. And yet, we are shown with daily regularity, a reality that defies this dream. A reality that American Indians are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate. A reality that American Indians are denied decent health care, housing, and education. A reality so dire, that recently the United States Civil Rights Commission has had to address it, calling it “A Quiet Crisis”.

I’m STILL HERE. Events surrounding my case over the last few years have been so fascinating, as to have created an excellent mystery thriller novel. Replete with intrigue, suspicion, manipulation, falsehoods, secret meetings, intimidation, implications, sexual innuendo, and higher aspirations–all in the name of justice, I cannot help but think of what a great movie this would also have made. Maybe one day it still will, time will tell. Suffice to say, my case and all it constitutes will continue to impact the history of this country, and its relations with Native Americans, for generations to come. So far, my story continues to be one of an innocent man, railroaded in a rage of fear and vengeance disguised as justice.

I’m STILL HERE. And for as long as I am, my friends and associates at the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee continue to raise awareness, fund-raise, and coordinate campaigns on my behalf, so that America and the world does not forget about me and my case. Where would I be without friends like HARVEY ARDEN, Arthur Miller, Peter Mattheissen, Andrea Hornbein, David Hill, and so many others I do not have the time or room to name, but have been so crucial in continuing this crusade for Justice? I cannot say for sure, but I imagine I would be much closer to being another faceless person denied of justice, whose identity was forgotten as time went by. It has been a series of small miracles created by a synergy of outstanding individuals. I am so thankful, and you all should be so proud of what you have accomplished.

I’m STILL HERE. And yet, I like to dream or focus on what I would do if and when I win my release. It goes without saying that being with family and loved ones would be a central part of my life for some period of time. And having been away from the daily experiences of this country, perhaps traveling and seeing the developments 28 years can bring would be something I would enjoy. Once acclimated, I do have plans for the future, particularly concerning the ongoing role of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. Some might think that upon my release, the LPDC’s job would be finished. This is not so. In fact, it will merely be a new starting point. There is no doubt a need for an organization that focuses on the incarceration of American Indians, especially those in jail for political reasons. Surely you didn’t think I was the only American Indian political prisoner, did you? This country and the world needs to be made more aware of Indians defying the American government, in accordance with treaty and other laws, and being locked away for it. We need to raise awareness, and secure the release of these brothers and sisters. Further, we would become a bona fide Human Rights organization, linking with other like-minded organizations and individuals, networking and strategizing to create coordinated campaigns on a national and international level. Perhaps we could even help to create world-wide Indigenous initiatives to address colonization, globalization, and the terror they inflict on tribal people around the world.

I’m STILL HERE. I would hope this would resonate in the minds and hearts of every peace-loving person with an abiding sense of justice in their consciousness, throughout the world. It has been said by greater men than me, that as long as any man or woman is in bondage, none of us are free. I have come to understand those words with a clarity I cannot describe. As long as Indian people are held captive to a colonizing and exploiting foreign power, none of us are free. As long as corporate entities have all the rights and privileges of a human being, without the responsibilities and accountability of a human being, none of us are free. As long as anyone is in prison for political reasons, none of us are free. As long as people cannot speak, assemble, or worship freely, none of us are free. As long as injustice and inequity exists, none of us are free. My name is Leonard Peltier, but I draw breath as the living embodiment of a greater cause than just one man’s freedom. Every nation must include as a part of its very fiber and rationalization, a constant demand and vigilance for justice. More than anything, I desire this. I pray for peace and justice. One cannot truly exist without the other.

I’m STILL HERE. Now what are we going to do about it?

(signature)

Leonard Peltier

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