Prison Writings Leonard Peltier Essay

Prison Writings is a book with extremely emotional and potent writing. One can not help but be affected when reading it. Everything that is happening to Leonard Peltier and everything that happened at Pine Ridge are all results of colonialism. On could go so far as to say that if we had never "discovered" this land Leonard would be living peacefully with his family right now. In that way we can connect Morning Girl with the text. Here is a excerpt from Prison Writings:

"My own personal story can't be told, even in this abbreviated version, without going back long before my own birth on September 12, 1944, back to 1890 and to 1876 and to 1851 and, yes, all the way back through all the other calamitous dates in the relations between the red men and white, back to that darkest day of all in human history: October 12, 1492, when our Great Sorrow began" (Peltier, 50).

This shows just how native peoples feel about Columbus. Another book that takes an alternative look at history is A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. This book takes a look at our history from a native point of view starting from the time of Columbus on.

As the book is written by one who is a captive, it is interesting to compare it to The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African as the is a narrative of Equiano's captivity as a slave. It is also interesting to see how different indigenous people react to colonization and captivity by an outside people.

Leonard actually makes direct statements on colonialism:"When the oppressors succeed with their illegal thefts and depredations, it's called colonialism. When their efforts to colonize indigenous peoples are met with resistance or anything but abject surrender, it's called war. When the colonized peoples attempt to resist their oppressions and defend themselves, we're called criminals" (Peltier, 44).

The subtitle of Prison Writings is "my life is my sun dance." Leonard refers to the sun dance several times in the book. It is a ceremony where chosen people endure pain for healing and to get visions. Leonard's spirituality is very important to him, as is the history of his people. Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions is a book which can help the reader understand the background of that spirituality and strength. Another good book for this is Crazy Horse, Strange Man on the Oglalas.

Another theme of this book is the fight of indigenous people to save their homes, culture, dignity, and even lives. Sometimes the fight is just to cope in the world as it is today. Leonard wrote, "We must 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 within" (Peltier, 208). There are two books which follow this struggle in current times like Prison Writings. One is No Telephone to Heaven in which Michelle Cliff describes the fight of indigenous people to free Jamaica. Another is The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. This is a series of short stories based on the Spokan Indian Reservation.

Boulder, Colorado   March 16, 2007

Live theater can be magic.  The goal of actors and directors is to perfect illusion onstage so as to transport the audience into their world; to become one with them, to care about them.  Those moments are sometimes rare but always beautiful.  The illusion of theater, perfected as an art, becomes true magic.

Last night, in a small blackbox theater on an upper floor of the Boulder [Colorado] Museum of Contemporary Art, an audience of about a hundred people witnessed something that far transcended magic and far transcended theater as it is normally experienced.  They witnessed theater become sacred, in the most spiritual, most powerful sense.

Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance, was a book published in 1999 by the Native American political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, with Harvey Arden as his editor.  It is a collection of Peltier's essays, poems, and reflections on his life and his work from within prison walls, his love for his People and cultural traditions, and his understanding that through forgiveness, through "forgiving the unforgivable", comes healing; that forgiveness and fair treatment is the real power within each person.

Peltier's words were originally adapted to solo readings by his editor, devoted friend and supporter, Harvey Arden.  Now, in 2007 and ever-more timely, the words have been adapted to stage by Harvey Arden, Cathie Quigley-Soderman, and Doug Foote, directed by Quigley-Soderman, and produced by Warrior Artists Productions along with the Museum's internal Theater 13.  The production stars Lakota actor, Doug Foote, as Leonard Peltier, and features Doug Foote's Good Feather Drum/Singers (Robert Ironshield, Nick Foote, and Mark Silentbear).  Intermission speakers and singers vary by performance.

Those are the facts.  But what the facts don't depict was last night's opening night performance.  Transcendent magic.  A performance so profound, so powerful, that it brought the audience to tear-flowing, stunned silence followed by a standing ovation.  That 71 year old Harvey Arden stood during intermission, with a talking feather in his hand and tears in his eyes as he spoke authentically of the real power and tragedy of Leonard Peltier, was enough to touch the hearts of everyone there.  Southern Cherokee singer JD Nash stopped in for one night, one intense song, giving his own searing message of choice and hope as a gift to the audience.  Cast singer Mark Silentbear offered up his own composition, Peltier, as a haunting, evocative memory while the Good Feather Drum, singing and playing from time to time, brought the reality and the beauty of the Lakota Traditional Ways alive.  Moreover, the "technicals" were superb with the so-brief historical film clips, back-lit shadow work, and the unique lighting techniques which brought attention and emphasis to the riveting words.

But it was Doug Foote, Wiyaka Waste, from the Standing Rock Lakota Reservation of South and North Dakota who created the greatest miracle.  A champion Fancy Dancer and Ceremonial Singer, fluent in his Lakota language, not long back from being injured during two Tours of Duty in Iraq, Foote is new to lead-acting but obviously not new to pain, individual or collective or cultural.  Doug Foote walked onto that stage but, as was witnessed by everyone there, a gripping, indisputable metamorphosis took place.  As spirit flowed through him, the face, the body language, the soul became Leonard Peltier.  Rarely does an actor obtain this level of transcendence.  But Doug Foote not only managed it but merged the audience right along with him, into the prison cell, the life, into the heart, the song, and into the forgiveness of Leonard Peltier.

It all started during the time of the horrific 1970's Reign of Terror on the Oglala Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, an infamous time of great violence and mutual corruption between tribal officials and U.S. government employees.  Two FBI agents were killed during a gun battle on Reservation land on which numerous Lakota men, women, and children were camped.  A Lakota man was also killed but his death has never been investigated.  Leonard Peltier was convicted of murdering the two FBI agents after everyone else was acquitted as having acted in self-defense.  His was the sole conviction, a conviction based on untruth and hate, a vendetta.

The United States Courts have since admitted that Peltier's conviction of murder was based on incomplete, misleading, withheld, and out-right fraudulent evidence.  The U.S. Prosecutor has even conceded they do not know who actually shot the two FBI agents.

It was the Freedom of Information Act which allowed Peltier's attorneys to discover the lies, manipulation, and deceit perpetrated in his original trial.  Yet, a new trial was denied with the accusation that Peltier, by virtue of his presence at the time of the gun battle, had "aided and abetted" even though that was never defined as to how he might have aided and abetted anything.  Clearly, the government's "own" had been killed and someone must pay.  Peltier didn't shoot those FBI agents but he has sacrificed for it with his life's years.

For 31 years, exactly one-half of his lifetime now, Peltier has been behind prison bars.  Over and over, misconduct and malfeasance on the part of the legal system seems to have permeated every facet of Leonard Peltier's life in prison and his court case.  Yet he remains a model prisoner, establishing numerous humanitarian projects within the prison system as well as back on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The late Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Amnesty International, International Indian Treaty Council, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Sister Helen Prejean, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Mikhail Gorbachev, Gloria Steinem, Wilma Mankiller, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, the Human Rights Commission of Spain, the Belgian Parliament, the European Parliament, and a host of other notables all have worked, petitioned, and pleaded for his release.

Yet, still, the United States government bows to the pressure of vengeful FBI protests and demonstrations and allows this man, now 62 years old and in ill health, to continue to be unfairly imprisoned.

If the FBI had hoped to send a "message" to indigenous people with his imprisonment, they were successful.  But it isn't the message of fear they intended.  In truth, for the American Indian Nations as well as the world at large, the continued imprisonment of Leonard Peltier has shown that the best of humanity is found right in himself, in the nobility of a spirit so confronted with the treachery and ugliness of life that it has transcended and become a beacon and message of hope, courage, and integrity for his People and for all people.  Leonard Peltier has become the Nelson Mandela of America.

For more information on Leonard Peltier,

visit the website of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee,

For more information on Harvey Arden, visit his website,

For more information on Warrior Artists Productions, visit their website at

What: The world premiere of "My Life Is My Sun Dance", written by Leonard Peltier with Harvey Arden

When:  March 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25, 29, 30, 31 and April 1st  2007

Times and Cost:  Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 3:30 p.m.

$25 general admission, $10 Sunday matinee, Thursday night performances are buy one ticket get one free

Where:  Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) 1750 13th Street  Boulder, Colorado

Tickets can be purchased online at, at the museum, or by calling, 303.443.2122

Stephanie M. Schwartz may be reached at

The written words of Stephanie M. Schwartz may be viewed at

Note:  This article has been re-published by

Namaste Magazine - United Kingdom - Volume 10, Issue 1 - Spring 2007

Native Village News – Native Village Publications

My Two Beads Worth News

Brenda Norell: Censored News

And numerous other news organizations and Native American internet newslists and forums

This article may be reprinted and reproduced, unedited, with proper attribution and sourcing

for non-profit, educational, news, or archival purposes.


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