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Bending the Bars

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Leonard Peltier's spirit flies free in his newly published prison memoirs

By Jonah Raskin

With the exception of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther on Pennsyl-vania's death row, Leonard Peltier is probably the best-known prisoner in America today. Convicted of the murder of two FBI agents in South Dakota on June 28, 1975, and currently serving two consecutive life terms at the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., Peltier has insisted all along on his innocence.

Every scrap of evidence that has turned up in the government's own documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act suggests that he is in fact not guilty. As Ramsey Clark--Peltier's lead attorney--makes clear in the preface to the newly published Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance (St. Martin's; $23.95), the case against Peltier is irrevocably tainted by false testimony, false reports, false witnesses, and gross government misconduct.

But when FBI agents are killed by gunfire on an Indian reservation, someone has to pay the penalty, and, as a longtime, high-profile activist in the American Indian Movement, Peltier was the perfect fall guy. Or so the government hoped. Though Peltier has spent the past 24 years behind bars, he hasn't been silenced or intimidated, and certainly not broken in spirit, as Prison Writings makes abundantly clear.

Peltier is an able jailhouse lawyer, and in his new book--which is a spiritual biography, a political manifesto, and a wild chant--he does an eloquent job of arguing the merits of his own case. Without resorting to slogans or clichéd rhetoric, he describes the violent events that unfolded at Oglala and led to his arrest. He also places "The Incident at Oglala" in a larger historical context and shows that it's yet another in an ongoing series of attempts to obliterate the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas.

Prison Writings is an effective public relations piece, and at the end of the book, the editor, Harvey Arden, provides the address of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee for those who want to lend their support to the worldwide campaign for clemency.

BUT HOW MERITORIOUS are Peltier's writings in the field of prison literature, which has grown immensely ever since the publication of Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice in 1968? Like many inmates, including Cleaver and Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose prison writings are collected under the title Live from Death Row, Peltier writes powerfully and poetically about time and space, including his own prison cell and solitary confinement in which he feels as though he's falling through space.

"You don't do time," he writes in the first section of the book, called "In My Own Voice." And he goes on to explain: "You do without it. Or rather, time does you. Time is a cannibal that devours the flesh of your years day by day, bite by bite." Peltier describes himself as a warrior, not a victim, but he also reveals his wounds and his vulnerability. With breathtaking candor, he says that a part of him died at Oglala a quarter of a century ago, and that he's been in agony ever since.

WHAT MAKES this book different from other volumes of recent prison writings is, of course, the fact that Peltier is an Indian with a strong sense of Native American spirituality. One of the most vivid descriptions in the book is of a sacred ceremony that takes place inside the walls of the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth.

The Indian inmates build a fire, share a pipe, beat a drum, and sit naked together while armed prison guards watch them from a tower.

The purpose of that sweat-lodge ceremony is spiritual healing--a sense of regeneration and rebirth--and while Peltier has written this book in part to promote his own cause, he has also written it to bring about what he calls "The Great Healing."

Miraculously, Prison Writings does bring about a sense of healing. The book takes you inside the prison, inside the pain. You feel pierced by Peltier's prose and by his poems, too, which he calls "arrows of meanings."

But you come away feeling that Peltier is a medicine man, and that his prison writings belong to the literature of redemption for all of humanity.


Jonah Raskin is professor of communications studies at Sonoma State University and the author of The Life and times of Abbie Hoffman, among other books.

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From the July 22-28, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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