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Growing Up Indian
by Leonard Peltier
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 WiWikuwa, which means "Wind Chases
the Sun" in Lakota. 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.
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
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
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 nation. We
Indians are many nations, but one People. I myself was
brought up on both Dakota and Ojibway reservations in the
land known to you as America. I would like to say with
all sincerity--and with no disrespect--that I don't consider
myself an American citizen. I am a native of Great
Turtle Island. I am of the Ikce Wicasa--the
Common People, the Original People. Our sacred land is
under occupation, and we are now all prisoners--not just me.
Even so, I love being an
Indian, for all of its burdens and all of its
responsibilities. Being an Indian is my greatest
pride. I thank Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery, for
making me Indian. I love my people. If you must
accuse me of something, accuse me of that--being an Indian.
To that crime--and to that crime alone--I plead guilty.
This short story is Chapter 13 of Leonard Peltier's book: PRISON
WRITINGS: MY LIFE IS MY SUNDANCE
TO ORDER: Order copies of PRISON WRITINGS: MY LIFE IS MY SUN DANCE
Copies of the new book ~HAVE YOU THOUGHT of LEONARD PELTIER LATELY?~
--with several new chapters by Leonard himself, can also be ordered at www.haveyouthought.com
Leonard Peltier Defense committee can be reached at:
PO Box 583,
Lawrence, KS 66044.