Comment on this article

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 inspiration--there
      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 "lion-hearted."
      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



HOW TO ORDER:  Order copies of PRISON WRITINGS: MY LIFE IS MY SUN DANCE at  Copies of the new book ~HAVE YOU THOUGHT of LEONARD PELTIER LATELY?~ --with several new chapters by Leonard himself, can also be ordered at


The Leonard Peltier Defense committee can be reached at:
PO Box 583,
Lawrence, KS  66044.

Return to:

[New] [Archives] [Join] [Contact Us] [Poetry in Motion] [Store] [Staff] [Guidelines]