From the publication, The Circle, (1530 E. Franklin St., Minneapolis MN
Ph: 612-879-1760) with the permission of the editor.
It was about 100 years ago when prisoners from the military discipline barracks at Fort Leavenworth were pressed into building a second prison 2.5 miles away. In 1906 the first inmates were housed in the second prison. Today, there are four prisons in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Leavenworth's most famous and recognizable inmate is 52-year-old Native American activist, Leonard Peltier (#89637-132), who is serving two consecutive life sentences in the federal penitentiary. His release date is 2041. Feb 4, 1996 will mark the 20th year Peltier has spent behind bars for a crime many believe he did not commit.
Speaking of his greatest losses he said, "My father (Leo) died five years ago. I didn't even get to his funeral. My brother and sister have also died while I've been in prison."
Leonard was born in Grand Forks ND, Sept. 12, 1944. Although of Ojibwe-Lakota descent, he said, "I won't get enroled because I'm more Indian than they (Bureau of Indian Affairs) will enroll me for."
His parents divorced after WWII and four-year-old Leonard went to live with his grandparents, Alex and Mary Dubois-Peltier, on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, about four miles north of Belcourt.
"We lived in a small log house...about 20' by 15'," he reminisced. "We didn't have running water or electricity. We carried water from a spring about five miles away. Sometimes we got water at a well... that was only about two miles away. We cut and hauled wood. I worked hard and grew strong."
Living with his elders had other advantages, too. "I became a fluent speaker of Ojibwe. As a child I also spoke some Cree, French and Sioux."
Leonard recalled that upon returning to the reservation after a long absence he found himself unable to understand when his father spoke to him in Ojibwe. "But my grandmother arrived half an hour later and when she spoke to me...I understood her perfectly!"
His grandfather died in 1952. "My grandmother was alone. She spoke little English, was trying to raise three young children and living in poverty," Leonard remembered.
About a year after his grandfather passed on, his grandmother went to the BIA to request assistance. "That fall a government car came and we (three children) were taken to the boarding school in Wahpahton ND."
His memories of boarding school are less than pleasant. "It was very strict and harsh. When I tell former reformatory inmates about my boarding school years they say, "Man, that sounds just like the reformatory."
"It wasn't a posted policy but it was well-known that we had to speak English. We couldn't speak our own languages. But," he added with a broad smile, "we did...behind the buildings."
He laughed as he recalled an instructor's attempt to enrich the lives of her Native American students. "Mrs. Horne taught us the different meaning of war paint designs and how great Pocahontas was."
At age 14, Leonard remembers a significant event that had a deep influence on him. "My dad organized community meetings on the reservation and I went along to eat. At one of the meetings an elder woman asked, where are our warriors? Why don't they stand and fight for their starving people? I vowed then that I would be a warrior and I'd always help my people."
After graduating from Wahpahton, he went to Flandreau where he finished the ninth grade. Then he went home to Turtle Mountain.
He'd planned to work in the potato fields to earn money for clothes and return to high school later that year. "But an early fall came...and frost. Then the Red River Valley was hit with a blizzard...the crops were destroyed. So there was no work for me."
In 1958 Turtle Mountain became the third reservation terminated by the federal government. Many families were forced to move into metropolitan "red ghettos."
Leonard's father recognized the value of an education and wanted him to finish school. "But back in Belcourt we didn't have a house to stay in. We were at my Gamma's...my uncles and their wives and kids...I was sleeping in a car and winter was coming...so I quit high school and signed up for art school in Santa Fe. I was denied. I wanted to be an artist and tried again when I was 18. I sure wanted to go to school."
When his mother relocated to Portland, Leonard went to join her. "I saved money for the bus fare...it was only $40.10. When I got to Portland, I had a dime and a phone number and no plans. I was fascinated by the tall buildings and walked around looking at everything. But with no education or skills, I had to go back to the reservation."
When he was about 20 years old, Leonard went to Seattle to look for construction work. He talked with people who were trying to protect their fishing rights. They told him about their struggle. "I got involved," he said with a shrug.
From prison, Leonard has been able to provide for his family and meet his personal expenses through his art sales. His Aunt Eva sets up shows for him and sells the paintings. "Sometimes when I go out to speak for him...I choke up and want to cry." He tells me, "Auntie, you can't go out and cry when you talk about me."
Leonard has nine children (two adopted) and five grand-children. He has a one-year-old grand daughter whom he has not seen yet. "the kids are great...but the grandchildren are beautiful!" he boasted.
In retrospect, Leonard is content with who he is. "I love being an Indian...I love my people. I was fed up with abuse and racism. All my life I'd seen my people treated like the lowest things. My childhood fantasy was to help my people."
But what does Leonard want people to remember about him? "I defended the elders and never harmed our women."