WELCOME TO LEAVENWORTH
an excerpt from
HAVE YOU THOUGHT of LEONARD PELTIER LATELY?
By Harvey Arden
(this describes Harvey's first meeting with Leonard in 1997, at a Native American 'pow-wow' held in the gymnasium at Leavenworth Penitentiary)
THE NEXT DAY I WAS driven to Leavenworth by two Peltier supporters who would be attending the prison powwow with me. I can tell you, I physically feared going into Leavenworth, even if only as a visitor. My stomach tied itself in knots at the prospect as the time for my visit approached. It was our first in-person meeting to speak about me editing a book of Leonard's writings-a book that eventually became PRISON WRITINGS: MY LIFE IS MY SUN DANCE (St. Martins Press, 1999).
I ADMIT TO HAVING BEEN properly intimidated by my first sight of Leavenworth-with its 18-foot-high stone walls topped with glinting rolls of razor wire and its silvered dome almost mockingly reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol's. Two blind lions appropriately guard the main entrance at the top of a long marbled staircase, beneath the gaze of unseen eyes in a three-storey-high dark-windowed guard-tower placed directly in front of the main entranceway. Something about the place brings to mind a grade B-movie-type prison escape from some old 1930's Jimmy Cagney or John Garfield flick, with those high walls and the well-tailored, park-like greenswards and the phallic guard tower and the long driveway, beyond which lay "the open Road"-that shining phantasm of every prisoner dreaming of escape. Passing through a sequence of separately-opening gates and doors, I was scrutinized and photographed in an admitting room, then passed through a series of metal detectors and sliding steel doors, all under the endlessly scrutinizing eyes of a deadpan gallery of guards. My pockets were empty except for my driver's license and a pencil stub in my shirt pocket; no one seemed to mind the latter, so I could thankfully jot down a few of Leonard's word if I needed to. Next, with the other visitors, I was guided up a long tunnel that finally opened out into the prison gymnasium-closely resembling the typical high-school gymnasium, though more bleak and stark somehow, maybe because it was entirely windowless. Windows, I was learning, are a rare luxury here, where the preferred view for residents is a blank wall of steel or cinderblock, painted a pallid tan.
AND THERE, ABRUPTLY, was Leonard himself, unmistakable, a big burly man with long black hair, lightly silvered, standing there in a sweatshirt and tan pants and gym shoes on the basketball court, part of a crowd of seventy or eighty similarly dressed Native American inmates who were just then undergoing a methodical head count. Leonard eyed me and I eyed him the moment I entered. There was instant recognition both ways. When the head count ended, he came right over to me.
"Harvey!" "Leonard!"We locked eyes like two long-lost brothers. Then Leonard threw his arms around me in a great bear hug and breathed into my ear, 'One mind, Bro'. One Mind!" So, yes, he liked what I'd done to the manuscript. We were eye to eye and soul to soul on that. "I love what you're doing with the book, Bro," he said. Turns out he had known Mathew King-Chief Noble Red Man-personally; in fact, it had been Mathew, along with ceremonial Lakota Chief Frank Fools Crow and other Lakota Elders, who had asked members of the American Indian Movement to send warriors to Pine Ridge during the Wounded Knee confrontation in 1973, as they did once again at the time of the 'Incident At Oglala' in 1975. Back in 1994 I had sent Leonard a copy of the book I had produced of Mathew's wondrous words: NOBLE RED MAN: LAKOTA WISDOMKEEPER MATHEW KING (Beyond Words Publishers, 1994). When Leonard told me so passionately that he liked how I'd edited his words, that we were 'One mind, Bro'-my self-confidence momentarily surged. I asked him no more. If he approved what I'd done so far, then there was no problem. I'd simply continue doing it in the same fashion, plus work with Leonard himself-as best I could, given our limited personal contact-on new materials he would write specifically for the book. I felt immense relief at Leonard's response, of course, but also a sudden sense of awe. What had I gotten myself into?
MEANWHILE, the prison powwow began with two large drum groups beating out those ancient deep rhythms in this unholy place. Circles of dancers, a few in their Indian regalia, took the floor, stomping and swirling. Sage was lit as preliminary prayers were recited in the Lakota language, and we were each 'smudged' with the sacred smoke. The unholy was, for these few hours, at least, made Holy here in the Leavenworth gymnasium. If you learn anything from Indian People, it's that the Holy and the Sacred are with us here and now, and that every moment and every place is potentially-even essentially-Holy, or capable of being made so.
As the prison gathering drew to a close toward midafternoon, the
inmates bestowed gifts of their own crafts and artwork on the visitors. On
the floor was a pile of fist-sized rocks that had been used in the inipi-the
prison sweat lodge. Leonard picked two of these up and set them in my
Even as I stood there directly in front of him with the two 'Rock
People' in my hands, Leonard reached out to me with his own two hands and
gently gripped my shoulders; his eyes caught and captured mine.
NOW, AS I LEFT the Leavenworth gymnasium, guards accompanied me and the
other visitors back up the tunnel, and I experienced that strange sense of
irreality I get every time I attend these prison powwows and the moment
comes to leave at 3 P.M.-how uncanny it seems that I and the other visitors
can be so easily and politely escorted out-while the inmates in their tan
trousers (visitors are prohibited from wearing tan or khaki pants) stand
there below, rooted on the gymnasium floor, calling out sad farewells at
us, arms waving, necks craning. 'Hey, Harvey, next time.' a voice calls out
and I don't even know who's voice it is; no doubt, one of the guys I'd sat
around talking to for most of the powwow, between my few brief chats with
Leonard. Moments later I'm back through the series of checkpoints and out
the final plate-grass and forged-steel door, walking back down between the
two unblinking blind lions toward our parked car and freedom! I feel almost
as if I'd escaped!
Yes, that much I can do, and will continue doing.
An excerpt by Leonard Peltier from HAVE YOU THOUGHT OF LEONARD PELTIER LATELY? appears here: "I'm Still Here"
Harvey Arden with Edna
Gordon of Voice of a Hawk Elder
Harvey Arden was a National Geographic staff writer for over 23 years. He has continued to pursue his desire to collaborate with extraordinary people to share their stories, life lessons, and messages as an author and editor.