The Use of Ceremony as a Symbol for Freedom
Within Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance, Leonard Peltier depicts his time in prison along with several instances of freedom and fighting before his imprisonment. When Peltier was falsely accused and imprisoned, there is no doubt he felt defeated and perhaps lost. However, he still managed to find strength, and even from behind the walls of a prison he is leading his people and working to make the lives of other Native Americans better, even if just by a little bit. Even though his rights are deprived, Peltier still expresses his freedoms through the recollection and use of two recurring ceremonies, the Sun Dance, and the inipi. These ceremonies hold significance to Peltier’s heritage as Oglala Lakota, and give him strength in some of his most desperate times.
Leonard Peltier is a member of the Dakota Sioux tribe. In his young adult life, Peltier became an active member of AIM, the American Indian Movement. During his participation within AIM, Peltier was involved in a small shootout and later arrested on the charges of murder of a federal officer, and sentenced to two lifetimes in prison. Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance covers the events leading up to his arrest and some of his time in prison. While imprisoned, Peltier did not stop his activist participations. He raised money for various Native American causes, and he campaigned for the rights of Native Americans in prison, winning them the right to practice religious and cultural ceremonies just as people of other religions had the ability to do.
One of the ceremonies that Peltier describes extensively in the later part of his memoir is the inipi. The inipi, which roughly translates into “With this to live,” or “To live with this” is a ceremony which takes place within a constructed sweat lodge, often made of canvases or furs (Sander and Wong 194). During the ceremony, what takes place for each individual is different, although the same process is generally followed. As Peltier tells his audience, “I can only say that four times the door is opened and closed, four times the water is poured from the buffalo horn onto the molten rocks” (196). Often the ceremony is used, at least in the context of Peltier’s performance, as a spiritual experience, one that brings them closer to Wakan Tanka, one of their main spiritual deities, and allows him to hear their every prayer (187).
Although there are no specific requirements for time, place, or even purpose, for the performance of the inipi, Peltier presents it as though it were a traditional Sunday morning church meeting: “the inipi makes each Saturday morning feel holy…” (183). Likewise, Sander and Wong state that “the ceremony is a return to the womb of the mother in order to be reborn” (194). Donald Sander and Steven Wong are outsiders and researchers into Oglala culture, though they spent eighteen months learning the methods and practices of the ceremony. Both accounts present a ceremony of deep spiritual significance.
The Sun Dance is a ceremony that encompasses both a large communal ceremony, and a final dance, for the Sun Dancer: “The Oglala make a wide distinction between the ceremony of the Sun Dance and the sun dance itself” (Walker 58). This distinction is quite important, as the communal aspect is just as important as the individual dancer’s purpose. Typically, the dance, “is performed for a dancer who dances for the purpose of becoming a Shaman” (58)—otherwise known as medicine men. These dancers who succeed in their performance are often more highly esteemed than shamans who did not complete the dance. In Peltier’s case, the most prevalent reason he gives for performing the Sun Dance is for strength, and often is recalled in moments of pain or fear. James Walker, a researcher on Oglala cultural practices, lists that the purposes are to “fulfill a vow, secure supernatural aid for another. To secure supernatural aid for self. To secure supernatural powers for self” (60). With that in mind, Peltier’s usage and recollection of the Sun Dance for his own purposes fit the originally intended purposes of the Sun Dance ceremony and dance.
The performance of the individual’s Sun Dance varies depending on culture and tribe. The dance often includes circling a central pole, while holding a pipe in one’s mouth, directed up towards the top of the pole. The dancer must circle until he or she has a vision granted to them by one of the great spirits (85). Although there is certainly more to the dance than this, this is the only information known to outside researchers.
Both ceremonies, the inipi and the Sun Dance, involve finding and harboring a deeper connection between people: “The ceremony of the Sun Dance was given for the benefit of both the dancer and the people and could not be carried out without the participation of the latter” (58). In addition, the ceremonies connect participants to their deity and are “a spiritual experience, one that brings them closer to Wakan Tanka” (Peltier 187). For Leonard Peltier, both ceremonies work to bring him freedom, and even a sense of strength, throughout his struggles.
Towards the later part of Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance, Peltier describes the inipi ceremony and how it affects his concept of freedom. Peltier and his fellow Native American inmates were not allowed to practice any of their religious ceremonies, but he fought for this basic human right. Finally the United States government allowed the inipi “because of years and years of struggle in the courts, which finally ruled that Native Americans in prison have at least limited religious rights” (189-190). It was this small victory in his life sentence that gave Peltier a feeling of freedom. Despite the fact that they were locked into their lodge until the ceremony was done, or the guards called for them to be done, generally the latter, Peltier still looked forward to his Saturday morning ceremonies: “we go no matter what the weather is like… Nothing stops us if we can help it” (189). This deep spiritual devotion that Peltier and his brothers hold gives a sense of freedom through spirituality—having one’s spirit able to soar away even if the body remains physically behind.
Peltier not only used the inipi as means of achieving a right based on the United States Constitution, but he also used it in a sense of unification, a freedom found only in the bonds of brotherhood. Peltier finds fellowship and a fraternal bond with the other Native American men at Leavenworth, to the point where they keep each other informed about the conditions and whether or not the ceremony is on: “One of the bros calls down the corridor, ‘hey Weather’s clear…’” (190). While only one of many examples, Peltier refers numerous times to his fellow Native American inmates as “bros” or brothers. In a sense they created a new family, albeit a small and limited one. They are united in both their beliefs and their bonds that otherwise would have been stripped of them. Gaining the right to practice the inipi in Leavenworth, Peltier not only granted him and his immediately present brothers a sense of freedom, but also a sense of freedom across the nation, as the United States government had to grant the right for Native Americans to practice their religions across the country, a large improvement over the total deprivation of rights that existed before this occurrence. Both the connection to a family, or other people, and a deepened spiritual connection, work together to also pave the way for Peltier’s Sun Dance recollections.
Throughout his memoir, Peltier references his Sun Dance numerous times, almost always in time of some sort of need. Whether he is need of physical assistance or strength, or mental guidance, he often calls upon this important ceremony to fulfill those needs and revitalize himself. When Peltier is first arriving at Leavenworth Prison, he describes looking to one of the guards: “When I turned to one of the marshals who was leading me up the stairs, hoping to din some glint of human warmth in his eyes, I saw, instead, not a face at all, but a mask of absolute hatred” (155). Peltier informs the audience that he is afraid, undeniably so. Even if he only explicitly states that he is afraid once, it is clear from his word choice and description of himself—“A cold chill ran up the back of my neck” (154) and “your mind begins to play tricks on you” (155)—that he is terrified of whatever may happen to him once he sets foot inside Leavenworth. Despite this fear, Peltier still manages to focus, and remember the teachings of the Sun Dance: “My breath came back. My mind flashed with bright images of Sun Dance, of the Holy Tree of Life connecting me to the world” (156). Even in moments where his hope is fleeting and he is terrified for his wellbeing, Peltier returns to the sacred ceremony of the Sun Dance. Through this recollection, he finds his strength and draws on it, turning the situation on its head, and effectively terrifying the guard: “He just stood there, eyes wide, staring back me in alarm and—yes—in fear!” (157). For Peltier, the lasting effects of the Sun Dance are empowering.
Performing the inipi and recalling the Sun Dance, the centers of Oglala Lakota culture and practice, give Leonard Peltier a sense of freedom, even from behind barbed wire fences. And, they give him relief from and strength to endure his unending trials, whether they be physical, mental, or literal.
Peltier, Leonard. Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance. Edited by Harvey Arden, St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Walker, James R. The Sun Dance and other Ceremonies of the Oglala Division of the Teton Dakota. Vol. 16. 1917.
Sander, Donald F., and Steven H. Wong. The Sacred Heritage: The Influence of Shamanism on Analytical Psychology. Routledge, 2013.