Part Three – The Legacy of Wounded Knee
Chapter 15 – Power in the Law
By Ghost Dancer
Only twice have I ever been allowed to represent a case in court during a trial. Both times I won. The first was on my right to pray, wear long hair, have a pipe ceremony, and my general rights to freedom of religion. This first case was started when I was 18 years old and being held in a mental hospital. They would not give me an ink pen, so I wrote my pro se motion to the court on a piece of plain paper with a stubby little pencil.
I explained to the judge why I was having to do it this way and he understood. By filing a pro se motion I did not have to be exact in my style and the court has to allow me lee way and must not apply usual court formats. In addition, the court must be very lenient in interpreting my claims. I remembered this from my high school days when I was studying business law, civil law and international law. Since this law suit was under civil law, then I knew I could do this. In civil law you don’t have to have as much evidence to prove a case.
I filed this first in 1976 against the mental hospital for denying my religious rights. Later when I was placed in a mental hospital again, this case was already moving along and when I was transferred back to jail, I amended the case to include the Cullman County jail and the Alabama Department of corrections. The fact of the matter is, at that time prisoners in federal and state prisons had no rights to traditional religious practices or ceremonies. At first the court was not going to allow this but I argued that since I was already convicted I was in all senses a state prisoner and was just waiting to be transferred to prison.
My inspiration and guidance to proceed with my lawsuit came through people I had come to know during my summers with AIM. At that time the publication, Indian Country Today, was deeply involved in helping incarcerated Natives across the country stay connected providing subscription information for numerous regional newsletters and articles with coded information embedded in them regarding specific abuses. There was also Arrows, Native American Radio out of Oklahoma that targeted state and federal prisoners. Their live broadcasts facilitated direct communication between inmates and their families. Of those involved in the fight for religious freedom I was the only one from the deep Southeast which was considered to be the most dangerous place of all.
There were five of us in all: Terry Bear Ribs, Lakota, Standing Rock Reservation filed in Lompoc, CA. Then there was me in Alabama; Eric Wildcat Hall, Cherokee, out of Qualla Boundary, NC and Allan Morrisette, Cree, from Ft. Belknap, MT and another man, Sean King, Apache joined us at the end.
Some AIM members such as my friend, Barbara Owl actually travelled the country visiting the different activists to personally collect and deliver communications. For instance she may visit me in Alabama and then take off driving to Oklahoma to visit another participant, then hop a plane to California.
Many people from across the world reached out to me with letters of support and encouragement for what we were doing. Support groups were formed and they provided all types of information by going to museums and getting them to provide me with copies of documents most people in America had never even heard of . Even students at universities around the world became my friends and sent me letters, photos, and information I was seeking.
For each of our cases, Big Tree, Nan-ta-shay, Lenny Foster, Jake Snake, and Art Solomon all filed Amicus Curiae, friends of the court, third party support. We also had Archie Fire Lame Dear, a spiritual leader and AIM activist from South Dakota to give expert testimony on Native American religions.
The federal courts across the country consolidated all our similar cases. We received support from the Native American Rights fund and legal assistance from attorneys, John and Walter Echo-Hawk out of the Law Center in Washington, DC. The combined case was filed in federal court, Lompoc CA in 1977 & won. Our win for freedom of religion was not only for incarcerated Natives, but for all Natives on the outside as well. The Native American Freedom of Religion Act was passed by congress and signed into law by President Carter on August 11, 1978. Archie Fire Lame Deer Built the first prison sweat lodge at Lompoc in 1977.
American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) Became law on August 11, 1978 to “Protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”
Of course the prison officials were not happy about the legal action I was taking and the guards consistently gave me a hard time over it. But after winning in federal court, all my disciplinaries for disobeying a direct order, failing to obey prison rules, assault on correctional officers, creating health, safety, and security violations were all expunged by Alabama Prison Commissioner, Morris Thigpen. All my good time was restored and I was transferred to a work release center where I was assigned to work at the Hamilton, AL State Trooper’s office as a mechanic, gas attendant and clean-up person. Things were going along well until one day I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Apparently there was someone with a grudge against law enforcement and while I was on the job, a sniper opened fire on the compound. I was hit in both eyes with shrapnel. The officers rushed me to the Helen Keller Eye Clinic for treatment. I stayed there for some time and recovered my eyesight, but to this day still have scars around my eyes.
After that I was given a job at a window factory. I was an expediter and helped my whole line work faster and more efficiently. When I went to prison my ex-wife divorced me and kept everything I had including all my personal things: clothes, fishing equipment, religious items, and all my tools and equipment. We also never had a child, so basically I had nothing except what I had in prison and no obligations to anyone. Knowing my sentence would be over soon I worked hard and saved my money. Each week I bought clothes I would need and put more money in savings so I could get on with my life.
What happened next makes it very clear to what extremes the Feds went to make sure my life would continue to be controlled. One day, out of the blue, I was ordered back to the work release prison and called into the office of the warden and assistant warden. With them was an FBI agent. Now I’m told I have two options because I have truly messed up. I couldn’t imagine what they were talking about because all I did was work and come back to the facility at the end of the work day. I said to them that I don’t speak or mess with anyone. “You all know I’m a loner and the only time I interact with the other inmates is when we are training for the football game.”
The warden indicated the FBI agent standing there, said the man was his childhood friend and they were very close. Then he tells me the man says that I have dishonored his family and his sister. I had no clue what he was talking about. Then came the real shocker; he went on to say I must marry his sister or be sent back to prison with a new charge and more time. This could not be! What was happening here?
I told the warden this was not true and he knew it couldn’t be, pointing out that I was never allowed any time alone at work and the prison provided all my transportation back and forth to work. On weekends I was supervised at all times unless I got out on a pass to spend time with my family. So everyone knew this could not be so.
The warden asked me if I knew that not only was the woman’s brother an FBI agent but her grandfather was a judge there. “So what do you think will happen to you? You will marry this woman or you will pay dearly for this.”
All I could say was, “I’m not going back to prison!”
Nothing happened for awhile. Then two weeks later I get a letter from the prison commissioner stating that I had been granted a release into the custody of my mother. No I was not on parole, I was released as a way of making more room at the work release for more prisoners. At least that is what I thought and was later told. Later I found out that strings had been pulled by the judge and FBI agent and the warden. I thought I had dodged a bullet and now was free from them trying to force me to marry someone I had never even met. Boy was I wrong!
Mom came and picked me up and took me home with her. Finally the wolf pup was free again. I ran into the woods, and up and down the mountain and into the river and creeks. I was free at last. Even though there was an invisible chain still hooked up to me, seeing my family and being with them meant everything. Now one of the requirements was that I had to have a job, so I went to work the very next day at a garage in Hartselle as a mechanic.
I saved my money and for $90 bought a box of parts and pieces in a junk yard and build me a triumph 650 Bonneville motorcycle chopper. I built it from scratch and painted it, chromed it out and painted Yosemite Sam on it with his pistols drawn saying you better back off. I later traded this motorcycle for a Chevy Vega and seven hundred dollars to boot. Yep that youngster wanted my bike real bad. He paid me the boot and drove away on my chopper and left the Vega with me. I went and bought a dodge in a junk yard. Dad and I worked on it at night and fixed it up. I was doing good and helping dad around the shop at the house where he worked.
Later my Step-dad and I went to get a job together at the Chevy dealership in Hartselle. We worked good as a team there and everything was going great. A few months went by then one Saturday while I’m at the house working with Dad on a transmission for a customer, a strange car pulls up. Out gets an older woman maybe in her 60’s followed by a middle-aged woman looking to be in her late 30’s or early 40’s and a little girl about 5 years old. I’m thinking maybe this is someone looking to get their car worked on so I ignored them and kept on working in the garage while Dad went to see what they needed.
When Dad came back he was not happy and told me they were there to see me. Long before I had told Mom and Dad what happened with the warden and FBI agent and what they said I had to do. We all thought this was over when I got out and was living with them. Oh how wrong we were. I went on in the house where they were talking with Mom and I could tell she was upset too.
The woman’s name was Sandy and I guess her FBI agent brother or the warden had told her where I would be living. Now Mom’s house was not easy at all to find back then. They lived on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods and more mountains. So someone surely had to do some digging to find me. Also my mom’s last name was different than mine and I got no mail there.
After that encounter, I left and went to work in another county. At first I lived in the woods and worked at a furniture plant. There I met a pretty young lady named Robin and we started seeing each other after work. After a couple weeks I found a place to rent and started fixing it up. About a month later, thinking I had gotten away from the situation with Sandy, she and her mother show up at the furniture plant. The plant manager came to get me from my work station and escorted me to where they were waiting. The mother tells me this “running bit” is over; said she had talked to the parole officer and they would be sending me back to prison unless I married her daughter by the next week! By this time I had gotten off of release status in Mom’s custody to being on parole. My parole office was in Morgan county and I’m living in Winston county where I worked.
I drove home and told Mom and Dad what had happened. Dad said he would go with me to the parole office in Decatur and we would get this straightened out. He did not believe either that they could force me into a marriage with a woman I didn’t even know. Well it turned out I still had only two choices – marry her or go back to prison. Dad whispered that I could always leave her once I was off parole, so that was my plan and I made the impossible choice. Later the woman and her family showed up at Mom’s. The woman’s mother told Mom that I would marry her daughter and if I ever tried to leave her or do her wrong I would be put in prison forever. This was in late May 1981. I had just turned 23 and here I was married to this strange woman who was 17 years older than me. Still I was optimistic. My parole would be up soon, I would leave her and this nightmare would be over.
The same day we were married I was required to move to Hamilton, AL where her family lived. I was to finish my parole there with a parole officer who was a family friend. On the way there I threw the wedding ring she had given me out the window into a river as I was driving over a bridge and told her just exactly what I felt. There would be nothing between us ever. Not ever. She had forced this to happen, she lied and her family lied and I meant every word. The day my parole was over and I got my papers that evening from the parole officer, we packed the new Monte Carlo I had just bought with all the mechanic tools my Dad had given me and more I had bought so I would have tools to work with and we headed to Florida where her children were living with their father.
Turned out he had custody of all three children; the Florida court had ruled she was an unfit mother during the divorce her ex-husband had filed. In addition to the little one I had first seen with her, she also had two teenaged children. Little did this woman know that my intention was to leave her the next day after I got her to her aunt and uncle’s home.