All For the Right to Pray (17)

Part Four – The Spiritual Warrior Awakens

Chapter 17 – Eleven Years in Hell

By Ghost Dancer

After my return to the Alabama Department of Corrections in 1984, they tried to use loop holes in the Religious Freedom Act to deny me my religious rights once  again. I wasn’t asking for much – the right to wear my hair long, certain restrictions on my diet, and the right to pray in my own way. When I insisted on my rights, the solitary confinement, beatings and torture began again.

Once when I was allowed out of solitary in order to work, while out on the yard, I did my own traditional Spirt Run. The whole time, I ran around and around the track praying for all those I loved. Simply for this I was sent back to solitary for practicing my religion.

Another time, again out on the yard, I sat down on the ground, drew a circle around myself and began to sing and pray. As I sang, flocks of birds came and sat down all around me. Everyone was amazed and the personnel were so frightened they sent me back to solitary. There were many similar instances all because of my activism, insisting on recognition of the religious rights of Native Americans. 

Despite this, by 1989 after a long process involving the help of many on the inside and outside, I took this issue back into court again. I filed a case in federal court against the State of Alabama for discrimination and not allowing Native American religious beliefs, practices and ceremonies in the prisons. This time I meant to make sure the court ruled on specific issues of my traditional religious beliefs and practices that had never before been addressed.

It is important to understand that Native American religions are diverse just as  Native Peoples in general are diverse. We are separated by geography, tribal nation, cultural history and numerous languages. Each is different in our spiritual beliefs and practices just as our dress, foods, tools, weapons, and housing are different.

Under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, the law was vague on these differences and the court’s interpretations were left open to biased opinions which of course infringes upon our freedom to follow our individual beliefs and spiritual guidelines.  For instance, all Natives must seek their individual medicine which is found through fasting and seeking our spiritual helpers. This is where we are shown and told what we need for our medicine, what it consists of, and how we must follow it. No two people have the same exact medicine or guidelines they must live by.

During this time prison staff did everything possible to prevent me from pursuing this in court even to the point of beating me half to death, placing me in the house of pain, denying me access to law books, paper or writing materials. At one time I sent a letter motion to the judge written in blood with my fingers on toilet paper to let him know what was happening. I was given back writing materials.

Later when it was going bad for them they sent the chaplain in; he told me if I did not sign the paper he slid under solitary cell door he would not be responsible for what would happen to me. I refused to sign a paper stating that I was changing my religion to Christian and dropping all my cases in courts and the claims I had against all of them.

After that the warden and assistant warden ordered the goon squad to attack me. I fought back for a long time but eventually with all their numbers and equipment they beat me down in that tiny solitary cell. They began tearing up all my law papers, records, law books, court papers and documents that I had in the cell and began torturing me once again. This went on for months and months each day with no stopping in sight.

Then I was placed naked in an even tinier cell, in darkness with no bed, no toilet, no light,  no nothing, just me, a concrete floor and steel bars. They tried to cover up what they did by charging me with assault on numerous officers, disobeying a direct order, creating a security hazard, and disrupting the orderly operations of the prison. It doesn’t take a whole lot of common sense to figure out who was totally restrained, who opened the cell door and who attacked whom.

Being kept in solitary with no lights, no toilet, no clothes, no bed, and no food for any extended amount of time will truly test your spiritual strength. From time to time, the warden would come to my outside cell door and tell me that if would sign a paper saying I had changed my religious beliefs, they would release me. I refused.

Of course the authorities knew Cat had been gathering letters, information and typing up all my court motions. For this she too was made to suffer by federal officers and prison staff but Cat was very brave and determined to stand up to them. Prison officials came and told me that if I did not sign papers changing my religious beliefs and drop the court cases, something bad would happen to Cat. Yes, they even threatened her life! They said they knew she was helping me and she was always driving down lonely isolated roads and things could easily happen to her.

We had a visit coming up and when she arrived the warden pulled her into his office and tried to persuade her to stop helping me. I told Cat what they said and what they would do. She told me what they said to her and how she felt. She sat there looking at me like the true war woman she is and without even thinking about it, said, “You keep doing what you need to do. I will stay and help you no matter what.” Cat told me not to let these people stop me if this is what I wanted to do. “Don’t worry about me,” she said, “I will be very careful and I will let them know I’m not scared of them.”

That day it was getting dark when Cat left Holman prison on her way back to Florida driving on the back roads. It wasn’t long before a man wearing black and driving a black car pulled out and got on her bumper. He followed her on her bumper so she slowed down, allowing him to pass, but he would not pass. So she hurried on to the little town of Atmore, Alabama and pulled over in the Hardee’s parking lot. Cat drove slowly around Hardee’s and sat there for a while. When she pulled around she saw him across the road waiting for her. So she took off again travelling on down the road and sure enough, he came right behind her and got back up on her bumper.

Knowing she would soon be on an isolated highway Cat decided to pull into Barnes Store and just stay there. She was not going to go down that lonely road with him behind her. For the longest time Cat just stood there looking across the road at him. Finally he gave up and drove off in the opposite direction. Cat waited until he was out of sight, then jumped in her car like a good race car driver and got away. 

Yes Cat has been through hell with me and was just as important as any other who fought and struggled for our religious freedoms. They called me “Renegade” and Cat was a true War Woman! She paid a high price for this and few people will thank her or give her the respect she deserves.

Many people might think prisoners deserve to be punished severely when they deliberately upset the “orderly operation of a prison” by fighting for their legal rights under the law. Just so there is no mistake of what I mean by the word torture, though I do not like to think of it, I will give just a few examples of what was actually done to me by the State of Alabama for my activism – all for the right to pray!

Totally naked, leg shackled, chained with a waist chain, and handcuffed they hung me upside down from a fence. Prison guards used electric cattle prods on my body and a captain and chaplain, took a pocket knife and literally scalped me, saying they wanted an Indian’s scalp. They left me hanging like this in the winter for 3 days beating me every day. Still I would not sign any papers to change my religious beliefs or drop cases in court.

While I was in the solitary dungeon, naked, no bed, no lights, no windows, in total darkness, no sink, no toilet, just me and the concrete and steel. It was winter time with snow and frigid temps, and no heat. The guards used fire hoses to spray me with ice cold water so powerful it slammed me around with violent force. They left me half drowned and laying in water.

All the while I was starved so I wouldn’t have the strength to fight or resist them. My existence was a small piece of corn bread and small cup of water each day.

I was put in 3’x 5’ cell, so small I couldn’t even lay down or stretch out – day after day, month after month in total darkness.

I have been set on fire, had my testicles and penis beaten with a ball-peen hammer and squeezed with pliers trying to force me to sign papers that I would change my religion and drop my lawsuits in court against them.

They put me in the big yellow electric chair at Holman prison and hit me with 10,000 volts trying to get me to change my religion and drop my law suit.

They put me in a wooden chair, butt naked and chained, leg shackled, body chains and handcuffed to the chains and chained to the chair. Then they put alligator clamps on my tongue, eye lids, nipples, penis and testicles and had electric wires run to old wind up telephones hooked to batteries or electrical outlets and they repeatedly sent shocking electricity into me to break me and try to get me to sign documents to drop the cases in court and change my religion.

A bunch of goons dragged me naked and shackled out of my cell in the middle of the night, put me in a van and drove me out on an isolated road. I knew what they intended to do, so I fought for my very life by wedging my body in the van so tight they never could not get me out. If they had, I would have been shot on the spot and they could claim I had escaped thus justifying my death.

Cat Dancing, my poor sweet wife, heard and knew what was happening. My mom and family all knew this too. There was little they could do, but just knowing they stood with me gave me strength. How did they know? Other prisoners wrote to them, telling of the beatings and medieval torture they were doing to me. See, in those days there was a certain code of honor among prisoners in maximum security prisons, especially those on death row or held in solitary. We had many ways of communicating, like some of the ingenious things you might see in a movie like Shawshank Redemption are indeed based on real life. And all those around me knew who I was and what was happening to me.

I wish to say that I owe a lot of thanks to all the different prisoners who passed on my messages to my family, to Cat, all the Native resistance newspapers, Native organizations that I wrote for and sent updates to. They even sent information out to the courts for me when I was unable to. This includes all the guys on death row who risked themselves and their property and little exercise time or jobs to help get my info out or messages to the court or family or to my beloved Cat. For without them I would never have been able to work to get these laws passed and in courts.

These men helped me communicate when I was working with senators and congress people to get laws passed, even to communicate with foreign countries and United Nations personnel who were making our cause known before the United Nations. I was involved with organizations all around the world bringing forth our cause to them to gather support from their ambassadors to the United Nations Councils. The world needed to see the truth about our plight and how the justice system really was run here in this country. People in numerous countries held rallies and events to gather support for our cause. 

So yes, it is because of the guys in lock up and death row who stepped up and helped get these messages out and even back to me. Many times it took hours and even days to successfully get a message down to where it needed to get to, but what is time when time doesn’t exist in this world. 

These are things everyone needs to know. I have always had helpers. Spirit has always put people in my path who have helped me achieve what I was seeking and trying to do or learn. All thanks to Spirit for each one throughout my life.

Published by Sings Many Songs

I'm an 80-something child of the great depression and WWII. Throughout my life I have been a seeker, an outsider, never quite belonging anywhere, still always looking through cracks in the fences of life, questioning, challenging, learning, trying to make sense of the world and its conventions. A lifelong student with many interests and a love of writing and editing, my elder's path led to encouraging and assisting some remarkable people to write out their amazing stories. This calling became the magic elixir that keeps me growing, keeps me alive.

2 thoughts on “All For the Right to Pray (17)

    1. I totally agree Richard. Thank you! This is not an easy story to tell. Most people cannot even begin to comprehend the complexities of the single thread of bureaucratic over-reach that runs through every situation. Nor can people believe that such barbarity even goes on in America. The photos put human faces to the abstract and the reality of the story becomes real.


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